As business becomes more and more global, many organizations are asking themselves if an effective leader in one country or region can duplicate her or his success on a worldwide level?
For example, Lucia Mannone may have a proven track record in the southern European region, but is she still able to develop new client relationships, manage projects, and run teams in the very different markets of Latin America and East Asia? And if she can't, what is the best way to prepare her and other budding global leaders like her to be fully productive and effective in the future?
This is the first of three articles that will explore and explode some common myths around global leadership development and then come up with some alternative approaches that coaches can use to help all leaders be successful across international boundaries.
In order to do this, let's go back to Lucia. She is a 38-year-old Italian senior marketing officer for a German medical instrument company. The company headquarters are in Stuttgart and she is based in Milan. She has worked on Italian national accounts and then the southern European region for the last 12 years and her performance and that of her teams have been consistently high.
As her company is expanding in the key markets of Argentina, Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea, she is now being asked to take on a more global role. Her technical knowledge is beyond compare and her ability to motivate her colleagues has been demonstrated again and again, even during economic downturns and company restructurings. But she has not traveled much beyond the Mediterranean, except for a professional conference in Baltimore and family holidays in Phuket and Cancun.
For someone like Lucia, the first step is usually to help her become more "culturally competent," but this can be interpreted and realized in many different ways.
Myth 1: The Behavioral Approach
A typical way to launch "cultural competence" coaching might be for Lucia to read one or two of the many books or websites that outline all the things to do—and more importantly, not to do—in a particular country.
If Lucia is like most businesspeople and she does not want to give offense or look stupid, it might be very helpful for her to learn how to give someone a business card in Osaka or what not to discuss at an initial business lunch in Monterrey. All of these hints and tips can certainly help with those important first impressions, but what happens after you kiss, bow, or shake hands?
Lucia might have done her homework and diligently learned the top 50 or 100 or even 500 etiquette tips for working and communicating with Brazilians or Koreans, but what would she do in situation 501? Unfortunately, she would have no idea what to do or say, because the behavioral approach on its own only gives the "whats" and the "hows" but not the "whys." There is no context for the content. No framework for the structure.
Myth 2: The National Values Approach
In order to get at the "whys," Lucia might then be directed to some well-grounded research on the differences between national values. The innovative works of Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars are frequently studied during this stage of global leadership development.
Through her reading, Lucia will probably be delighted to discover that the traditional importance that Italians place on such values as family, relationships, creativity, aesthetics, love, passion, and even calcio (football/soccer) are also shared by Brazilians. She might be surprised to find out that the Chinese value "face"—social harmony and personal honor-just as the Italians do. In China, it is called mianzi and in Italy, bella figura. And she might appreciate the warning that "respect" does not mean the same thing in Mexico as it does in Italy or that the Japanese are much more concerned with centralized authority than the autonomy-loving Italians.
Similarly, explanations of the different concepts of "quality" and "seriousness" in Germany and Italy might shed light on some long-running tensions with certain people in the Stuttgart headquarters. But this approach can only help so far, because it is based on a rather dangerous assumption: that everyone—or even most people—within a national culture will conform to the norms of that culture.
This is a particularly dubious claim in the vibrant cultures of international business and among young people, where change is a constant and deviation from the norm is much more prevalent.
On an individual level, Engineer Lee may not be very Korean in his value system, because he studied for his undergraduate degree at Delft University in the Netherlands and his master's degree at MIT in Boston. And Señor Trujillo may not be very Mexican as he grew up in seven different countries on three continents as his mother was a diplomat.
And what about Lucia herself?
At first glance, it would seem that she is typically Italian, having lived and worked there her whole life apart from her frequent business trips around Europe and a few work and pleasure jaunts beyond the continent.
But what if you knew that she was an orphan from North Africa, who was brought up by her nonna (adoptive grandmother) in a clean, safe, but very modest home in a small town outside Naples. As a math genius and natural athlete, she excelled in school and was the youngest MBA ever to graduate from the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan. She is now married to a struggling artist and has three young children, one of whom has cerebral palsy.
How might these unique environmental and genetic factors affect her personal value system and how she behaves and communicates with other people?
We will explore this and related issues in the next Global Leader Development article to be published in the June issue of BCW.
In the meantime, if you want to respond to any of the points raised in this column, please email the article author.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hampden-Turner, C. and F. Trompenaars. Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.