For those following this blog who are not familiar with the EMBA program, perhaps I should take a few seconds to explain what we are doing in Poland and why. As part of our “International Business Seminar,” we take an international trip to see up close how international businesses and multi-national companies operate. While we are here, we will also be given our own client for whom we will provide a report on how to improve their business. This part of the trip comes toward the end of the week. Before we get there, the goal is to learn as much as possible about how business is done in Poland.
Day 1: Travel
Despite some travel delays and lost baggage, the spirit of the RIT crew doesn’t seem to be dampened. We are staying in the gorgeous Polonia Palace Hotel right in the center of downtown Warsaw, and even though we have only been in town for a few hours, we managed to get in a solid welcome dinner at the “Bistro” restaurant in old town. Although many of us have been up for anywhere from 24 to 32 hours, everyone is excited to start digging into the itinerary tomorrow.
Day 2: Learning about American commerce
After getting some much-needed sleep, the RIT crew started off the trip with an official visit to the American Embassy where we learned about the Polish business climate. The main takeaway was that what people think of as the old “black and white” Poland of the past is not reflective of the current infrastructure. Between private foreign investment and funds coming in from the EU, Poland’s economy has been growing at a pretty fast clip. In fact, over the last 23 years, they have not seen a recession – even when the rest of the western world was experiencing problems from 2007-09.
The next stop was the American Chamber of Commerce in the heart of the Warsaw financial district. Here we learned more about the cost of doing business abroad. Unlike US companies, Poland business has a tendency to be a little more formal and hierarchical as a result of Soviet occupation. While the cost of doing business is fairly low, we learned about the cultural and legal implications of overcoming some of these barriers. We also got to visit the 19th floor of one of the coolest downtown buildings!
We had the night to ourselves so a group of us decided to venture around town and ended up in one of the most gorgeous parts of the city. There was no shortage of restauranteurs trying to get our business, and it wasn’t until a guy in full Cossack attire came up to us and gave us a recommendation that we found some great food. While following a man with a sabre down a dark alley is probably not always the best idea, it ended up working out because we had some of the best pierogies and sausage ever!
Day 3: PZU and Orange Polska
Today our two visits were to PZU, an insurance agency, and Orange Polska (think the Verizon of Europe). After hearing a talk about the PZU business model, we had the opportunity to visit their call center floor outside of Warsaw.
I was struck by the culture of this company. The average employee age was around 22, and they had designed their floor layout in the image of the Google open structure. With the walls filled with Americana, a pool table in the break room, and cubes coded with bright colors, it was clear to me that Polish companies have become very progressive regarding employee retention strategies. Overall, it was a very impressive operation.
Next we visited Orange, the largest mobile and telephone provider in Poland. While we did not get to tour their floor, we did get to hear about how Orange took on the challenge of providing telecomm for the 2012 Euro Games (soccer) as well as how they are on the leading edge of mobile finance technology.
Since we had an early morning, it was a fairly tame evening, so no men with sabers to report today. However, tomorrow we travel to Krakow (we have learned that this is actually pronounced Krak-ov), where we will tour the Krakow Technology Park before settling into the new hotel.
Day 4: Krakow
By far our experiences in Krakow have been the best yet. Our first major trip was to Lynka, the largest promotional merchandise company in Poland. Started by John Lynch, a Wharton MBA who traveled to Poland back at the fall of communism, Lynka is a major provider for large athletic wear companies like Russell all the way down to local schools. Later in the afternoon, we visited the GM plant just outside of Krakow where they manufacture European brands like Opel as well as Buick brands for the USA. We went behind-the-scenes to see exactly how Kaizen innovation can be used in practice. A Japanese business concept started by Masaaki Imai, Kaizen is a strategy of continuous improvement. Generally developed for a manufacturing space, the philosophy can be applicable to multiple levels of business. However, based upon what we saw, it takes more than process to create a successful environment. I think we all had different salient messages to take away, but here were my big two:
- Take care of your people, and they will help you take care of the company. At both Lynka and GM, one of the overarching themes was making the staff a priority. For continuous improvement to happen, you have to give employees space to grow and create. This was especially evident in the GM plant where they developed specific Kaizen incubator centers devoted specifically to innovative activities.
- Things can change – quickly. I hope to read John Lynch’s book one day to get the whole story on how he almost lost it all when his company was stolen from him for almost a year. Instead of admitting defeat, however, he fought to get it back. Regarding GM, we are more used to hearing about what’s happened in the US, but over here in Poland the whole plant was almost sold off and brought back from the dead. Now it is the most efficient plant in the entire company and is beginning exports to the US for the new Cascada. In either case, things can go from good to bad at a rapid pace– especially if you are working internationally. When these things happen, it’s your reaction to them that matters. Either you regroup and move forward or you fold.
