Madagascar Adventures: Building Sustainable Relationships in a Consulting Project

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

For those of you considering a TEM Lab, GCL project, or consulting-style internship as part of your Thunderbird experience (I highly encourage you to do so), I’d like to share some step-by-step relationship building and discovery phase tactics we used in Madagascar to gain our client’s trust, identify and access all relevant stakeholders early on, triangulate stakeholder perceptions and influences, and formulate an actionable plan aligned with our client’s actual needs. Keep in mind that in some cultures, essential information and realities unfold as relationships gradually develop, so the more personal interaction and face time you have with the holders of that information, the more effective you will be at surfacing and understanding those realities. Always remember: no matter what you deliver to your client or how drastic the change proposal, it’s essential to provide them with a toolkit and roadmap to successful implementation that begins with where they’re currently at in the process.

Monday, June 27th: CARA team pizza party

After our initial week analyzing the Malagasy business environment and CARA’s mission as a centralized hub supporting the development of an entrepreneurial culture in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar SME’s, we changed gears and began evaluating the internal structure and organizational capabilities of CARA and its team. First, we presented our initial findings and hypotheses to Volataina (CARA Executive Director) and the board members to gauge their reactions and begin creating a work plan aligned with our client’s expectations. The first deliverable was a great way to open the door for feedback and transparency, and the result couldn’t have been better considering the wealth of internal information we received defining all of CARA’s internal operations and management tools.

In phase two, we interviewed the CARA executive staff for the remainder of the week to understand their competency levels and consider how they fit within the company goals. Malagasies are a very social culture, so to break the ice, we decided to host a pizza party for the staff to make a social introduction in a more relaxed environment before the official interview process. After a moment of awkward silence, the pizza party was a success, and several beneficiaries at the office for training actually joined us for lunch. It was helpful to see the CARA staff and beneficiaries interacting with one another in a social context to get a feel for the company culture.

We organized our interview questions in relation to specific positions and responsibilities of the executives. The questions were designed to discover the executives’ roles and responsibilities; tools used to complete everyday job functions and effectiveness of those tools; background before joining CARA; training received as a CARA employee and whether or not it prepared them for their specific position; individual goals and what they perceived the company goals to be; regularity of individual performance reviews and effectiveness; what resources they felt they were lacking to meet job expectations; interdepartmental collaboration with other executives; and how they were recognized for good performance. We intuitively added role-specific questions during the actual interview because it was difficult to pinpoint with accuracy everyone’s job title and responsibilities. We hoped that the result would reveal a clearer view of how company goals were aligned with employee expectations so that we could make appropriate suggestions.

Tuesday, June 28th – Friday, July 1st: First round of interviews

Lesson number 1 in triangulating information, especially if you’re operating in a high power distance culture, is to meet with employees one-on-one and make them feel comfortable in the confidentiality of the discussion. The CARA executive team were, for the most part, surprisingly open and honest about all the questions we asked, which demonstrated to us that they were open and excited about receiving advice to improve the business’ effectiveness. We were able to pinpoint some recurring concerns that validated several of our preliminary observations. First and foremost, it became apparent that executive roles and responsibilities would need to be redefined to fit the company goals and incorporate an accountability structure. The top three or four executives were completing the lion’s share of the workload, allowing the less competent staff members to hide behind their hard work. Unfortunately, this was causing a tremendous waste of valuable resources, as executives were being paid fixed salaries based on time spent in the field rather than efficiency and effectiveness of work completed. As a result, CARA’s primary client, Rio Tinto-QMM, stopped paying for services because the beneficiaries reported unsatisfactory training results. We will go into that part of our work plan in more detail later.

When asked about the tools used for everyday job functions, every employee complained that the Initial Diagnostic Tool, a preliminary Q&A survey, was inefficient to evaluate beneficiaries. We also discovered that onboarding training was not specific to job function; easy and efficient Excel tools were non-existent; there was no human resources department regulating payroll or employee accountability/satisfaction; no employee recognition system was in place; and executives were not positioned based on their strengths, weaknesses, and personal desires. When asked about challenges they felt CARA currently faces, everyone said motor transportation to access beneficiaries in the field, access to computers to complete work, and finance. On a concerning note, all of the Excel tools used by the finance personnel were disorganized, inconsistent, and mostly useless in terms of providing any sound or efficient financial management of CARA’s internal budget or beneficiary financial analysis. It became apparent after the staff interviews that we would have to invest time reorganizing CARA’s internal organizational capabilities from the ground up before they could legitimately reach their goals as a regional business center.

The staff interviews provided us with great insights into why CARA was failing to hold team members accountable, gain the reputation they targeted, or satisfy client expectations. CARA failed to incorporate and develop a sound internal structure because they took for granted that Rio Tinto would financially bail them out. However, with RT’s company culture moving towards a cut in capital expenditures in subsidiary projects around the world as a result of slumping commodity prices, CARA needed to prepare to cover their own expenses in the coming years in order to stand on their own two feet as a legitimate business operating in a challenging Third World environment. Considering these concerns and transitions, we decided that the only way to effectively help CARA was a complete company re-evaluation from the ground up, ultimately creating opportunities to attract new revenue streams, cover their own costs, and develop a lasting brand reputation in Madagascar.

Saturday July 2nd – Sunday July 3rd: Take time to relax! – Domaine De La Cascade & Lakaro

2016-07-03-photo-00000148Don’t feel guilty about taking a weekend off to explore the country’s natural landscapes or cultural hotspots–it shows your client that you’re taking an interest and appreciation in their country and provides good talking points on Monday morning when you go into the office. After a week of heavy interviewing and data collection, we decided to go explore more of Madagascar’s beautiful southern coastline. On Saturday we took a hike to the Domaine De La Cascade to take in some natural energy from a flowing waterfall over a mixed primary-secondary forest. On Sunday, we visited a breathtaking coastal landscape called Lakaro. After rumbling down another rough Malagasy ‘road,’ we entered a small village perched along a vast mountain range separating the village from the fierce ocean waves. We trekked through a mountain range reminiscent of Lord of the Rings landscapes and ended up on a vast black rock formation along the coastline. Violent waves smashed into the rock shore, shooting fountains of ocean spray fifty feet into the sky. The view and experience was truly magnificent, but of course, it’s very difficult to describe with any justice. On the trek back we purchased some seashells from local villagers prepared for our viewing along the beach, and then followed the villagers through a path in the meadows to return back to the village. It was another enriching and insightful experience in the Malagasy culture, and we returned home re-energized and clear-minded to dive back into the project.

Melissa and Lisa Gaylord adventuring along the Lakaro Coastline.
Melissa and Lisa Gaylord adventuring along the Lakaro Coastline.

Is consulting for you?


The excitement of consulting is strategizing all the dimensions of a project for a specific client while emerging yourself deep into the cultural dynamics that make it unique. For Thunderbirds, as outsiders diving into a foreign company culture often in a foreign country, you have no choice but to abandon the “work” mindset and live every minute of the experience. Every dinner you can manage should be with a relevant stakeholder. Every meeting should aim to identify new contacts important to the next phase of the road. Every resource, home and on-site, should be considered, preserved, and respected, because if you lack experience you can make up for it with an experienced toolkit and resource base. Above all else, you should be having fun and loving every minute of every relationship you make, because if you’re inauthentic and just there to do “work” you will fail. You will fail to make the important relationship connections, you won’t understand and experience the culture, and you will quickly burnout from the heavy workload. Show your passion and appreciation for your client’s culture and company success, and I guarantee you’ll have a successful and, more importantly, fulfilling experience that creates value on both sides.

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