When is a global organisation really global? Is it when there is a good representation of offices around the world? Or when a good financial year is the result of some good joint efforts between countries and regions? Perhaps when we have a healthy expat program, and lots of global project teams? Or is it when we have consistent training programs being delivered in all regions of the business? The answer lies partly in the above; but is that enough? I think the examples listed above are all components and even outputs of a healthy global organisation; but a truly global organisation, I believe, is one that clearly understands and articulates from the board down, that they are a global organisation.
Let’s start with the board. Board Diversity has been a topic for years, both in terms of gender and race; however it makes perfect sense that as an organisation grows and enters into global markets that the role and expectations of the board become a little broader. Perhaps not with respect to the role of the board, but more with how the board can continue to engage, partner and challenge the executive in a global context rather than the boundaries of the local market. One of the benefits, and expectations, of the board is to bring a depth of experience that bolsters the effectiveness of the CEO, their team and of course their strategy. So how can a global strategy be endorsed by a board that doesn’t reflect a depth of experience in doing business beyond borders or with the depth of complexity in which the company plays?
And then there is the CEO and their leadership team. The impact of a misalignment between the board and the executive in a cultural context isn’t always obvious, especially in the heady days of breaking out and tackling new markets. It’s easy in those early days of a start up to write off failures in this context as inexperience and testing the market. But that’s a poor excuse either with or without a board experienced in conducting cross-cultural business. The leadership team, irrespective of whether it's for a start-up or a more established global organisation, has a responsibility to guide the ship through the waters of international business with a measure of experience and consistency. When this is isn’t present, it can start to be seen in poor M&A decisions or by not seeing the cultural risks when moving into new countries, even in the most basic of ways, such as; poor negotiation strategies, or upstream business development that completely misses the mark due to committing cultural faux-pas without realising it, or just playing in the wrong place at the wrong time with no experience available to tap them on the shoulder and point them in the right direction.
Do you have a shared global language?
So far we’ve focused on how the board and the executive engage with the external factors; however this focus also needs to shine inwards, and again, without a true depth of experience in what makes a global organisation tick, some big issues can arise. For example, how is the global strategic plan created and communicated? Is the assumption made that if the plan is created through an Anglo lens and pushed out in the way you’d expect in an Anglo environment, that everyone will embrace it? Anyone who has worked, or led in a multi-national has probably experienced the 'flying under the radar syndrome'; when a new plan or direction pushed out by the HQ country is not embraced or adopted in the way that they would like in the country network. One of the most common mistakes, for example, is the assumption that all Anglo countries will pull in the same direction as they are perceived to be culturally similar. There is some truth to this, but the reality is that when analysed from a national culture perspective, Anglo countries are all identical in that competition and autonomy are culturally important tendencies from the perspective of Prof Geert Hofstede’s 6 D cultural analysis and therefore fall into one of Huib Wursten’s 7 country clusters of ‘Competition’. Knowing this critical piece of information would mean that the creation and roll out of any plan would seek to engage and involve each country and be very explicit in how each country would benefit rather than being laid back and making the assumption “well, they’re like us, they’ll get it!”
Now we are starting to explore the influence of leadership on the way business gets done throughout the organisation. There are many aspects to this, but what we do know through many studies and our own experiences gained from working in global learning functions, consulting to global project teams and coaching expats around the world; there is knowing what you have to do, but being a truly global organisation means that you know how to do it! Just as we highlighted above with the how the board can bring value in mentoring the executive in how to work in a global context, this in turn filters down via the leadership to the teams and individuals charged with actually doing it on a daily basis.
This influence can be seen in how global learning practices are deployed, how expat knowledge is transferred before, throughout and after the assignment, and in how energy and information flows across borders and despite borders. The more transactional and clunky the efforts, the more likely the organisation is still learning how to make sense of being global, and it may also be a direct reflection of the relationship between the board and the leadership in this context. As it gets easier, it could be likened to moving through the stages of competence, to the point of being unconsciously competent; though I’m not sure that this stage is ever fully realised in a global organisation; but perhaps if that’s the goal, the clunkiness and transactional nature of being global can be tolerated a little more as the organisation works hard to get there.
