Mongolia is a country about which most of us know nothing or very little here in Europe. Nevertheless, many large international companies do business there. Eric de Sèze lived and worked there as a manager for Orano (ex-Areva). He agreed to share some of his experiences and takes us on a journey into deepest Asia.
Mongolia, a country like no other
Before living there in a professional capacity, I had the opportunity to stay in Mongolia on several occasions. My first impression was one of a colour, brown. This was the near-uniform colour of the landscape. In the late autumn, grass becomes rare and the colour of the earth shows through. And the colour blue too, that of the clear skies where the planes almost appear to be in arrow range.
Three times the size of France, inhabited by 3 million people and 50 million head of cattle, Mongolia is a very unusual country. As an example, the cliché of the yurt is totally accurate: 40% of the population are nomads. A yurt is easy to dismantle and to carry on the back of a camel, it holds in the heat during the winter, remains cool in the summer and its interior is synonymous with their culture and traditions.
Ulaanbaatar, the capital city where most of the expatriates live, still shows the architectural influence of the lengthy Soviet presence here. Since the Soviet era, it has mainly been the lack of urban planning which is most noticeable: 21st-century buildings stand alongside districts comprised of yurts. You’ll find a full range of international products in the city. Luxury shops (Hermès, Dior, etc.) cohabit with wholesale markets in the city centre. McDonald’s is well established and fashionable restaurants are increasingly numerous.
Spurred on by globalisation, all of the young population are connected. Once you go inside, the nightclubs are reminiscent of those in London or Paris. The Korean film industry is omnipresent here. The opera proposes concerts and ballets at very low prices. Horse riding, golf, fishing, hiking, dogsledding and skiing can be enjoyed according to the time of year, with an unspoiled natural environment and amazing landscapes.
First snow: early October Last snow: late May Making almost 8 months of winter and 4 months of summer, with very short inter-seasonal periods. And it gets very cold in Mongolia! However, it’s a “dry” cold which you can easily adapt to by using simple clothing techniques (wearing several layers of thin clothing, a little like an “onionskin”, and insulating your feet well by choosing the right kind of soles). Despite the harshness of the winter (- 50°C in some places, – 40°C more generally and – 25°C in the city), the speed at which the vegetation reappears in the space of just a month, in June, is quite astonishing. The grasslands are then covered by a wide selection of plants and herbs while edelweiss grows in certain valleys.
Mongolia is also one of those countries where you ask yourself what the day holds for you when you first get up in the morning. It’s a country full of surprises, some of them good, with situations developing far more quickly than you could ever imagine, some of the not so good with all kinds of underlying problems. If you’re patient, very patient, everything comes together!
The Mongolian language
Old Mongolian writing is very attractive and highly technical. This was the writing of the elites. During the Soviet colonisation, the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in the 1920s, as a simpler writing system was needed in order to circulate propaganda. At the same time as the country was experiencing the trauma of Soviet persecution, a general effort to improve the population’s literacy was launched. Today, the literacy rate stands at 98%.
The Mongolian language, which is very different from Chinese or Russian, is written in Cyrillic in day-to-day life: all you need to do is to learn the alphabet (which is easy) to be able to read Mongolian. Understanding it is another matter. Getting yourself understood is quite easy as the Mongolians are very indulgent, but understanding their replies is more difficult and speaking the language properly is much more complex, requiring many long hours of study.
What’s particularly noteworthy, is the Mongolians’ excellent ability to speak foreign languages, and without any accent! In the case of some of the people I worked with, you would never have known that they were Mongolian when speaking on the telephone as they spoke French, English or German so well.
They’re not constantly chasing material wealth and live quite happily with relatively few needs.
The Mongolians in the professional environment
It’s vital to take account of the cultural aspects and traditions to successfully do business here. Everything comes down to culture in Mongolia. Customs and habits are encountered in all aspects of day-to-day life including in the working environment with your own employees.
Using the services of a Mongolian senior adviser who is well known among his peers can open many doors in the political arena. He will help provide ongoing explanations to help you find your way around, including in local networks (like the Chinese guanxi) which govern relationships between decision-makers.
With your co-workers and staff, patience and a willingness to explain things and teach people will produce definite results among the younger generation, especially as they are thirsty for knowledge, humble and aware of their ability level.
A willingness to listen
Respect is shown to people by listening to them and allowing them to have their say: everyone gets a turn at presenting their arguments and viewpoints calmly, without people interrupting them, even if opinions differ significantly. It’s much more practical than our French-style free-for-alls!
Clear-headed, guided by good instincts and free of excessive intellectualization, you’ll find that your Mongolian contacts can take decisions very quickly and implement them right away.
Quite the opposite is true in the world of politics, where debates are held more for the art of debating than to take decisions and the best decision is usually not to take one. I would certainly describe patience as a watchword in Mongolia.
Chiefly paternalistic, the management initially keep young employees on a short leash, but delegate more responsibility to them quite quickly afterwards, with respect and mutual trust and confidence guaranteeing the loyalty and devotion of the teams. It may be a little old school, but this style should change quite quickly as young Mongolians trained at foreign universities (mostly in Korea and the United States) return home. And so we’re likely to see changes in the professional world at least, because nomadism and life in a yurt still seem to have a long future ahead of them. Mongolia, a land of contrasts!
Mongolia, an El Dorado for hard-working people
The whole “new country” aspect opens up the possibility for all kinds of professional initiatives. A country enjoying excellent growth, it’s an El Dorado for hard-working people, whose only limits will be those of their imagination (and to some extent the local authorities, but as already mentioned… you just need to be patient).
A traditional, down-to-earth people resembling their environment in many respects, (appealing but demanding respect, with clear rules which apply), the Mongolians make every effort to live in harmony with those around them. Showing respect for people and traditions is the best way to forge durable relationships and to ensure the long-term future of your professional activity in Mongolia.
This doesn’t prevent you from being strict at times when needed. But as long as you’re fair, you’ll earn their respect, as a proper “boss” (there’s a real boss culture here) also needs to be firm. This makes the art of managing all the more subtle.
Eric de Sèze, Akteos consultant