Objective The purpose of this paper is to provide an organized view of Mexican management styles based on the author’s more than 30 years experience in the country.
Introduction Management is arguably best defined as accomplishing objectives through the work of others. A successful enterprise is based on the premise that there are productive relationships among the persons who form the company and that these relationships are necessary due to the division of labour. The work any person faces is more than what he can accomplish individually. The collaboration of others is inevitable and so is the need for coordinating such efforts, the thing we call management.
A manager has to administer and supervise time and resources. The key resource is people with different skills, gifts, talents, personalities, inclinations and abilities. However, people also have different sets of ideas, habits, values and customs that they need to think about in order to implement a successful business idea or any other common objective they may pursue. Some persons are work-oriented, some are not. Some easily move from one place to another, some do not. Some people are aggressive, some are direct, optimistic, and others are not. Management styles refer to personal inclinations applied in a business environment and that stem from a cultural set of customs, traditions and norms.
For example, there is an aggressive management style that is competitive, results-oriented and that tends to down play the personal attributes of other persons; this style is direct, strong, forceful, cares little for anything but reaching the objectives on time and it may be typical of certain regions or countries. In other parts of the world, other management styles may be prevalent, such as an approach based on persuasion; this style looks for consensus among the members of the group and is usually highly dependent on relationships that go beyond the work environment. The main idea is a simple one.
There are various management styles and they are the product of personal beliefs but also a consequence of cultural influences. Thus, it is vital to know the culture of the country where you will be conducting business so you can maximize the probabilities of success. The more you know the effect of culture on management styles, the more success you will have, other things being equal. When talking about management styles there is a real danger in stereotyping people and reaching far-fetched conclusions, such as the legendary and largely exaggerated “mañana” syndrome in Mexico.
Individuals are unique and it should be regarded as a ludicrous conclusion to cast one supposedly national trait to all nationals. Individuals, however, do have strong cultural influences and every successful manager should be aware of cultural patterns that may explain the behaviour of people. For example, when having a house party in Mexico you are not expected to arrive on time; your host may say that he expects you at nine at his house, under the understanding that you will no get there at nine, but somewhat later, maybe half an hour after nine.
Personality traits Each person is unique and therefore it is no surprise to find Mexican managers with widely different personalities. Many of them will show very little differences with managers from developed countries. However, their personality may present some traits that a foreigner can benefit from knowing.
Competitiveness There is a general perception that Mexican managers are not as competitive as managers in other countries are. In other words, though they may have great concern for the quality of their work they do not deliver to the extent they can. In extreme cases, this may show in consistently poor performance. Maybe this could be attributed to improvement incentives not strongly based on the quality off their work, but on their personal connections.
Of course, this will vary extensively probably in direct relation to the size of the company and its ownership, with family business tending to value quality of work as one of the variables and strongly considering others like loyalty. In one extreme case, one large enterprise put the greatest consideration on physical appearances and personal grooming, looking for a “type” in their top executives. Though this is an extreme case, it nevertheless shows that competitiveness and quality of work are in many cases not the sole criteria for selecting and promoting executives.
The conclusion is that Mexican managers are evaluated on wide-ranging attributes beyond competitiveness. This is a clue for foreigners to examine other personal dimensions beyond competence and effectiveness, such as personal appearance, social behaviour, loyalty and other personal dimensions. Thus, the importance placed on competitiveness for Mexican managers is not ignored, it just seems to be placed together with other considerations that may look odd to some executive from abroad.
The “lone ranger” syndrome Many Mexicans acknowledge as a fact that they are “good in individual sports like boxing but bad in team sports like soccer.” There may be some truth in this claim. Teamwork is not a common practice in Mexican businesses and many managers do have a tendency to work on their own, expecting little collaboration from others and offering little help to their comrades. Please, do not take this to the extreme; many Mexican executives work well with groups and some do not. Most probably there is some inexperience in teamwork on the part of Mexican managers.
Yes, this is a potential obstacle to the division of labour and a cause of inefficiency. As a foreigner, this may be solved with especial emphasis on clear and redundant instructions and communications without becoming a domineering figure. Without insulting their intelligence, it is always advisable to be sure that orders and instructions are understood. One particular case shows an extreme case. An executive, head of the marketing research department in a large company started to develop in the late 70’s a Life Style research project from scratch, without consulting other people that were available and had done the same work some years before.