Being a global organisation is one thing. Knowing how to be global is quite another, and I think an undervalued and often misunderstood element of being a truly global organisation.
Of course there are many more strands to this story, and it's not really 'the last word'...but if there is anything that I hope to leave you with, it’s this. Don't start the development of your global strategy at the level of HR, OD or Operations. It needs to start with the Board, the CEO and their leadership group. When it comes to global business success, the relationship between the board and the organisations leadership group can easily be considered a lynch pin relationship. The very nature of that relationship impacts the perspective of the CEO and their team, which in turn influences strategy and the organisational frame of reference with respect to what being global means to them.
Author: David Morley
This is has been updated from an original post in 2016, published on LinkedIn and at www.pontevalle.com
The ability to lead and manage across borders is an indispensable leadership quality. The way business and business growth is trending, combined with new ways of thinking about how we work driven by Covid-19, it’s highly likely that a majority of tomorrows leaders will experience leading teams, functions or businesses largely comprised of virtual and globally dispersed teams. This isn’t restricted to the more well developed industrial nations either; many large manufacturers, IT and services organisations are busy investing in emerging economies, which represents a whole new way of organisational thinking and in turn leadership behaviours to ensure success. In fact the organisational approach and the leadership behaviours that underpin success in a global context are very much the same and evolve around three key criteria:
Organisational. As an organisation, the ability to create a culture and practice of genuine collaboration is critical. Many M&A’s and expansions into new countries stumble or fail because more effort is invested into protecting and defending territorial patches and ‘old’ ways of thinking, rather than relaxing the mostly psychological boundaries and allowing energy to flow between teams, functions and countries. But collaboration doesn’t just happen. If time is invested up front to create strategic alignment between the impacted leadership groups, followed by a short process of creating a shared vision of what successful collaboration looks like, along with a framework or supporting leadership charter, then you have done more than most companies in enabling organisational collaboration. Beyond that think about how you embed collaboration into your systems; do you reward, recognise or incentivise collaboration? Is collaboration a performance measure of the executive team? Is there an expectation of visible collaboration between the board and the executive team?
Leadership. Fostering collaboration is difficult if it doesn’t feel supported or safe to do so. If there isn’t an organisational approach to enabling collaboration, then it falls to the leader to make it happen; and this is more about mindset than skill.
The actual ‘doing’ of collaboration isn’t so difficult; it’s the thought process that precedes the behaviour that makes or breaks collaboration at a leadership level. If a leader is able to relax the boundaries that separate them from their team, and their team or function from the rest of the organisation, they open up the gates for energy to flow and the exploration of different ideas held around how the work can get done. As we know, this comes back to the level of self-confidence and awareness of the leader to see the benefits of letting go; so what are your organisational development opportunities for leaders in this area?
Organisational. We tend to think of communication on an individual level, and there is no doubting the role that leadership communication plays in reinforcing the trust required for cross-border success. But like collaboration at an organisational level, there is an organisational responsibility to create an environment where conversations are encouraged, feedback is highly regarded and distance is no barrier. The last one should be the easiest from a technological perspective, but it is the supporting organisational capability plan that will ensure people know how to use and optimise communication technologies. The intersection of the organisational capability strategy with the internal communications and broader strategic plan will also help highlight the types, intensity and frequency of communication required to ensure the broader goal of successful global working is achieved. As we are seeing today with the sudden introduction of mass remote working, it's not enough to have ad-hoc measures and then learn on the run, which is the experience right now for many companies. Think ahead, think company-wide, and think systemically about how you create communication strategies that enable, and encourage, meaningful conversations in a safe ad supportive environment.
Leadership. In a multi-national environment, a leaders ability to use communication as a key leadership tool is critical, especially if they are leading people in another city or country. Unlike the leader who sees their team everyday, the ability to ‘walk the talk’ takes on a whole new meaning. Whilst ever a leader is thinking in mono then there isn’t the likelihood of inspired thinking or discretionary behaviour from their people. When we are thinking in mono, our behaviour is quite lineal and we miss the opportunity to connect with people beyond the transactional. Once leaders think in stereo or even in surround sound, their words and actions have the ability to be everywhere and live on in the minds of their people. And this is what the global leader needs to perfect – to be able to paint pictures with their words in such a way that if their team can’t see what they mean in person, they can clearly imagine it and be motivated by the possibilities of what the picture represents. Language training is certainly important, but this goes beyond being bi-lingual. There is a deeper aspect related to the self-esteem and confidence of the leader that does more to undermine effective global-minded thinking and connection than almost anything else. So what is the plan for providing coaching and development in this area that allows for those leaders who need it to grow in a safe and face-saving fashion?
