After an exhilarating flight over the Alps, I landed in Milan, Italy to integrate the human resources department of a recent acquisition. I knew the industry, business and integration strategies, and the key talent. The problem was, I didn’t speak Italian. Despite reading up on Italian business culture, I really didn’t have a clue.
Thankfully, I could not have had a more accommodating and welcoming team of Italians to guide me through the cultural gulf. They were as determined as I was to be successful.
The rules change and no one tells you
When you work in a different culture, many of the business strategies, tasks and procedures are the same, but they are done to a whole different rhythm. It’s like having to learn a new dance step to a familiar tune; or learning how to play your favorite card game with new rules—but no one tells you which rules changed!
I quickly learned to ask a lot of questions. Even when I was making decisions as the leader – Italians generally like strong leaders – I learned to say, “This is what I am thinking of doing. Do you have any suggestions for me? How well do you think it will be received?” I found that my staff appreciated being able to give their input, as did my Italian business associates, largely because I took their advice and kept asking, “What other input do you have for me?” – until they had no more to give. Their input was invaluable.
I learned the same lesson traveling through Asia to conduct talent reviews. In Japan, the reviews were very formal and orderly, following well laid out expectations. Everyone was well prepared. In China, the organization was very dynamic, with many changes in personnel from year-to-year. They operated in a fast growing, extremely entrepreneurial, constantly changing and politically charged business environment. In India, the business environment was even more dynamic and entrepreneurial.
A cultural agility model that works: cultural intelligence
When you work globally, it requires cultural, communication and leadership agility. The old saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!” I have learned firsthand it also works in places like Zurich, Frankfurt, Galway, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, Mumbai—and even Milan.
Cultural experts write about this frequently. One of my favorites is David Livermore, a global thinker and author of several books, including Leading with Cultural Intelligence. He offers great insights for leading across cultures and offers a very different approach than the cultural tips guides, such as how to make a toast at dinner from Paris to Beijing and what to do with business cards. These are still important cultural norms to learn, but Livermore’s lessons go much deeper. My favorite insight from David is to understand the five values of the culture you will be working with. They are the following:
- Time. In England, time is clock driven and punctual. In Mexico, time is event driven and heavily impacted by spontaneity.
- Context. Australia has a high context rating from its common history. China, on the other hand, is a very diverse nation with six languages. To lead effectively in China requires explicit setting of direction and expectations to get everyone on the same page.
- Individualism. In the U.S. individualism is high, whereas in Thailand, group membership is more valued. Rewarding the individual is a powerful motivator in the U.S. Rewarding the team is more powerful in Thailand.
- Power distance. In Israel, power distance is small between managers and employees, and employees expect to participate in decision making. In Malaysia, power distance is large, and titles confer status and respect. Managers in Malaysia don’t socialize with subordinates, and subordinates don’t expect to be involved in decision making.
- Uncertainty avoidance. Russia is much higher on this value than Hong Kong. Russians like detailed instructions and timetables, while Hong Kong workers are comfortable with loose instructions and flexible deadlines. They prefer to explore their own ways to achieve a project rather than receive explicit instructions.
Understanding and applying these five cultural values will accelerate your success. More importantly, when you have a cross-cultural group of leaders, you need to understand these values for each leader sitting at the table and how that may affect their actions.
An example with a cross-cultural leader
I coached a business leader who had a team of Germans, Swiss Germans, Italians, Irish, Chinese and U.S. leaders. The spread across Livermore’s five cultural values within this team was huge. For example, the Germans and Swiss Germans expected detailed instructions and planning. Once plans were set, they did not like to deviate from them. The Italians, on the other hand, preferred less specific plans and wanted to innovate along the way!
A second important factor with this team was that, while everyone spoke English, they spoke different versions of English (British, vs. American vs. Irish) and at different competency levels. So, while everyone heard and nodded to the same words from the business leader, individuals often walked away with very different understandings because the same words could convey very different meanings in their version of English.
A third factor was that the Germans and Swiss Germans expected to be involved in decisions and gave very candid, and at times brutally blunt feedback. The Irish and Italians were open to following instructions but would withhold criticism out of respect for the leader. In the case of the Irish, criticism was so polite, the U. S. leader might misunderstand it as a compliment.
Yikes! My advice for this business leader was that clarity and communication were key. He had to continually state the business vision, strategies, goals, milestones, and what was explicitly expected at each milestone. He needed concrete operating mechanisms in place to track progress. He also needed to allow the Italians some room to be innovative while providing the Germans a clear and detailed plan to follow. He had to continually ask for feedback and get out on the road to build relationships with workers, learn about local issues, and check on progress.
If you are working with a multi-cultural team, whether in Shanghai or Kansas City, you need to remember the importance of cultural, communication and leadership agility. Ignorance won’t stop cultural differences from thwarting your progress. You need to engage with cultural differences and work within them, or they will work you!
Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and executive coach who works with key decision makers and human resource leaders on global talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Contact Victor for a free one-hour strategy session at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com. to download his free HR whitepapers and read more of his blog posts.