These people working in the same company offered their help in the project but were never called for assistance. There seems to be some degree of jealousy in the managers that do not accept help from others. They may think that asking for assistance is a sign of weakness and lack of knowledge. In another case, the marketing manager of a large company was replaced after his resignation with another executive that he had known for a long time. The executive that left offered to his friend his help but was never called. In this area, there seems to be a certain bent in Mexican managers to be reluctant to share information they own with others.
Personal contacts There is a motto in Mexico that says that your personal worth depends on the people you know. What this shows is the strong belief in personal contacts and acquaintances as a path to personal success. It is not only individual performance and the quality of one’s own work that counts, but also the people one knows and befriends. As a result, it is not surprising that Mexican managers dedicate time and effort to cultivate their personal contacts and friends.
This may be a reason for long working hours, many times beyond 7 pm at night since they must do their regular work but also allocate time for personal connections. It may also explain the long lunches. Certainly, Mexicans place much emphasis on knowing people, skewing their preferences toward the persons they know or have references from someone they know. This may make clear to foreigners why Mexicans are so impetuous showing their friendship giving the big abrazo and treating as many people as they can as close friends; the big smile, the friendly hand-shake, the trivial conversation in the beginning, these are all signs of a close relationship… even when they have not seen each other in years.
This is casual behaviour and nothing really calculated in most cases; and if it is, the other Mexican will have sixth sense to perceive it. It is just the way it is. Foreigners may despair sometimes when living through this, but they should get used to it: losing their personal space and suffering some waste of time dedicated to all those things destined to show friendship.
Loving training courses In general, top executives turn away from training courses unless they are compulsory and attended by their equals. This may be a sign of how hierarchical their mentality is. However, middle and lower management do attend courses regularly. These training courses are always taken as ways to improve their knowledge and chances of success. The courses are highly valued also as a sign of recognition on the part of their company that spends money and time in them.
Of course, big and fancy diplomas are greatly cherished. There are many types of courses, but in general, they have an inclination to be more theoretical than practical. Little emphasis is given to actual implementation though it depends on the training course. Very clearly, most Mexican managers not in top positions do welcome training courses and are very open to acquiring new abilities. This is a very positive attitude and should be fruitful if properly handled.
For example, tests and exams after the course tend to be feared and shunned. Managers seem to have the idea that once they have listened to the instructor they have acquired his knowledge. Managers are fond of training courses also because they are an opportunity for meeting people and have social events. In many cases, the participants organize their own “graduation” party at the end of the course if such event is not part of the official agenda. What this means is that such courses should allow a “social” element for informal conversation, including a small informal celebration and the end.
Very good crisis management Many Mexican executives proud themselves in their ability to handle economic crisis. No doubt they have such skill and this is due to the periodical political calamities the country has gone through since the late 70’s, due to populist and protectionist policies. These economic policies produced an unstable economic environment that damaged the business climate and forced firms to adapt to a constantly changing milieu.
Thus, the Mexican managers with about twelve years experience or more are used to a volatile set of economic and political conditions that created their rare ability for handling crisis. In some sense this is a talent for adaptation and survival, for both companies and persons that has produced a sceptical attitude towards government and law. This ability has also produced some undesirable effects, like the lack of long term planning, something that is meaningless in a persistently shifting background. Therefore, Mexican managers tend to pay more attention to short term results disregarding the long view. Many owners of small companies do have a cynical attitude towards people offering them advice about the long term.
The very thin skin One trait where there seems to be full agreement is the high sensibility of Mexicans when receiving criticism. Expressing a personal opinion on the performance of others is a very touchy subject because the expected reaction will surely be very negative. This may be due to a lack of distinction between criticizing a person and his work. Mexicans do not make that distinction. Thus, a foreigner giving his personal opinion about the performance of others faces extreme difficulties, the same as for a national.
The weighty consequence is of course a tremendous complexity in giving valuable feedback on the performance of others, sometimes giving false information; this means actually avoiding altogether a negative feedback by saying that the work was well executed when it was not. This susceptibility to criticism is circumvented by what can be regarded as a ritual closely followed by nationals. This is a two-step ritual. The first step is always a laudatory introduction, extolling the positive qualities of the job done and the great effort that it meant; this may take most of the time.