Organisational. Global leadership at its best is supported by an organisation that clearly understands and internally articulates the fact that it is global. This articulation can be seen in the following ways:
In other words, if the organisation were a person, it would know who it is (a global creature) and be very comfortable with who they are. It’s not always easy to reach this stage, especially for those companies in the early to mid stages of international growth; the teenagers of the global business community. However it is attainable, and necessary, for the organisation to be able to support their leaders in driving the culturally aware organisation. But it also means that the board in these situations need to carry a depth of experience and a willingness to nurture the organisation when needed in supporting it's evolution as a global-thinking organisation.
Leadership. Culturally aware organisations create and communicate strong messages of inclusiveness and speaking with one voice starting with the board and the executive leadership teams. The national make up of these groups is only one factor that can create an immediate impression of organisational cultural awareness. What is more important is the quality of their actions and the way in which they lead. Do they actively promote and encourage collaboration and cultural diversity? For example, speaking a shared language when more than one or two countries are represented in a meeting or respecting time zones when setting international meetings. If little things like this aren’t done at the most senior levels of leadership, then it’s not likely it’s being done down throughout the organisation. The potency of leadership at this level is critical to ensuring the right messages are cascaded down through all leadership levels regarding cross-border leadership.
Dropping down into the organisation, the same principles apply, just in a different way. For a business leader, this doesn’t mean being able to speak all of the languages of the people in their team. This is about understanding the ways of working of the people in your team, and what behaviours or rituals are important to observe and incorporate into the team’s way of working. Like collaboration, it’s not something that comes naturally to all leaders, especially those who are leading for the first time in a global capacity. This is where the strength of message from senior leaders and the supporting organisational frameworks are critical in helping leaders in more complex situations. It also means that teaming and the way teaming occurs is a little bit different, and works more with understanding and creating shared values and ways of working rather than the more traditional behavioural teaming approaches.
Think Holistic. Think Integrated. Think Long Term
When going global, leadership development is only one part of the equation. To really set our organisations up for global success it is about seeking full integration between:
1. What we want our leaders to do, and
2. The organisational measures we have in place to enable our leaders to do it well.
It's also about playing for the long game. It's about knowing that you are developing the next generation of leaders who will be adapting to the volatility of business on a more frequent basis than we are today.
In an everyday leadership environment this is important. In a global leadership context - it is critical.
Author: David Morley
David is developer of global-minded leaders, teams and businesses.
...the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is always relative to the willingness and ability of the people involved to be vulnerable.
Trust gained through being vulnerable is not a natural preference for those of us in the Anglo world, but it is probably the door through which we can stand to gain the most in our business and personal relationships.
Based on the national culture research of Prof Geert Hofstede, we know that close to three quarters of the world is Collectivist. In other words…it’s about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Group harmony is a central theme, and trust is built based on ‘who’ you are as much (if not more than) ‘what’ you do. There is a level of implicit vulnerability in this way of being as it means sharing who you are, spending time ‘being’ with others, listening, and putting your own wants, needs and desires to one side whilst you consider and value the wants, needs and desires of the group. Based on this description, you can probably guess that Asia, the Middle East and pockets of Eastern Europe and South America fall into this dimension of culture. It is also said that how you are introduced to a work group in Asia or the Middle East, is critical, because the work group is seen as an extension of the family group. You aren’t just being introduced to any other team, you are being introduced to ‘my’ team; my ‘family’.
This is not a natural way of being for Individualist cultures such as Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada or the UK. In an Individualist culture ‘it’s about me not we’! It’s about me being acknowledged for my needs, wants and desires. Alongside this is the focus we have on the task and achieving the task, often at the expense (or in spite of) the relationship. It’s little wonder that most money made in team building is probably made in Individualist countries!
