Management Lessons From Argentina

Prior to moving to Argentina I worked for the Portland Business Journal as a sales manager.  As a young manager I gleaned what knowledge I could from a number of more experienced managers and sales trainers.  I recall my mentor George telling me early on just how similar managing salespeople could be to parenting.  Our superb sales trainer at the time, Jeff Schneider, hammered the key tenets and roles a sales manager must play into me while also drawing many such parenting analogies.  While traveling and living abroad as a family, I  have been repeatedly reminded just how much parenting can mirror sales management challenges.  The lesson I suppose is that it can be more difficult than one might think to escape entirely from reality and thoughts of work while on sabbatical.  While I don’t claim to be the best parent or manager, the lessons provided by these men provide a wonderful goal to aim for whether it be while managing a sales team or a family experiencing life south of the border.

The four primary roles of a sales manager I was taught are coach, mentor, trainer and supervisor.  As Jeff so wisely pointed out, most sales managers end up focusing primarily on supervision, an eerily similar problem faced by Erica and I here!  I’d like to share a few additional management lessons I’ve learned thanks to living abroad as a family.

Manage the individual, not the team

Just as salespeople are unique individuals and require an individual approach, living abroad together has illustrated just how different our kids are.  We’ve spent A LOT of time together.  It’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience to discover what approach might inspire one of the kids, while having zero impact on the others.  Freed from the responsibilities of a job while we live in Argentina, I’m grateful to have the time and energy now to truly learn about my kids.  They are all highly motivated by any electronic device of course. Elliott tends to be very money motivated, Ben not at all.  Sport of any kind and socializing with friends drives Elliott.  Ben loves having friends over for play dates, but sport, eh.   Elliott cherishes access to his email account we opened for him to keep in touch with friends at home.  Ben has one also but we have to nag him to use it.  On the other hand Ben loves rocking out with his headphones and iPod.  Michael Jackson and Charlie Daniels are favorites.  Molly loves the iPad and pleasing others.  She might be freaking out about her shoes not fitting one minute and kissing your hand the next.  Not unlike seeking the right formula for a sales rep, Ben’s a tough cookie.  We’ll let you know when we figure that out!

Be humble

As any good sales manager knows, you want your salesperson to be a better rep than you.  Well, I can tell you that my kids and wife excel at speaking Spanish while I simply manage the logistics of our existence here.  While I would love to be more fluent, I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses.  The other day at rugby, Ben was speaking to Erica with a new friend looking on.  Afterward Erica overheard the friend ask,”Hablás inglés, vos?”  Nothing makes us happier.

Lead during times of change

Our team at the Portland Business Journal went through a tremendous amount of change while I was a manager.  Learning how to manage during times of change while also learning to be a manager was incredibly difficult, but not so unlike our current status.  Our kids have adapted amazingly well to living in Argentina.  Their world has turned upside and yet they have just rolled with it all from the start.  When we started selling furniture on Craigslist last year, they barely batted an eye.  We moved in with a Costa Rican family of 5 for 3 weeks and enrolled in a language school.  We tossed Ben and Molly in a taxi with the school director each day to go to kindergarten in Spanish.  We lived out of a hotel in Cordoba for 2 weeks!  No problem.  Well, minor issues that we can gloss over now.  We threw the boys into a public school that is 100% Spanish.  We jumped on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  All things considered, the kids have been champs.  I like to think that they have been relatively unfazed because of the confidence Erica and I have tried to project despite our own concerns.  Although scared out of our minds and unsure at times during this adventure, we have always positioned each trial or phase as a new adventure.  I don’t recall who started it, but we began a corny Team Vaughn chant completed with hands in to kick off meaningful new adventures before we even left Portland.

Motivation by trial and error

Our challenge to provide motivation for the kids began the moment we sprung our plans on them a year ago. We pulled out the stops with stories from our scouting trip about meat, ice cream and swimming pools. When we were in Costa Rica incentives took the form of a trip to the public pool after a good behavior day at language school.  This trial and error continued in Cordoba when we came up with the Morning List, The Big 3 and the Night List.  While we’d tried a number of similar things in Portland, we actually managed to find the time and motivation to stick with it here.  In an effort to teach responsibility and maintain our own sanity, we came up with a few basic things the kids should do on their own without endless nagging and reminders.  Morning and Night includes stuff like get dressed, make the bed, and brush teeth.  The Big 3 believe it or not are flush, wash hands and lights off in the bathroom.  I cringe to envision life with 3 boys rather than 2.  Successful completion of these tasks on a daily basis is rewarded with 5 pesos each.  Given the ready availability of kioscos and sugar this has proven to be a fairly productive incentive so far.  I won’t lie though. It’s not uncommon for the boys to have a debt tally on the fridge when motivation devolves into supervision. Homework, behavior at school and our home school efforts have provided endless opportunities for experimentation with motivation.  We committed to home school the boys 5 days a week in English since their school day is short compared to the US.  Although not particularly popular with the team, we created a chart per day with subjects including reading, history, math and science.  We have a mix of workbooks, apps, documentaries and games we use to keep it mildly interesting.  Regardless, Ben still manages to try to scratch out math on the chart and make it look like history. We also have learned when to call in the big guns for training help as does any good sales manager.  We finally saw the light and have our wonderful babysitter helping Elliott with his homework twice a week.  It’s a far cry from our painful attempts to interpret assignments using Google Translate, and he’s far less likely to misbehave with a cute 21-year-old Argentine instructing him that ourselves.

Unfortunately, after our best efforts, it sometimes all comes down to banning the kids from electronics, rugby, play dates or loss of pesos.  I learned some of my biggest lessons as a manager from the people who worked for me.  The analogy continues as our children challenge and inspire Erica and I everyday in Argentina.

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