You are doing a great job in the location you are in. You know how things work. People like you, clients know and trust you.
So, naturally, you are the person the company asks to share that expertise with another office location. It’s just for a short-term assignment and if successful then you will be up for a promotion back home.
Fast-forward a month, after frantically closing up various things at home (because they need you asap, why wait, right?), you find yourself in the new location for half a year. Full of energy you enter your new office, and head to a meeting with the local colleague who will be showing you around and explaining the purpose of the project and your role. Here’s when you first start noticing that people interact with each other differently than back home. Even though it’s still the same company.
Then you go to the first local client meeting and have a few embarrassing faux-pas moments – but you can live with them, after all you’ve only just arrived. Worse than faux-pas though, your usual methods of gaining attention, gathering feedback and leading teams are not as effective.
You lose your confidence and start reflecting. There are at least two possible scenarios that can go from here.
One – you get anxious and angry that this is just not working. You are there as an expert after all so you should make sure that this expertise is shared and implemented in the new location. That was the plan for your assignment and your goal. You start imposing your ways of working on the local teams you are leading, they listen, mostly fulfil their tasks and things seem to be slowly moving forward. Even though this seems to be happening you don’t feel like things are going that well – people don’t come to talk to you, other colleagues seem to be having better relationships with clients and get better results, some conversations start happening without you as well. You feel like technically you’re doing everything you were asked to do, but at the same time you feel like it’s not going so well but don’t know why or how to change this. You end up going home after half a year with a negative feedback, unsuccessful assignment (everything got back to the old ways after you left) and a lower self-esteem. Not a nice scenario.
Two – you get anxious and angry that this is just not working out well. You are an expert after all and that is why you were selected for the project in this new location. You are however aware of cultural differences existing around the world as well as your own preferred ways of working. You use this moment of reflection to determine whether apart from just individual preferences there might be something cultural hidden under the behaviours that you’ve been observing. Then you check your assumptions and try to speak to a few people about it. You start asking around how things work here, what are the ways of interacting with clients, what you should know about this place. You realise you should have done some of that work before you arrived. You put good working relationships and effectiveness above the technical content of the assignment, knowing that without it you won’t be able to succeed. You adapt your working style, immerse yourself in the local culture, start understanding the underlying values , and end up leading a successful assignment abroad where you’ve learnt a lot and had the chance to practice different leadership styles. You come back home happy, fulfilled and ready for the next intercultural adventure, equipped with some invaluable experience.
You want to be a culturally competent leader
The above is such a common scenario, because it’s very easy to assess people on their ‘hard’ skills. They are easier to see and measure. With soft skills it gets a bit more tricky. But really, I don’t like the distinction to hard and soft skills – in many cases the ‘soft’ skills are hard(-er?) to learn and take equally much time to practice as the technical skills. They often require a mindset shift, creating new habits, and learning new approaches to interacting with people.
I’m sure you don’t want to be the leader who goes to do a project abroad and comes back unsuccessful, with bad feedback and angry at how things turned out. You want to be in the second scenario and use the project abroad as an opportunity to develop, grow as a leader and share your expertise with colleagues and clients.
Very often you won’t get any preparation for your work abroad and will just be expected to perform equally well. Very often it will be too late to start working on your cultural competence only when you’re already abroad. Changing mindsets and practicing new portfolio of behaviours does take time.
Becoming a culturally intelligent leader…
Well… so what are the first steps to becoming a more culturally intelligent and competent leader? Before you start getting into understanding any cultural differences, dimensions, gathering knowledge – understand yourself. You have to get more insight into what your values are, what is driving your behaviours, what in your mind does it mean to be a ‘good leader’, to ‘give good feedback’ or to ‘work effectively together’.
Although cultures fluctuate, mix and evolve constantly, it is a fairly slow process. There has been a lot of research examining the cultural differences on national levels, but also more widely across various functional groups (eg. HR professionals, IT professionals etc). Use it.
The key to growing cultural competence is to:
- understand yourself, your values, beliefs and boundaries,
- get the facts right and use the research that has been done on various cultural trends existing around the world,
- understand similarities and differences compared to your working style,
- use this knowledge wisely to learn new behaviours and ways of working as well as increase your general understanding of the world,
- adapt as and when needed.
Start building your cultural competence now. There is no reason to wait. Cultural diversity, both local and international is a fact. If you don’t want to be a successful and effective leader – don’t bother. But I know you do. So start slowly today, to set yourself up for success when the right opportunity knocks on your door.
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