However, it’s also important to note that neither the Collectivist or Individualist way is better than the other. They are what they are and work still gets done; but when the cultures come together in a highly multi-cultural society or in global teams, understanding this concept, and knowing how to adapt your approach, can be a career-saver!
Beyond this though, in the Anglo business world we also know that vulnerability is a concept, and practice, that can help bind a team and lift performance in a mono-culture environment. How do we know this? Look at the focus on helping leaders learn how to engage with their people through development programs and executive/leadership coaching. Consider the metrics we see in engagement surveys that focus on trust and the way leaders create environments conducive to trust and engagement. Are we in effect asking our leaders to consider some Collectivist practices and create the feeling of family? A place where we may not always like each other, but we have a relationship built over time that allows us to relax our individual boundaries, share what we really think, what really motivates us or scares us?
The heart of genuine engagement is about being able to move beyond being on task with each other. It’s about being able to relax our boundaries, and to experience connection and true collaboration based on a platform of professional intimacy.
And therein lies both the dilemma and the opportunity...the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is always relative to the willingness and ability of the people involved to be vulnerable.
Being able to engage, influence and lead effectively across borders was once considered one of the new frontiers of leadership as globalisation started to take effect. Now it seems there is almost an assumption that if you work in a global organisation, and are an effective leader in your home country that this will automatically translate into being an effective leader in a different country or across a region. But that’s not normally the case, as I’ve found when coaching many leaders who have found themselves in this position.
So, what are the characteristics of being an effective global leader? In my experience, there are three dimensions to consider that have underpinned the success of those leaders I’ve worked with who are achieving good results beyond borders. By contrast, I would also suggest that they are many of the missing elements for those I’ve coached who aren’t performing as well as they would like at this level. These three dimensions are:
Let’s take a brief look at what these dimensions comprise.
This is the ability and desire to:
This is the ability and desire to:
This is the ability and desire to:
These dimensions are highly interdependent, for example, you can be quite open to taking in new experiences (Perceptual Awareness) but not be so interested in engaging with your new surrounds (Relational Awareness). I see this when strong technical leaders who have spent many years working as an individual contributor, and have a preference for taking in what's going on around them, but not really wanting to engage with it, find themselves in an expat or global leadership role and suddenly having to lead or influence peers across the globe. Engaging with others in their home country probably presented enough challenges without the complexity of having to do it in a global setting!
Then there are leaders who have average to well-developed levels of Perceptual and Relational Awareness, but have lower levels of Self-Awareness, and are unable to cope effectively with the stresses that come with having to perform and lead in a foreign environment. Working in these environments can allow lower levels of self-esteem and confidence to manifest as stress and negatively impact what could potentially be a positive experience.
You’ll also notice that I’ve not referred to technical competence. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important; it’s just that rarely is it the reason that I find myself coaching global leaders. In fact, I can only think of a couple of occasions when part of the challenge for a global leader has been technical competence. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen more frequently, however it’s the behaviours relating to the ‘global self’ that are mostly the reason for poor performance than technical competence.
The good news is that these dimensions can be measured and developed providing the global leader with a window to their ‘global self’; which is a good thing for the leader and the organisation when we consider the high turnover rates of expats either during their assignment or within eighteen months of returning. But even if the only thing you do is take the time to reflect on where you think you sit on these dimensions, you’ve already taken the first step towards developing your ‘global self’ and enhancing your effectiveness as a global leader, no matter your starting point!
“Organisational Urgency”. This is what I refer to as the inclination of organisations that belong to the anglo-sphere part of the world, to want to push through and get a winning outcome quickly, expediently and sometimes at the expense perhaps of taking the time to get a better or more appropriate outcome.
On the surface that seems a pretty big call; or is it?
For some time now I’ve been in the unique position to observe the behaviours of people in a number of global organisations in the context of collaboration and working together, and I’ve noticed an interesting pattern of behaviours that also reflects the work and research of Prof Geert Hofstede and his work on cultural dimensions; in particular the dimensions of Short Term vs Long Term Outlook and Masculine (tough, results oriented) vs Feminine (tender, relationship oriented).
