Every day, we see more and more evidence of the world’s increasing globalisation. The toys that scatter our children’s bedrooms are from Mexico, India, and China. The cars that pass us along the highway are from Germany and Japan. The shirts that hang in our closets are from Thailand, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. The restaurants that line the city streets serve food from Ethiopia and Vietnam.
And globalisation doesn’t stop there. Experts in tech, economics, and business are leaving their home countries to manage companies around the world. As a start-up mentor, I get to meet with these business leaders to discuss their management strategies both at home and abroad. In our conversations, a common theme that comes up is not only the challenges they face when leaving their native country and culture, but also the obstacles they confront when adapting to new social and professional norms.
Finding new communication strategies
Achal Agarwal left India as a young man to start a career at PepsiCo in Guangzhou, China. He hadn’t been to China before, and he knew very little about the country. Much of the staff, comprised primarily of western expatriates, was in the same position.
Still, Agarwal quickly learned he had an advantage. Because of his background growing up in a developing country with poor infrastructure, he was able to adapt easily to the challenges of working in China. This helped him reach the position he has today, as the current president of Kimberly-Clark’s Asia Pacific operations.
Agarwal explains that his time in China taught him to be a situational leader, one who pays special attention to variations between cultures as he leads teams from around the world. As he tells HQ Asia, “The way I lead in North Asia is very different from, say, how I lead in Australia, in both style and business strategy.” While effective leadership of South Korean teams requires an emphasis on group effort, he explains that Australian audiences are more motivated when he focuses on their individual accomplishments.
Moti Cohen, CEO of Apester, also had to adapt to a new leadership style when he left Israel to run a company in New York. He agrees that developing a new communication strategy is the biggest challenge to leading a team in another country. After all, words that are acceptable in one country can come across as off-putting in another.
“In Israel,” explains Cohen, “it’s very easy to say ‘no’ to a question or request from an employee. But in America, I have to instead say ‘yes, but.’ If I respond too directly, chances are that the person in front of me will shut down and become defensive.”
As Cohen and Agarwal point out, mastering the nuances of linguistic expression are fundamental to productive cultural interaction. For business leaders, getting a positive response from their colleagues and employees means knowing how to express themselves differently for different audiences.
Making employees feel comfortable
James Aschehoug and Jean Clauteaux, co-founders of social media platform URIJI, similarly had to adapt their business strategy when they settled in South America. In 2015, James, a French and British national, quit his job and left his cosy flat in London to found a startup with his French colleague, Jean, in Caracas, Venezuela. They started their business just as the country’s economy tanked and its political situation took a turn for the worst.
"But I was in love with Venezuela. Am I the world’s worst entrepreneur?" Aschehoug jokes.
As it turned out, leading a team of local Venezuelans has been one of the highlights of his career. It wasn’t without its difficulties, though.
Just as Cohen and his colleagues had to adjust to a less blunt speaking style when they moved from Israel to the United States, Clateaux had to learn to be less confrontational when interacting with his Venezuelan employees.
"In France," he says, "we are oriented toward direct confrontation. In Venezuela, on the other hand, people prefer consensus."
His solution has been not only to tone down his speaking style, but also to create a work environment in which his employees feel comfortable and relaxed. Integrating the office space with a garden, he explains, has made the work environment more harmonious while increasing the productivity of his employees.
Pursuing a balance of cultures
Gligor Tashkovich, former minister for foreign investment in the Republic of Macedonia, also had to adjust his management strategy when moving between colleagues and employees in the U.S. and those in Macedonia. But while he acknowledges that it’s important to adjust his leadership style to fit cultural norms, he says it’s also essential to retain the aspects of his own culture that bring value to the professional space.
While working in Macedonia, Tashkovich, who is from the US, began each meeting by taking a stand against bribery and corruption - practices that are all too common among the country’s public officials.
He explains, "Every meeting I walked into, no matter whom I was meeting... I put a copy of the FCPA on the table, and I said, "I just want to let you know before we start this meeting that I have to observe the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. If this is a problem for you, I won't waste your time any further."
By rigidly insisting that their negotiations abide by US legal standards, Tashkovich was able to effectively implement an aspect of his own culture within a foreign context. While flexibility is key to managing different audiences, maintaining certain practices from one’s own culture can make for a more effective business strategy.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s strict adherence to a single set of professional norms that inhibits progress in business. As more and more company leaders manage diverse teams and negotiate with companies abroad, they learn to develop a flexible leadership style, and they adapt to different cultures while retaining the most essential elements from their own. Perhaps, it’s this strategic combination of elements drawn from different cultures that constitutes the best approach to good global leadership.
But more importantly, engaging with the business practices of different countries highlights where cultures share common ground. Even with variation in leadership strategy, values like respect and compassion, innovation, and honest communication are universally relevant. As much as leaders have to change their management strategies, they’re consistently guided by these values - and can trust that their colleagues and employees, wherever in the world they are, are guided by them, too.