Then, in the second step very meticulous wording is used to express any negative aspects, even making them look unimportant in the overall view. Foreigners are advised to followed this ritual and always have a positive attitude when giving feedback. This of course poses a negative consequence. Mexican managers do not have the benefit of learning by making mistakes, since errors may not be acknowledged and thus corrected.
Family oriented Another trait that is taken as a fact is the priority of family over work. While it may be true on the average, there are many exceptions especially in top management where the opposite seems to be true. Be that as it may, there is no question that their family is the priority for Mexican managers, specially their children. Within the family nucleus, the children have the highest of the priorities, making it common for the managers to take time off to go to the children’s school for any festivity. Telephone calls to and from their houses are common during business hours; some companies prohibit such calls.
By family it should be understood the extended family, that is parents, uncles, nephews and others, including compadres. Foreigners will find some managers socializing with friends during business hours, people who visit them just to chat and have a cup of coffee. This feature is a consistent with the personal orientation of Mexicans. They are heavily people-oriented, much more than institutionally minded.
Openness It has been said repeatedly that Mexicans are suspicious about people they do not know and consequently are not predisposed to working together with them, much less sharing information. One foreign executive said he had difficulties working with some Mexicans because he did not actually know what they were thinking; on the surface, they seem enthusiastic but in reality, they behave differently.
Yes, sometimes, depending on the circumstances, some Mexicans will be extremely hard to decipher. In another case, a Mexican trained overseas came back to his country. After sometime, he complained about the following: after a meeting all of the local managers were asked if they had doubts or questions about the work to be done; everybody said that it was all clear and that they had no questions. However, during the days following the meeting some of them went to him asking for clarifications they did not dare to mention in public. What this may mean is a tendency of Mexican managers to avoid speaking in public expressing doubts and confessing they did not understood what was agreed in the meeting.
Working hours Mexican managers, specially the top brass, do not have regular working schedules. The higher the position, the longer the working day. No manager will leave the office at the same time the secretaries and other employees do. Some meetings take place after five or six in the afternoon and total availability is expected.
One manager confessed that many days he stayed at the office just in case his boss called him even if he had nothing to do; he said that he did this since the day he was not in when his boss needed him and got a reprimand from him. Thus, a foreigner used to a nine-to-five routine will find himself in an alien planet in Mexico regarding office hours. With a long day as a matter of customary practice, he will find that time is wasted without understanding that business life in Mexico is that way. Again, there are many exceptions. Business meetings during breakfasts and lunches are common.
Before going to the office some top managers have business meetings during breakfast at some restaurant and later that same day, they will attend a business lunch starting at 2 pm or even later. In some cities, like Mexico City, most business lunches start after 3 pm and may last several hours. Contrary to what is expected, Mexican managers spend most of their time doing business albeit in a manner that may seem inefficient to a foreigner who would expect lots of time spent with the family. Families may have the top priority but this does not show in the time allocated to them.
Working vs. leisure It is common saying that Mexican managers prefer leisure to work, but who does not. This probably misses the point of a blurred frontier between either activity. In other words, the propensity to mix them both in one single thing. There should be some relaxation during work and some work during leisure.
Consequently, the apparent working schedule does not admit the strict limits of other cultures. It could go from early in the morning to late at night, since the working schedule embraces some spare time. In addition, it is said that Mexican managers do not live to work, but work to live. On the average, this must be true and reflects the exceptional cases of some lower level managers that are not willing to accept promotions.
Again, since work incorporates some amount of leisure the foreigner should understand this tendency and respect it. One clear consequence of the fuzzy frontiers between leisure and work is a significant amount of informality during working hours, with relaxed conversations, trivial chats and the latest gossip. This is a lighter side of business and any attempt to curtail it could be regarded as aggressive and in bad taste, unless it is done in the same informal ways.
Of course, some Mexican managers are workaholics, the same as in many other countries. Another result of these nebulous boundaries is the common fact of developing close friends among working comrades. One middle level executive, who worked for more than 20 years in a large Mexican company, put it this way, “All my friends work in this firm, I have no other friends.” It is hardly surprising that he married a woman, another employee he met during a training course.
