Global Leader Development
What Helps Leaders to Be Effective on a Global Level...and What Doesn't - Part II
By Jeremy Solomons
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?
In the first column in this three-part series (Business Coaching Worldwide, February 2010), we looked at how Lucia Mannone, a 38-year-old, Italian, senior marketing officer for a German medical instrument company with little global experience beyond Europe, could help her company expand in the key markets of Argentina, Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea.
She could begin to become more globally competent through the “behavioral approach” of learning what to do and what not to do in different countries. Then she could move on to the “national values approach” of understanding why people behave the way they do in different countries.
But both approaches are limited in how far they can help because they only embrace some of the factors that affect human behavior and can easily lead to misleading stereotypes, e.g., “Mexicans are more interested in family, relationships, and security than in getting quality work done on time and moving up the career ladder” or “the Chinese are always avoiding conflict and will never directly own up to a mistake.”
So what are the other factors that may be influencing individual or group behavior?
Additional Factor 1
This columnist revisited the first stereotype, about Mexicans being family- and relationship-oriented, etc., while doing some recent values work for two teams at the central Mexican subsidiary of a large German company.
Although most of the members of each team were Mexican nationals who had never lived outside that country, they expressed a clear preference for such values as personal achievement, getting the job done, risk-taking, individualism, and egalitarianism, values that would not be considered as typically “Mexican” according to the research of Geert Hofstede and others.
Neither would these values be considered typically German.
So what was going on here?
Beyond national culture, it seems that organizational culture was at play.
These Mexican employees had deliberately chosen to work for an innovative, hi-tech, global communications company that happened to be headquartered in Germany and have a subsidiary in their hometown.
As this company expands across the world, it is developing its own unique value system and way of doing things, which may have little in common with the traditional culture and values of Germany or any other single country or region.
So, for example, if Lucia Mannone is now trying to develop a new strategic partnership with a large Korean chaebol (business family or conglomerate), she should probably spend a lot more time learning about that company’s values, history, traditions, and culture rather than focusing on those of Korea as a whole.
Additional Factor 2
Let’s go back to the oft-quoted lament that “the Chinese are always avoiding conflict and will never directly own up to a mistake.”
While this may be true in some cases, it is certainly not true in all of them; even if it does appear to be true in a particular case, it may be masking a much larger issue.
For example, a US-based hi-tech company was noticing that many of its software engineers, including all of the East Asian ones, were grossly underreporting errors in responding to monthly questionnaires.
It would have been easy to zero in on the East Asian engineers and try to deal with issues of national “face,” honor, and pride.
But then managers noticed that they were getting similar omissions from engineers at their offices in other parts of Asia, Europe, Latin America, and even North America.
Maybe the corporate culture was becoming too “success oriented” and employees were reluctant to report mistakes for fear of letting down their colleagues and harming their future career prospects?
But that was not the case at this organization, which did not have a hyper-aggressive, punitive culture. It was well understood that occasional errors were part of the learning process.
So what else was going on?
From careful analysis and many interviews, it seemed that the underreporting had more to do with the professional culture of the software engineers, for whom an “error” is like an admission of incompetence and failure.
So the managers decided to eliminate all mention of “errors” from the monthly questionnaires and instead they asked the software engineers for their lessons learned, best practices, and suggestions for improvement.
Suddenly, the managers starting getting a flurry of invaluable insights and ideas from the previously reticent engineers and, not coincidentally, errors were drastically reduced.
By recognizing the value and power of professional culture, global leaders can actually help their colleagues find a new way of connecting across the world.
In Lucia’s case, this may be a good way for her to build trust and rapport with her marketing counterparts in Tokyo or Buenos Aires, as they may well have studied exactly the same textbooks as she did in university, just in Japanese or Spanish.
Unfortunately, professional culture can sometimes work the other way if two “experts” butt heads over who knows best about some arcane technical issue.
But it is certainly something to bear in mind when trying to develop relationships and build business around the world.
Additional Factor 3
As any budding global leader can now see, it is a lot more than national customs and values that explain why someone behaves the way they do halfway around the world.
Like a “cultural detective,” a competent leader must try to decipher how behaviors are influenced by geographical, organizational, or professional culture…or a mixture of all three.
Even then they may not have the whole answer, because they also need to understand the “individual” culture of each employee, i.e., that created by their social background, family, race, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, thinking style, character, personality, etc.
Just as Lucia Mannone may not be typical of her country, her company, or her profession, anyone she meets with around the world may well be similarly unique.
Given this complexity and uncertainty, how can a global leader possibly be effective with counterparts he or she may have never met nor ever meet?
We will explore this and related issues in the third and last Global Leader Development column to be published in the October issue of BCW.
In the meantime, if you want to discuss any of the points raised in this column, please email Jeremy Solomons directly at the email listed below.
Adler, N. (2007). International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior. Florence, KY: Cengage Learning
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications
Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (revised and expanded 2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hofner Saphiere, D. et al (2010). Cultural Detective Online Learning Series. http://www.culturaldetective.com