The research tells us that anglo-countries are more short term focussed; we demand results now. So we have a natural drive to get started, to hit those milestones and show results sooner rather than later. Interestingly, another aspect of being short term focussed is that we are quite normative (holding on to past/current values or ways of doing things). This presents a genuine dichotomy, because in many cases to achieve results quickly there is usually a requirement for change. But that doesn’t seem to come as a natural or easy process for societies that struggle to let go of ‘the way we do things around here’, hence the need and focus on change plans. In fact, John Kotter’s eight-step change methodology probably plays a bigger role than we realise in this context. The first of his steps address the need for a burning platform for change, and a strong guiding coalition that is able to sell the reason for change; I believe that these first steps may have some of their roots in the fact that this methodology was written through an anglo lens, and whether he realised it or not, identified the fact that at a deep cultural values level, we probably do need change to be sold to us.
We also belong to what can be described as a ‘tough’ culture, or as Hofstede describes, a ‘Masculine’ culture; one where winning is the focus. Where the acknowledgement or showing of status is central, task comes before relationships and win-lose is more natural than win-win.
Without even focusing on the nature of relationships that exist between countries or members of global teams, we can see the impact that being short term and tough culture oriented has on the way we work within our own anglo cluster of countries. In particular it tends to impact in the areas of Collaboration and Organisational/Leadership Approach as shown below:
Do we take the necessary time to fully explore and analyse before leaping to action? Probably not. In fact, we like to get in, get started and get those ‘quick wins’ to show we are making progress. This means that we can miss out on taking the time to understand who our key stakeholders really are, build genuine relationships, and often we uncover ‘invisible’ stakeholders when it’s too late! And what about assumptions? When a group is culturally influenced around the drive for results and action, there can be the tendency to act on assumption, rather than take the time to validate and assess our assumptions, or only go part of the way in the interests of getting on with the job. We tend to see this play out in global teams, when it’s clear that the source of conflict or communication breakdown is cultural, yet we lean on assumption (or stereo-typing) and react to the behaviour we see rather than taking the time to understand what is motivating the behaviour.
Organisational and Leadership Approach:
Similar to the above point, being results driven, and with a strong leaning towards short term orientation, we can see why the maximising of shareholder value and creating competitive advantage are often top of mind in the anglo-sphere; but does this mean we are closing our eyes to the other elements of being a good corporate citizen, such as being an ethical organisation, integrating corporate social performance factors that acknowledge the interplay between the organisation and its employees and the community within which it operates? Are we potentially missing the opportunity to develop a competitive advantage in ways we hadn’t thought of before? Or are we just creating more opportunities for the shareholder to ultimately determine the philosophical drive of an organisation which can end badly; think Enron or more recently the 7-Eleven franchise holders who exploited workers to ensure their businesses stayed afloat.
At the same time, we also know that in any group there are cultural outliers, whose personal cultural preference is different to that of their country norms. In this case there will be those who have a preference for the long view, and those who prefer a more consensual (tender) approach rather than the tough win-lose mentality. Think about how you can identify and leverage these mindsets and abilities to bring new possibilities to the way you do business.
I saw an example of this recently with a client based in Australia which is a part of a French headquartered organisation. We know that people will usually work with an organisation where they feel their personal values align with the culture of the organisation. In this situation, with France being quite long term oriented, we found in a teaming event for a new global project team, that the Australian and UK team members were as long-term oriented as their French colleagues and this was reflected in the way the team connected and viewed the challenges ahead of them on the project from a longer term perspective. Of course this can present challenges in a different way when the group has to get traction and deliver milestones in quick fashion…that’s when some Organisational Urgency may be needed!
The idea of Organisational Urgency does exist, and it has cultural foundations that underpin the way the people in an organisation view themselves, the organisation and the way they do their work. The challenge for those working in countries which tend towards Organisational Urgency is to make it work for you whilst at the same time finding ways to step back and reconcile expediency with a more rounded ethical corporate outlook, and balancing the short term desire with the benefits of a long term outlook.
So often in business, particularly on the people side of things, we can get so caught up in theories, concepts and frameworks that we miss the obvious. Take cultural diversity for example. Cultural diversity isn't difficult to get right when you see people for who they are, and not what they are. We are all are mums, dads, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts. We all have thoughts and emotions, and we feel. It's probably safe to say that we all just want to get on with things at work and get the job done; and depending on where you are from, how the job gets done may vary a little (or a lot!).