Day 5: Meeting our company - Kanbanery
For our last full day of official “school work,” I split off with my team to visit with Paul Klipp from Kanbanery, a start-up based in Krakow focused on project workflow software. Out of all of the experiences I had in Poland, this had to be one of my favorites for two reasons:
- We got to spend some quality time getting to know
Paul’s story for how Kanbanery came to be.
- Kanbanery is simply an amazing company. I can’t divulge too much of what we talked about since the details of our meeting were confidential, but I can say that the team learned a great deal about what it takes to go from a start-up to a sophisticated business model. Paul, if you ever read this – we really do appreciate your taking the time to meet with us. Also, because I liked the vibe of this place so much, I will plug them here. If you are looking for a SAS cloud-based project management tool, check them out: kanbanery.com.
Based on our meeting, it will now be my team’s job to go back and do a mini-business analysis of what we learned. I generally find that assignments like this are the most beneficial because we get to deal with the real-world and interact with a living, breathing client; reading books and doing case studies only gets you so far. One of the great things about this program is that you actually get the opportunity to do some tangible work in a fairly controlled environment. Going forward in my own career, this will likely be some of the most valuable information I’ve learned. After wrapping up our company visit, we headed back to the hotel to close out the week.
Day 6: Cultural Counterweights
After a long week of focusing on international business, we all had the opportunity to do some cultural activities near Krakow. Knowing that it would be a somber experience, I signed up for the morning trip to Auschwitz. I can honestly say it's one of the most horrific things I've ever seen, but I'm glad I did it. I felt I owed it to the memory of the 1.2 million people who died there to look one of the worst parts of human history in the eye. The guided tour takes you through the camp, living quarters, execution areas, and the gas chambers. Knowing that what you were looking at was not an exhibit, but a preserve real relic was both surreal and extremely sobering. I left the site feeling incredibly drained, angry, and sad. However, I don't regret the experience, and I highly recommend that you make this pilgrimage once in your lifetime.
As a dramatic counterweight to Auschwitz, the afternoon was spent at the historic Salt Mines. When most of us think of a mine, we usually think of dark dangerous caves. While this mine did have those, it was so much more. Built in the 1300s, the mine itself has become a monument to Polish history - not because of artists or intellectuals, but because of the miners themselves. Throughout the space, you can see countless sculptures and carvings out of the rock salt that were made by the miners. A very religious people, Polish miners constructed several chapels were constructed right out of the mountain, deep underground. For me personally, there is something incredibly beautiful and soothing about a natural space that is also a spiritual space. Because of this, the cathedral on the third level of the mine is easily one of the most exceptionally gorgeous spaces I've ever been in. Again, carved entirely out of salt - everything from the alter, to the wall reliefs, to the tiles in the floor, we were essentially standing inside of a giant salt crystal morphed into a church that looks like it belongs in Lord of the Rings. After the morning in Auschwitz, which served as a reminder of true evil in the world, being in the salt mines served as a reminder that there is also extraordinary beauty and hope even in the most unexpected places.
The evening ended with a farewell dinner in what used to be the Jewish section of Krakow, prior to their being forced into the ghetto. We ate in what used to serve as a ceremonial bath house that has since been converted into a hotel and restaurant. We enjoyed traditional cuisine and music to put the final bookend on our trip, which considering our time in Poland, provided a perfect denouement to the experience. Tomorrow we go home, and while I am excited to get back, a part of me will miss interacting with this incredible culture.
I’m writing this post on the plane ride home. As I try to reflect on what happened this week, I’m struck by how valuable a trip like this can be – even if everything didn’t go according to plan. I haven’t written about it much here, but we have had some travel woes and some things not happen the way I know our professors would have liked. However, from my perspective, that’s part of the learning process for all of us. If you are going to travel internationally and engage with other cultures, things may not always play out the way you expect. It’s the ability to adapt to change, think on your feet, and know how to take smart risks that can make the best of out of a situation that may not be perfect. What’s the saying? “We plan. God laughs.”?
Looking at what we’ve learned from our time in Poland, here is a country that was devastated by war only to become reliant on communism for another 40 years. To look at it now, it’s incredible to see how much business and infrastructure in general has had to overcome. When I think about the early innovators that came to Poland just as capitalism was emerging, I can’t imagine anything they were doing was according to “plan A” either. One of the main takeaways of the entire Online EMBA program is that they are trying to teach us how to be one of those people – the person who is the champion out of the chaos. It’s easy to lead when things are stable, but if you are a John Lynch starting Lynka from nothing, the only things you have on your side are solid business acumen, a taste for risk, and the ability to effectively lead. Without those qualities, you’re done.
We are now off the coast of Greenland, and pretty soon this will no longer be the “international blog,” so I’ll close things out here. I’m thankful for this experience. I’ve become closer with both my teammates and the rest of my cohort, and I consider myself privileged to travel with such amazing people. That’s all from me. I hope you've enjoyed following.