A hierarchical mind More than a mind that perceives all persons to be equal, Mexican managers do perceive differences due to the positions people have. One explanation for this is Mexico’s history of centralized governments and other figures of power that dictated orders and expected others to obey them without questions. Overall, foreigners should expect a more than average respect for authority, which does not necessarily translates into blind obedience.
On the surface, some managers may look extremely docile and even submissive towards their superiors, having a certain fear to express opinions that differ. However, this attitude is not inevitably a sign of exact implementation of the received orders. Many employees may say yes, but do not carry their orders in the way it has been specified. Therefore, there seems to be a mixture of respect and disrespect to authority very clearly shown in Mexican attitudes towards government officials and other authorities. Disagreement is a delicate matter among Mexicans when giving opinions about the work of others.
The same is true when expressing differences of opinion to the superior, where managers have to be very careful and chose the right words. The same principle applies: disagreement should be handled very tactfully. Under a hierarchical structure, instructions are an important part of the communications process. With very little delegation of authority, orders should be precise and clearly communicated to guarantee their implementation.
Since in many occasions some employees will not manifest disagreement or lack of understanding, managers should develop creative ways to supervise the employees, especially in the beginning. It is worthwhile repeating that these comments present the risk of stereotyping people and thus making the wrong decisions when doing business in Mexico. Not all Mexican managers and employees behave in such fashion, though overall the behavioural curve is skewed in the direction of the trait. Thus, all these comments do leave room for ample variations.
Attitude towards foreigners This difficult subject may be more easily understood if divided in two parts from the start.
• If one is talking about foreign products, in general Mexicans regard imported goods as having better quality and sometimes lower prices. This attitude in most probably due to the opinions formed during the protectionist era, when imports were prohibited and local companies enjoyed a captive market with no need for quality or price concerns. Contraband flourished and people certainly enjoyed the prohibited goods. Except for some Mexican goods like beer, Mexican managers face the problem of imported goods being more attractive than domestic ones.
• But if one is talking about foreigners, things get more complicated. Though Mexicans may have opinions about other countries, very few of them have a distinct profile.
The USA is no doubt the nation with the clearest profile among Mexicans, being a neighbour and the most powerful country in the world. Canada does not enjoy such a clear profile, but is looked upon favourably. Latin America in general is regarded as a group of countries that are like “brothers”, with the same language, but younger brothers and less advanced. The exceptions here are Brazil, Argentina and lately Chile. With Brazil, there is an emotional relationship, most probably due to the Mexican appreciation for soccer.
The Brazilian national soccer team has been called Mexico’s second national team. There is no doubt that Mexican do like what they perceive from Brazil. Argentina on the other hand is widely known in Mexico and many jokes are made about argentines. From Europe, countries like Spain, France, Germany, England, Italy and Switzerland have simplified but clear profiles, with Spain having the most controversial one.
Mexican public education during the 20th century portrayed this country as the evil empire that conquered Mexico and established a colony in the country exploiting its resources. This perception goes back to the Independence when the insurgents developed the same attitude towards the conquistadores. No doubt Spanish companies do face a potentially negative attitude stemming from those deep-rooted ideas. However, the higher the education of the manager the less prone he will be to these prejudices. The opinions about the USA are very complex.
On one side, Mexicans when travelling abroad mostly go to the USA, a fact from which it can be concluded that Mexicans like that country in actuality; not to mention illegal immigrants. However, it is not that simple. In terms of commercial activities, the USA is the biggest most important country for Mexico: tourism, investments, imports, exports.
This means that business people have very close contacts with their USA colleagues. Politically the story is very different. Mexico’s foreign policy according to some analysts has been mostly based on a desire for political independence, which translated into actual opposition to the USA foreign policy. The Mexican resistance to isolate Cuba is probably the best example; recently, Mexico’s government disagreed with the Iraqi war. One explanation of this Mexican policy states that Mexican governments, from the PRI, consistently wanted to show sovereignty in a non-alignment position that sometimes produced situations of actual diplomatic conflicts.
The administration of president Echeverría was particularly against the USA. Mexican public education for decades has taught history in a manner that portrays the USA in a negative fashion. Students grow viewing the USA as the big power that invaded Mexico, that took away half of its territory and that intervened in Mexico’s internal affairs. This is probably the reason for Mexico’s foreign policy based on non-intervention in the internal dealings of independent nations. Therefore, it will not be unexpected to find a negative attitude towards the USA among some Mexicans… but not in the business community.