But smart companies get that this is the sweet spot...the differentiator between what's done and what's possible.
David Morley was interviewed by InsideHR to get his thoughts on what it takes to get cross-cultural M&A's right...you can read the interview here:
I was speaking with a colleague recently who is developing an organisational framework to support the transition of their business from that of domestic to regional with a longer-term eye on going truly global. They are aiming to develop the idea of a global mindset within their people and systems of work, and the framework they described was robust, catering for all the classical elements of going global. Leadership and capability development integrating with mobility policies and seeking to involve as many of their people as possible in a clearly understood and shared definition of what a global mindset means for their business.
It all sounded so positive, and yet I had this strong nagging feeling as I left the conversation that there was something missing, something important. And it hit me; it was this whole idea of ‘frame of reference’ and how to expand the perspective of their employees who may never have even travelled outside of their own state or country. This is always one of the greatest challenges when developing a global outlook for an organisation and something that needs to be conveyed in the most practical way possible. My experience over the past 15 years has been very consistent with the research that suggests that the development of our beliefs and values is mostly driven through experiences and exposure to life. Even the most experienced of expatriates can sometimes find themselves unprepared for their next assignment despite having a number of assignments under their belt, and of course there is reverse culture shock which also reminds us that no matter how well travelled we are, our return is often bumpier than the departure.
So what does this all mean? As robust a model you are aiming to create, the reality is that the way we see ourselves in the context of the world is never a complete known and an imperfect process. So a robust model is great, but try not to seek perfection. If you were to ask me, a perfect model is one that is continually evolving to suit and support the changing needs of an organisation. It may be grounded in strong theoretical frameworks and policy, but it has an interface which is practical, intuitive and responsive. Practical in a way that provides experiential learning and preparation, and that challenges underlying assumptions around culture and ways of working. Not just for the expat and their family, but for their new manager and colleagues as well. Expatriation is a multi-dimensional process, yet we so often only focus on what is immediately in front of us. Intuitive from the perspective that no matter how well prepared we think may be; we are human. Intuitive systems that provide nurture and support resilience throughout the lifecycle of the assignment are critical. Intuitive also from the perspective that the framework is designed in the knowledge that there are peaks and troughs of energy and motivation as the expatriate and their family deal with transition throughout the length of the assignment. And finally, responsive, by ensuring that a key part of the HR business partner tool kit is knowing how to anticipate the peaks and troughs and work with this for the good of the expatriate, their family and their team.
But what about those people left behind, who may not actually live and work abroad, but are expected to work with colleagues from around the world?
The same principles apply; create an experiential, intuitive and responsive process. Experiential learning that allows them to learn more about working virtually whilst they also reflect on and expand their own belief system when it comes to working with different cultures. Given they aren’t working abroad, the ability to reinforce this on a daily basis isn’t so strong and this is where the intuitive element of support needs to be stronger. Anticipate for these people, unless they have worked and lived abroad, that for them it isn’t quite real. That their colleagues are voices at the end of a phone line, keystrokes at the other end of an email or a two dimensional figure on a video conference. Create opportunities to connect frequently through technology, and to share more of who they are rather than what they do. Virtual teaming is a necessity for these people, and yet it is so often overlooked. Equip the team manager with skills to anticipate and spot when the virtual team is flagging in energy, but also give them the tools and techniques (along with their HR partners) to revive flagging energy in the remote team. This is about understanding and reducing the psychological distance despite the physical distance – and it is possible.
What it all boils down to is this.
Our frameworks need to be grounded in good research and theory; there is no doubt about this. But theory and frameworks don’t help anyone if they can’t be translated into a meaningful process of practice that actually helps someone do their job. In the world of mobility this takes on an extra layer of importance, because the way we see ourselves reflects on the way we see the world. So the ability to create experiences and practices that impact on beliefs and behaviours are critical both to virtual team collaboration and the general performance of expatriate and mobility programs.
We often hear the term 'flying below the radar' in global organisations. It’s a catch cry that tends to originate from the non-HQ countries in multi-nationals who don’t necessarily see the benefit of doing what HQ is asking of them and so they go rogue…fly under the radar…and get on with business in a way that makes sense to them.
