Targeting a New Culture
For most entrepreneurs, the hardest part about running a business is perfecting the company culture. After all, without a well-oiled workforce, progress can stall pretty fast. For Paul Chu, an EO China South member and founder of RedWolf Airsoft, creating a strong company culture was a defining factor in his 16 years of business success. In this featured interview, Paul walks us through his entrepreneurial journey, and how fostering a “West meets East” management approach has positioned his staff toward continued growth.
What inspired you to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time business?
“I was living in New York City in the late 90s, where I worked as a management consultant, advising multinational companies on how to embrace e-commerce. I spent a lot of time sharing best practices with clients, but I was never part of the execution. Around that time, I found myself getting into Airsoft, a sport where you compete with opponents on a combat course … think paintball, but with non-metallic pellets and replica firearms. One day, I was searching online to order parts, and I was surprised to find that there weren’t any international retailers for Airsoft gear. I saw this as my ‘blue ocean’ opportunity, and I spent the next few weekends building a website from scratch.
“It was all very exciting because I was finally able to put my e-commerce advice into action. I was operating on a shoe-string budget, and any free time I had was devoted to the business. I would purchase products at local shops, take photos of the items and upload them online, package the gear in boxes and drive them to the post office in the trunk of my car. It was hard work, but it was exhilarating! Five years later, I saw RedWolf grow to a scale that required my complete attention, so I took a leap of faith and committed to it full-time. Today, we’re the largest international retailer of Airsoft products, we’re building our own brand of gear and we’re establishing a presence in new frontiers like Russia and South America. We’ve come a long way since 1998, but none of it would have been possible without the people around me.”
A big part of your success stems from your thriving company culture, but that wasn’t always the case. Why did you feel the need to “reset” your culture?
“We’ve enjoyed tremendous success over the years, but it wasn’t without its challenges. A few years ago, there was a lot of negative energy in our company— gossip, ill feelings about management, conflict among the staff. It became so bad that two employees nearly got into a fist fight in a stairwell. The workplace had become very poisonous, and I could see it spreading slowly in all corners of the company. I had spent so much energy fighting battles externally that I failed to nurture a healthy culture internally. Healthy cultures don’t just happen. They need to be built, and I knew that if we didn’t address the issue, the company would quickly fall apart. The competition wouldn’t need to kill us— we would kill ourselves!
“As luck would have it, Cameron Herold, a former EO member, spoke at an EO Hong Kong event around that time. He talked about how to build not just a company culture, but a cult for your company. He explained how he built a terrific culture at his previous business—1-800-GOT-JUNK?—and I was motivated to follow in his footsteps. I immediately put together a plan to reset my company culture; one that was built around his best practices and my international business experience. Specifically, I implemented principles that leaned more toward a Western style of management. Although every idea didn’t work in my business, many did, which helped us resolve some of our major problems.”
What were you hoping to accomplish by introducing a Western style of management into your traditionally Eastern workforce?
“First and foremost, we wanted to establish a greater sense of unity. We had been experiencing some difficult issues within the workplace, which stemmed largely from cultural differences and our inability to work from the same page. With offices in Hong Kong, London, the U.S., France and Russia, that was especially difficult. I recognized areas where I could improve as a leader and where my staff would most benefit, and I went from there, knowing I would have to adjust my approach to meet the needs of my diverse staff. Having gone to school in the U.S. and worked in various countries, I have become adaptive to different cultures, which helps when it comes to building relationships with my staff. With such a global mix of employees and customers, I knew I needed to select the best of both Eastern and Western management styles to forge my own unique blend. Using my background as a compass, coupled with Cameron’s steps, I set out to strengthen our company culture.”
What hiccups did you encounter while implementing this hybrid approach, and what did they teach you about leadership?
