• Gabor Holch

Cross-cultural leadership skills are not what you think

Corporate leaders are sent abroad to get things done, but they often create more problems than they solve. Wondering why their best people succeed in one location and fail in another, firms habitually conclude that the challenge is cultural, and provide leaders with ‘cultural skills’ — generalisations at best and cartoonish clichés at their worst, with little relevance to solving professional problems. Blaming challenges on national peculiarities, expat leaders often fail (scared, perhaps?) to look at the fundamental factors that make or break a diverse team’s success.

When I started coaching Chris in a challenging overseas post, he realised he had become the ‘quick-fix guy’ to laggard branches globally. Great communicators rise fast in introverted professions like finance, law and engineering, and he was a superbly eloquent expert. But he also worried about a career rut. Shaking up one problematic unit after another, then moving on — where would this lead him? He felt he was a star mechanic, fighting the clock to build genuine intercultural teams but never quite succeeding. His story repeats at multinational companies, who carefully plan relocation and projects, but hope that human relations between diverse teams and new leaders will somehow develop organically.

Recent research shows that while sending leaders on challenging assignments across cultural divisions, companies tend to look in the wrong place both for the root causes of problems and their solutions. The ‘culture’ of a country is an illusion because even the tiniest states are complex environments with ethnic, social and personal diversity. But understanding a place’s culture wouldn’t secure success in leadership even if it were possible. There is mounting evidence that factors much stronger than national characteristics determine the success of culturally diverse teams, and therefore global leaders need to focus on those.

Awareness: What’s in your baggage?

The first thing to understand is that while an expat leader might have been chosen for his superb track record, he will struggle in a new environment. The better the record, the bigger the culture shock, because previous successes relied on the network, knowledge and confidence that now need to be rebuilt from ground up. Studies show that such situations trigger reactions similar to hunters or soldiers being in danger zones: the brain’s threat centre called amygdala fires up, making the environment (this time, other humans) seem unpredictable and suspicious. However disturbing, leaders must acknowledge such natural ‘foreign-phobia’, which needs to be addressed like any other fear.

As Dr. Hans W. Hagemann shows in The Leading Brain, amygdala-induced stress simplifies the world into ‘us and them’, consequently we easily interpret unusual behaviour as personal attack under cultural pressure. But neuroscience also proves that culture shock is developed (not innate) and can be re-trained. To do that, leaders must consider the ‘baggage’ they bring to the existing social interactions within the team (what Dave Logan calls ‘tribes’), rather than focusing on the vague concept of culture. At our workshops, we use personality profiles and tools such as SWOT analysis to map the leader’s relation to the team’s dynamics. For Chris, it turned out that his previous assignment was a much stronger influence than his home culture, changing the focus of his strategy as a leader.

Skills: Can you observe and adjust?

The key to successful cross-cultural leadership is self-awareness, calm and focus. That is hard at a transitional time with stuff in boxes, upset families and strangers for a team. Initially, you may try to observe and avoid mistakes. If the surrounding culture feels alien, you may get its basics from books or another expat. (Don’t ask locals: most of us cannot objectively describe our native traditions.) But don’t ruminate about culture. I advise expats I coach on a ‘3+3’ approach: know 3 greetings and 3 taboos so that you avoid stupid mistakes, then move on to business. The new team you need to understand won’t be ‘Mexican’ or ‘Japanese’ but a kaleidoscope of personalities, stories, habits and ambitions that leaders need to harness for results.

Start with the team’s basics: gender, age, profession and personality, which are stronger predictors than culture. For the latter, use a tool like StrengthsFinder or personality assessment if you have it. If you don’t, observe people for traits like dominance and extroversion. Who speaks first? Who challenges you? Who asks personal questions? Such signs are culturally independent, and set the tone of your team: from Rio to Rangoon, dominant members step up, extroverts speak up, while others may seem passive but silently forge your future. Remember Logan’s tribes: similar people flock together, so you can map an unfamiliar team from their seating arrangement. The faster you assess, the sooner you can share tasks without cultural interference. An automotive manager I coached used his multinational team’s printed team-role analysis to delegate tasks, with impressive results.

Read how you can observe personality clues: Can they figure you out in 5 minutes?

Habits: Are you strong enough to empower others?

The difference between great and poor leaders of multicultural teams isn’t cultural agility. I have seen people with impressive cultural skills but poor performance, and vice versa. Knowledge of local cultures (always in plural!) may help you build trust, but I advise to gain trust by respecting the diversity of individual character instead, get results and worry about culture later. Why? Because your team will be able to discuss and accept leadership based on personal strengths constructively, while culture can be obscure and sensitive. When you’re upset by local habits, vent to a trusted colleague or friend. As a leader, your job is to define a culture, not to follow one. Among all the silos and tribes, you must create a community where people can be themselves and thrive.

Chris, for instance, realised that by acting as an assertive problem-solver, he silenced his team, including extroverts who would otherwise volunteer. Contrary to the general belief that ‘Asians’ need strong leaders, they simply required space to speak and act. A finance director I coached discovered that in her global team, younger colleagues showed more natural potential for goal-setting than senior ones, and involved them in their planning process. While such solutions cut across tribal lines, they produce results if leaders ‘sell’ them properly. Engaging external stakeholders, for instance, is best done by extroverts. There are natural profiles for setting targets, motivating others, coordination and evaluation. A team that creates a trustful environment based on personal strengths will also be able to discuss cultural differences constructively.

We cannot change human nature or ancient cultural realities. But leaders who engage their teams through individual strengths create trust, communities and results faster than those who start by emphasising differences created by history. And that’s why we easily recognise a great global team. As a newly promoted client said: “They don’t need me any more to work together.”

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