The Culture Club

8 December 2016

Bhutan Temple

For 20 years, QUO has been helping organisations evolve

By David Keen, CEO, QUO 


A coral wall. In a Maldivian village far from Male in the north of the country. I asked my companion about the wall we were passing. She said it was a coral wall. All the houses were built from coral. This was the way of the village.


Twenty years ago I set up a company in Thailand. At first it was circumstantial. I wanted to stay in Thailand and the easiest way to do it was to set up a company. I grew to love this country. I built a home and raised a family. My love for Thailand is in the heart of its people, in its culture. I learned to be Thai; to hold Asian values for relationships.


Our company grew on two premises: listening and understanding. I knew early on that I wanted to figure out the soul of an organisation. It was only if we found how to define that soul would we be able to reflect it in everything we do. And we are only able to define that soul if we listen, question, probe and understand in the most profound way the organisation, company or country we are addressing.


And that’s when we started to define culture. It sounds audacious to say that we will define your culture. But brands are cultures – at their core. And our mission is to form that core and to reflect it in everything that we do. What do we mean by culture? Imagine you walk along a remote mountain path and, to your surprise, you happen across a village. That village has its own politics, architecture, language, sense of style, food, festivals and an amalgam of other nuances that give it a magic that can never be replicated. That is culture. And every entity has its own magic; its own way of doing things.


In 1991, I travelled for the first time to Bhutan. A small kingdom hidden in the Grand Himalaya sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan is one of the newest countries to enter the modern world. Until 1961, the kingdom was hidden from the world as, until then, there were no cars, no roads and no mass communications. The population would walk across the mountains to reach India or Nepal.


His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan from 1972 to 2006, opened Bhutan to the modern world. A visionary unlike any I have ever known, he managed a path to modernity embracing the will of his people, his own vision and the mores of the outside world. His Majesty understood how critical Bhutanese culture is to his people and yet he knew that global culture (in this case principally television) would become the greatest challenge to the future of the kingdom. Given Bhutan’s precarious location between two giants, it was essential for him to navigate ‘A Middle Path’.


I was privileged during the 1990s to work closely with the Royal Government of Bhutan and to listen and learn how His Majesty’s government was bringing to life his vision. It was through my experience in Bhutan that I understood the magnitude of culture and how much each nuance impacts behaviour and perception.


This understanding became the foundation of all of our work at QUO and remains the catalyst for our future. It is this cultural definition that forms that critical distinction.


Eighteen months ago I sat in a boardroom in Frankfurt. The leaders of Steigenberger Hotels and Resorts, a company with decades of history, were demanding change. That change was as much cultural as it was functional. The company operates three brands, two of which are not Steigenberger, and the management were demanding equanimity for their brands. But the change, more than  perhaps anything else, was about culture. The leadership wanted to take traditional German hospitality, modernise it and deliver it to what they believe is an expectant world. For many inside the company, this is the cultural change they crave. Today the flag of Deutsche Hospitality flies above all of the Steigenberger, InterCityHotel and Jaz in the City hotels and resorts across the world.


In Colombo, a successful family business is contemplating a significant shift in its culture. Traditionally run through generations, the younger generation has come back from overseas and is ready to take the helm. They talk about a paradigm shift. The youth want to create a company in the image of the future of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka today, multiple privately held companies are going through transformation as their enlightened children return from Western education and demand cultural shifts. In this case, one of the leading hospitals in the country will reinvent its perception and the way it hires and operates and lead the process of change in the medical industry in Sri Lanka.


In our hotel world, cultures are clashing. What will happen when Marriott meets Starwood? When Fairmont management integrates with Accor? Like oil and water, there are indeed some cultures that are very difficult to mix.


Yet whether it’s a coral wall in the Maldives or a mountain village in Bhutan, I believe that every time someone engages another culture, there is an opportunity for enriched human understanding.