But are they really going rogue? And could the notion of 'flying under the radar' really be a misplaced assumption that does more damage than good when seeking to build stronger global approaches to working?
To make sense of how this could happen (either the assumption or the reality), and therefore be positioned to make some different decisions, we need to get to the heart of why we feel the need to fly under the radar. The answer could be simpler than we realise; not that it may make it any easier to deal with in some circumstances. In the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (Hofstede, Hofstede, Minkov: 2010), there are many ideas offered that shed light on the topic; in this article we will look at two of them in brief.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Management policy, techniques or directives formulated in one country, through a particular cultural lens may not be so suitable for all countries in the network. How often do we see it that a single way of working (or conducting business) is identified, and then combined into a nice looking booklet or powerpoint presentation, and then massed produced and pushed out to all countries in the network, sometimes accompanied with training and additional resources. Not long after frustrations tend to surface due to lack of take up, or we suspect that the whilst the dashboard or metrics may look good, we are hearing that this isn’t really what’s happening on the ground. In these situations two things tend to occur. Either we push harder and force people to explain show what they are doing (think forcing a square peg into a round hole!) or we review the way the initiative was implemented, in most cases, through a change management lens. And whilst this provides some insight, there is an additional lens that we often fail to acknowledge that could have positively impacted the implementation. National culture.
Let’s use an example most of us can relate to; annual performance objectives and appraisals. Management by objectives based approaches may work perfectly fine in cultures where it is culturally acceptable to sit down and explore – or even negotiate – with your manager around what your objectives will be throughout the year, and then in the annual appraisal be given a voice and a right to reply regarding your rating. In other cultures though where the reliance on hierarchy is significant, and top down leadership is the accepted norm, there isn’t an accompanying mindset or in many cases a developed skill set to make an approach like this work. Not that there’s anything wrong with this; it just isn’t a natural (or in some cases known) way of working. So it makes more sense to fly under the radar; offer up some lip service to HQ and tell them that the new way of doing appraisals is working, and then just get on with business as usual. Whilst I’m using the example of appraisals here, there have been many other situations I’ve seen over the years relating to global standardization of business processes where the ability to fly under the radar becomes a refined art form, and perhaps an unspoken means of survival in the network.
Enabling Cross-Cultural Interaction
The second element is the way in which things are communicated from HQ out to the countries in the network. Again, our cultural lens plays a role in how we communicate a message. Is it from a top down position, or a more collaborative, or ‘on the level’ position. Are we providing the right amount of detail or too much detail? Just as importantly, is how the receiver would prefer to receive the message so that we enable them to respond. Think about your culture and natural ways of communicating; how will this style be received in a different country? Just as we think about the influence of our individual personalities on how we communicate within our teams or with colleagues, the same principle applies with intercultural communication. The key is as much about understanding who is sending the message, as it is who will be receiving the message.
To highlight this point, you only need to think of those times when you have felt a deep sense of discomfort with what is being asked of you. For those in a culture where hierarchy, power and collectivist thinking are accepted pillars of society, being asked to challenge up line, provide negative or critical feedback will not come easy; not because there isn’t any independent thought on the topic, rather, the means to offer such feedback may not be as well developed as in a more egalitarian society where debate and challenging the norm is culturally accepted. This leads to flying under the radar from a compliance and respect perspective; not wanting to offend and to save face. It is likely that it could also be originating from a position of wanting to maintain harmony in the relationship with HQ.
If we reverse the above example, and the communication originated from a country that holds hierarchy and societal power to be core cultural elements, there will still be a measure discomfort and an increased desire to ‘fly under the radar’ in more egalitarian and individualist countries, however more from a rebellious perspective.
What’s important to understand is that neither of these approaches are better than the other; they both have advantages and disadvantages; but understanding a little bit about the cultural ways of being will help tremendously when working out a change or communication strategy for more than one country.
In the above examples I have only considered two or three of the six dimensions researched and created by Prof Hofstede and other intercultural experts that are available to us when exploring how we can improve performance between countries and reduce the instances of ‘flying under the radar'.
