Managing Across Cultures

It must be author guest post month – when it rains it pours.
I get a lot of free book offers and just don’t have time to read them all. So instead, if the book or author sounds interesting, I’ll offer a guest post.

This one’s from Michael Schell, co-author with Charlene Solomon, Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

I was on a conference call this morning with participants from the U.S., Europe and Asia. Several people on the call had a few technical issues in terms of opening the software for the meeting platform. I was struck at how the American kept asking for directions, carefully defining the goings-on on his computer screen.

From the presenter screen I could see that our Asian colleague was not on the conference platform either. She was asking very few questions. When I asked what was happening with her computer, she deflected the questions and said she didn’t want to take up any more of group’s time and would just listen.

I started to wonder: What cultural process is in play when an American colleague is comfortable taking up the group’s time while they sort out a problem and conversely what caused our Asian colleague to be so concerned about everyone else’s time that we couldn’t get her to actively participate in the meeting?

As an effective team leader, should I have kept her on, recognizing her discomfort while we sorted out her connection issues? However, forcing her to stay connected and making her the center of the group’s attention was not working. The more I tried, the more uncomfortable she got, and the more insistent she became about getting off the phone.

On the other hand, if I were in the same situation, I would have also behaved in a typically American way–appreciating the attention so that I could participate and fully contribute, feeling that the delay would be worth it for the team—our Asian colleague felt differently.

As a leader, you need to recognize the culture of the people you’re working with. Leading teams in a global environment requires a whole set of new skills because working virtually magnifies the cultural challenges that global organizations face.

Amongst the cultural styles discussed in Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business with a Global Mindset are the seven keys for a global mindset. They include items such as: relationships, communication styles, hierarchy and empowerment, all of which will significantly impact the way people from different cultures work together and interact. For example, while a Swiss colleague will be most comfortable getting down to business right away and digging through details of facts and figures, a Chinese team member will be less productive unless they’re allowed to establish a relationship.

Even more, the cultural dimension of hierarchy shows that people from an egalitarian society feel comfortable participating and asking challenging questions, while people from hierarchical societies will be reluctant to challenge the leader, even if he expects to be challenged. Effective leadership requires different skills when managing in a global arena than when managing in a domestic environment.

It’s hard to imagine that it was only 15 years ago that I organized a group called the Global Relocation Partnership. It was made up of entrepreneurs who ran small expat support organizations in 40 different countries. At that point in my career, I was already well versed in culture, cultural behaviors and the impact of culture on business, including leadership.

My knowledge was based on a combination of theoretical learning, some international living, and global business experience. With all of that understanding, I still encountered leadership and management challenges that I neither understood (and in retrospect) was not really prepared to handle.

Over the course of the next several years, as we grew the Global Relocation Partnership into a cohesive powerful force, I learned by confronting challenge after challenge, how all the members—who came from different cultural backgrounds—had dramatically different expectations of the leadership they expected me to provide.

Some expected me to make the decision; others expected me to consult with them on the minutest detail, and still others saw my role as a consensus builder. Some members were happy for the group to discuss only the high points of transactions while others needed context and detail.

Today’s business leaders have more experience confronting intercultural challenges on a daily basis than I because of the day-to-day intercultural work experience and a business environment that more highly values diversity and appreciating culture. But that experience only means that they must be much more competent when moving into a leadership role.

Fortunately, culture is learnable, and it is learned incrementally—first by a theoretical understanding and next by the continuous barrage of experiences, both one’s own and that shared by colleagues.

If all of these requirements of global leadership seem confusing, I would assure you that they often are. It’s hard to know what is “right” in every situation, which makes it extremely important for global leaders to have a clear sense of their own leadership style and cultural preferences, and recognize that it is just that—a personal style. A word of advice: don’t change your style for every situation, but recognize when that style needs to be modified in order to achieve your goals.