Mexican managers show a great ability to create and develop new ideas, with enthusiasm and fervour. The have a knack to imagine and envision projects looking into the future and possessing a gift for convincing others. This is probably true, but in a world that is not perfect, it comes with a weakness, the propensity not to analyze the details of actual implementation.
One real story shows this combination of traits. A group of insurance agents convinced the top management of one of the top Mexican insurers to fund their idea of an insurance agency specialized in travellers insurance, including bonuses and rewards to frequent travellers and even VIP areas in airports. The agency was founded and spent money on the development of its logo, stationary and computer facilities without a single calculation on revenues and expenses. It was a promising idea no doubt, but poorly implemented.
The Mexican decision making process tends to work the same as in any other culture, looking for pros and cons in a project, obtaining data and the like. There is very little difference in this respect compared to managers in other countries. Nonetheless, the attitude in this process in Mexico tends to be more holistic than analytical, perhaps more emotional than rational. This does not mean a very emotional non-rational process, but a process in which greater room is given to passions and feelings than usual.
If Mexican managers value friendship it seems logical to conclude that when hiring they will place a lot of importance on who they employ. Not only abilities and skills are taken into consideration but other variables as well, like recommendations from people they know, the appearance of the person and the like. This tends to happen proportionately more in smaller companies where resources for personnel selection are scarce or non-existent. Application forms contain questions on many areas where foreigners may naively see probable discrimination unlawful in some countries, like questions on religion.
This may bring issues about confidentiality that may be usual in certain countries but not in Mexico. Whether there is discrimination in the current hiring of personnel in Mexico is something that is seldom discussed. It can be safely said that in the past there was discrimination, as it is understood today: some companies refused to hire married women and even fired women that married after being hired. Times are changing and discrimination based on sex is disappearing.
Discrimination based on religion in a country where the vast majority claims to be Catholic has not emerged as a problem. Sometimes surfaces a discussion on discrimination based on personal “looks”, an idea than encompasses loosely defined concepts that are a mixture of personal grooming like traits conforming to traditional dress codes. However, it also includes a concept that is seldom openly discussed and related to race, which indicates that an “Indian looking” person has a lower possibility of reaching the highest positions in a firm.
Nevertheless, Mexican hiring practices do place emphasis on variables like the outer shell of a person and the whether the person is known by somebody. Personal references are widely used. This does no mean that abilities are ignored.
Time and commitments
In general, Mexican managers have a tendency to manage time in a loose fashion. Time commitments and due dates do not necessarily imply a total pledge. Meetings scheduled at 9 am will surely start later, many times 10 minutes later, sometimes even more. Most meetings do not have a specific ending time and may last much more than expected. This is most often a cause of despair among foreigners doing business in Mexico. As was mentioned before, the long-term view tends to be ignored.
For a better understanding of the subject, these abilities should be divided in two categories:
• Writing abilities do vary widely. Surprisingly some top executives do have very poor skills of this kind and rely on help from other executives even when writing simple letters, not to mention presentations and reports. One medium level executive once remarked, “Frankly I can’t believe how many spelling errors I find everyday in the internal communications and many times it is impossible to understand what they are trying to say.” He was working in a major financial corporation and explained this situation blaming the lack of emphasis the Mexican education system places on communications abilities. He had a point here according to other executives.
• Verbally, it is said, that Mexicans in general tend not to be specific and clear, but vague and obscure when explaining their thinking to others. “They beat around the bushes,” said one foreign executive and added, “and you have to find the secret to decipher their code in order to understand exactly what they are trying to say.” While this may be a daily phenomenon to the locals, it may certainly cause some despair in foreigners. Business presentations vary in Mexico in terms of quality, like in many other places. However, Mexicans probably tend to be more prone to the use of more words than necessary, instead of the more “bullet-oriented” approach used in other countries. This verbosity is sometimes present in visual presentations that are full of text and are read instead of commented.
Scarcity of talent
Talent is a scarce resource everywhere. Executive talent is no exception in Mexico, where it is said that executive pay is a reflection of an extreme situation of this type. Probably true but highly dependent on the kind of specialty the executive should have. Common wisdom says that in Mexico it is easy to find people recently graduated with university degrees, but a lot harder to find a highly skilled worker.