“With my new plan in place, I began to integrate a ‘West meets East’ approach to management, one that emphasized openness and social engagement, rather than a centralized, top-down ‘command center’ approach. For starters, we created more opportunities for staff to build positive relationships outside of work, and we started a series of ‘town hall’ meetings to facilitate company-wide communications and create a platform to discuss high-level issues. During these meetings, I would ask employees to pinpoint the company’s weaknesses and offer suggestions on how to resolve them. The goal was to inspire constructive criticism in pursuit of solutions, but it didn’t work. Typically, Asian employees never want to say anything negative, fearing retribution further down the road by traditional bosses who may see the criticism as loss of face or a lack of loyalty. Not all Chinese bosses are like that, of course, but it is simply engrained in our culture to not go against the grain. Western staff, on the other hand, need no invitation to comment on issues. They usually speak freely about the shortfalls of the company and where we are underperforming, and how that is affecting their ability to perform. So I learned to adjust my communications style for my Asian staff, while comforting and explaining to my Western employees that we will address those issues that concern them.
“Introducing a new management style is never easy, especially when it requires your staff to adopt foreign concepts. But I knew that infusing a Western approach into the company culture would position our business for greater growth, so I took every opportunity to learn from the process. Looking back, I’ve learned that when you’re applying new management techniques, you have to be sensitive to your audience and adjust accordingly. In my case, running a company that’s fueled by both a Western and Eastern mindset requires a lot of knowledge regarding cultural sensitivities, as well as consistent flexibility from the leader. I have to remind myself to keep an open mind and accept that this is a learning process … and never be afraid to change my thinking if I detect something isn’t working.”
With so many offices around the world, each with a unique work culture, how are you able to maintain this style of management?
“It’s definitely an ongoing challenge, but it’s an exciting one. I’m fortunate to have employees that come from various parts of the world. This diversity affords us unique perspectives when it comes to tackling client or company challenges, though it can be tough to navigate at times. When employees come to work, they experience the workforce differently, subscribing to their traditional sense of how businesses run and processes operate. Knowing this, I try to enforce a universal set of rules so everyone understands what role they play in the overall ‘game’ of business. I always paint the picture of our staff as a soccer team, with everyone playing a different and important position. Like soccer, the rules of the game transverse across cultures, and similarly so with our company. It doesn’t matter what their cultural background is— employees understand what they need to do to achieve the overall objective. And it’s my job, as their coach, to provide a game plan they can use to take us to victory. That being said, every player is different, requiring different strategies.
“For example, when managing my Chinese staff, I have to be precise when it comes to reviewing a process; they’re looking for a specific and measurable result. With this in mind, I spend a lot of time detailing their daily, monthly and quarterly tasks in a job description document, and those who excel the most tend to check off each point on that list. When engaging my Western staff, however, they require less guidance and tend to find their own way as long as the goal is set. This is a perfect example of staff operating from different cultural perspectives in pursuit of the same goal: My Chinese employees tend to be more detail-oriented, while my Western staff require more freedom to accomplish tasks. Recognizing these cultural differences, I’ve adapted my approach to laying out goals and processes for every employee, whether they are of Eastern or Western descent.”
Looking back, what kind of impact did adopting a “West meets East” management style have on your business?
“After forging our own mix of Eastern and Western management styles, our focus has become exponentially better. There is more goodwill between the staff now, which I attribute to a better understanding of cultural differences and a more methodical way of working together. Everyone understands the importance of unity. Our social and team functions have also helped to strengthen our bond, driving home the understanding that while each employee has one job to do, that job is an integral part of a bigger goal. All in all, introducing a new management style into the workforce has infused more positive energy into the company, which is producing happier staff and greater results.”
Insights into International Business
Thinking about starting a business in Asia? Want to open an office in Hong Kong? Paul offers a few insights regarding local management and staffing:
+HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE
As in other countries, hiring the right people is crucial. For foreigners opening offices in Asia, it’s important that you hire people who are open to a Western style of management. I’ve found this to be an important part of our long-term growth plan.
+SEEK LOCAL TALENT
When hiring local personnel, finding people who can help you bridge the gap between Western thinking and local execution is important. Hong Kong employees, for example, are very sharp, and can be counted on to become specialized in a particular skill set rather quickly.
+EMBRACE CULTURAL TENDENCIES
A solid understanding of cultural tendencies—especially in the workplace—is critical for the success of your venture. For example, Asian employees typically value loyalty, so you will need to be sensitive when facing issues head on.
+SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
If you want to do business in Asia, encourage local staff to carry their work beyond the specific tasks that you request, so that they can drive the process forward toward the final objective. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it in the long run.
Learn how Paul revamped his company culture — watch a special Octane video