The world is getting smaller as people travel more and more and therefore cultures no longer matter that much, some say.
Wrong. They matter more than ever!
How many times you went abroad and found yourself saying “That’s so strange!”?
How many times have you worked with someone based in another country and saying “I just don’t understand, why don’t they get it, I thought I was clear enough!”, or worse “They’re so incompetent…”
How many times have you met someone from a different culture in the country you live in day-to-day?
Exactly. Probably many times. Because yes, we do travel more than ever; and yes, business if often a global activity too. More people have this amazing opportunity to see what things look like on the other side of the world, or even as close as on the other side of their country’s border. We have the chance to see all the differences visible at first hand and we do see them.
But cultures evolve slower than we think. Cultures are formed through shared group beliefs and behaviours which cannot be wiped out so easily by just the global companies entering the local markets or by people travelling.
When visiting a country only for a relatively short period of time, we are not always able to go deeper and understand where they’re coming from. Building your cultural intelligence is all about digging deeper, going beyond what you see on the surface. It’s about using the travel experiences to expand your knowledge about the world and increase self-awareness. This can help you keep an open mind when meeting someone from a background different from yours, build stronger professional relationships and work more efficiently with people.
Noticing what is on the culture’s surface is a good first step to go deeper
At the level of artefacts indeed, globalisation has changed our lives. Many brands expanded beyond their original country borders and started exploring foreign markets. Many of them failed. Many of them succeeded. When thinking about expanding into global markets, many brands just thought they could replicate what they’ve done back home and they will be successful. They couldn’t be more wrong. Luckily, many companies nowadays take active efforts to account for cultural differences and various backgrounds existing around the world. Although not without some controversies… because getting the proportions right is not easy.
Coca-Cola has gone through a real effort with their Share-a-Coke campaign. The campaign included personalised Coke cans with people’s names and also some other words like ‘best friend’, ‘mom’, ‘dad’ etc. You’d think that oh what is the difficulty in that, you just put some names on the can and that’s it. They went many steps further and truly personalised the names available on the cans per country. So you could find Hispanic names and Spanish phrases in South American markets, or names in local languages in Nigeria, which are non-existent elsewhere. With that kind of advert, they could go very generic and only include English names or words for family members and friends. Instead, they accounted for the differences in each country the Coca Cola is present. The people especially with less popular or very regional names appreciated the fact that they could finally find their unique name on something – most of the other generic mass-produced keyrings, phone covers or T-shirts never included them before! Although not without some controversies in South Africa, the campaign seemed to be very successful and created a lot of positive buzz in social media.
IKEA is also a brand present all over the world in various markets. Although the products are generally alike in many locations, they adjust their sizing range for local differences in terms of the bedding, pillows or furniture. They also acknowledge the variety of home space most common in one countries, eg. size of the kitchen or living room, and crop the pictures in their catalogues accordingly to appeal to different audiences. There were also some controversies around them adjusting the catalogues to the audiences in Israel or Saudi Arabia (I will leave it for you to google if you’re interested). But regardless of whether we consider what they’ve done wrong or right, it surely has shown that they are at least aware of the differences and their importance in succeeding in various markets.
Other cosmetics consortiums like L’Oreal (eg. Garnier, Maybeline) or Unilever (eg. Dove) also need to adjust their products for different markets if they want to succeed. For different hair types and colours, for various skin tones, for various canons of beauty. Again, not without controversies, but although the brand overall is known globally, the products have to differ slightly depending on the geographies.
All of that though is related only to the services or products in various markets. Opening up an office in a new country and leading a team of new employees and global teams to success is yet another matter, which is so important in working across cultures! And is a challenge still very much present despite of the globalisation.
Going one step further to understand underlying values
When we think about working with colleagues based all over the world, we could assume that they wear the same brands as we do, they go to the same cafe chains as we do, they speak English and so do we, and therefore there will be no need for adjusting how we work or how we lead teams.
You could also assume that given you live in different countries, you have probably grown up in a different environment, economies, values – so there might be some differences in how you approach work and leadership, which you might prepare for (if it turns out their work preference is similar to yours, then great, but at least you are prepared).
Which would be your assumption?
I am more on the risk-averse side of things and like to think “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. When starting an international venture you should definitely consider cultural dimensions and the research available. That’s why the university workers sit in their labs for hours and conduct social experiments and surveys – to make your life easier 🙂
When you start leading a new team or working in a new location, come into the initial meeting with an open attitude and some of the below questions in mind. Make sure you give yourself the chance to notice the ways in which people work and how they are similar or different from what you like to do.
- How do people approach the topic of work-life balance? What do they think is the role of work in one’s life?
- How do individuals fit into the society? Is it ok to be ‘different’ or the key is to preserve the group harmony?
- How do people expect the manager or leader to come across? How do they wish the manager interacted with other team members? What’s the process for making decisions?
- Do people have preference for detailed data and explanation of the background, or maybe non-verbal cues play an important role in business discussions?
- How do people perceive time and schedules? Is it rather strict or more flexible? Do they put building relationships over exact schedules and project plans?
These are just a few questions you can ask yourself when you start working with new individuals. That could actually apply even if you work with people from your own culture as you need to always account for personal differences too.
As a young leader, you need to build a varied set of skills to be able to understand perspectives of colleagues who may have a different approach. The more you get to know yourself as well, the more you can really understand which particular profiles will be easier for you to work with and which would be more challenging.