Yet immediately it is possible to start seeing how one way of thinking doesn’t translate into all ways of thinking. We also have the generational impact to consider, as we do the fact that there are always outliers in any system or culture. This simply reinforces the importance of understanding who will be receiving your message; building a rapport with your audience on both the relational level and around the message you want to send. When we remember that the way we think drives our behaviour, then it makes sense that purely focusing on the behavioural and aesthetic aspects of implementing a large scale initiative will not be enough to drive the change or engagement you are looking for.
The good news? In my experience, taking some time out during the design phase of a new initiative to understand the countries and cultures who will be receiving the message, and therefore the way in which they would prefer to receive the message, can save you a lot of bother down the track. In global organisations there is an inevitability that faux pas’ will happen; this is almost a given. However a couple of hours exploring, and seeking to understand more about the cultures and people from which we want something, tends to yield greater tolerance when things go wrong, along with heightened engagement and performance.
Are you a mountain or a valley when it comes to your leadership style? Depending in which country or countries you are leading, you may require more mountain, more valley or a little of both.
Let’s explore this idea a little further.
Mountains are big, solid, easy to see and imposing. They are also vulnerable. They are exposed to all of the elements; many are barren and being a mountain is more often than not lonely. In time, due to this exposure, many mountains crumble or have large pieces break away. As a leader if your style is more mountain then you have probably identified with many of these characteristics; you feel as though you have to be strong, solid and dependable and stand out from the rest of the group and perhaps take on more than you should to get things done. In some countries this may be acceptable, and in others a non-negotiable way of leading. In countries where hierarchy and power are central to daily and organisational life you need to be more mountain, and be seen to hold your place in the hierarchy. Most of Asia, France, many eastern European and South American countries fall into this category.
Irrespective of which country you apply mountain leadership behaviours, there are consequences of this behaviour; just as the mountain has landslides and in time breaks down, the same can be said for our physical and emotional well-being. We start to worry more than usual about what others think – which is natural when you are working hard to stand out from the rest. The biggest consequence is that we can push people away rather than bring them with us, which in turn creates not only the power of the role, but the solitude that comes with a mountain.
Through western eyes this is often considered an unacceptable way of leading; but in the context of the country from which the culture originates, it’s not for other nationalities to judge; rather it is about understanding and seeing it as an evolved way of leading for that culture.
That then explains why if you are using more mountainous leadership behaviours in countries where the key word is ‘empowerment’, then you probably won’t be getting the results you want. In these countries, where hierarchy isn’t considered as important, we tend to see behaviours that are more representative of a valley. Effective leaders in this context look to their people for solutions and are approachable – and they are usually more effective connectors. Whether it is the ability to lead a cross-functional or multi-national team, be an effective business partner or guide a collaborative organisation – all of these require the ability to connect with people and to connect people. This is exactly what a valley does. A valley is the ultimate connector. Two or three grand mountain systems can all be connected by the one valley that weaves its way around and through the tall and imposing features.
Is a valley any weaker than a mountain? No. In some ways it could be considered stronger given that it doesn’t have the same exposure to the elements and receives the rich nutrients than flow down from the mountains into its creeks and rivers. It is able to derive the best of every mountain that it comes in contact with, and for this reason, it is in the valley where the soil is the most fertile. There is cross-pollination, and an abundance of life. Most Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures tend toward the valley way of leading. However just as the mountain can crumble, the valley can flood. Leaders who lean more towards the valley style can find themselves overwhelmed and drowning simply because it is just as acceptable for a manager to get in help out with the troops, or take on more of a workload to ease the pain of the team. In other words, become a rescuer.
So just as the mountain way of leading isn’t so palatable for the westerner, neither is the valley seen as being very applicable by those who lean towards mountain behaviours. Again, it is purely contextual and must be recognised that it is a style of leadership that has evolved for that environment.
Having said all this, it’s important to realise that from a national culture context, neither the mountain nor the valley leadership styles are better than the other; they each perform well in their given context. Where it gets interesting is when you are leading people from different countries and cultures. When this is the situation, it’s not about giving up who you are; it’s about being comfortable in your own skin whilst you adapt your style to suit the culture or country that you are working with.
At the end of the day, it's worth considering that some days you may need to be the mountain, some days the valley, and others you are a plateau at 2000 metres. Either way it’s about choosing the path of least resistance to achieving engagement despite borders.