Coaching leaders into cross-cultural jobs

March 12, 2018

Cross-cultural preparedness starts with developing the right mindset. Future expats must become aware that in the new job, their network, familiarity with the social, market and legal environment will be impaired, their instructions will trigger unexpected behaviours, their confidence will suffer and after work, boxed-up possessions and an anxious family will wait at home. But the primary risk factor isn’t ‘culture’, mislabeled relocation boxes or angry spouses — it’s the candidate himself. And to turn that hard realisation into opportunity, leaders need professional support.

 

Most firms select expat leaders based on technical competency and willingness, with an often complete disregard for personality or cultural agility. Candidates are put through last-minute cultural crash-courses while already overwhelmed. It’s understandable that their bosses have higher priorities, but the human aspect of career transitions can only be postponed, not ignored. Whether internal or external, coaches are the ideal companions on such stressful journeys. Companies should involve them more often so that their expat leaders can focus on essential business.

“Am I even suitable to be a CEO?” my client exclaimed at the first session. We both knew it was too late to ask, and in reality he had no second thoughts about the job. He was determined (and soon succeeded) to be a great CEO, but running a several thousand-strong manufacturing operation in a culturally challenging and rapidly changing country was lightyears away from his comfort zone. In famed coach Marshall Goldsmith’s words, ‘What got you here won’t get you there’. Overseas postings are even trickier, because the talents, skills and experience that got you so far will get you over there, but then may let you down. Most people in such a position start second-guessing.

 

Behavioural research on cross-cultural leadership shows how to separate perception from reality. Under cultural pressure, an ancient alarm centre in our brain (the amygdala) activates, making us look for hostile sources of our distress. The result is cultural bias, which cannot be ‘learned away’ by reading books and taking courses on the local culture. Amygdala reactions are conditioned responses that need a behavioural solution — we need to overwrite the neural pathways of old habits with new ones. The price of such freedom from counterproductive old habits is eternal vigilance and a bit of time to engineer new responses.

 

Know your own ‘culture’ first

Successful global leaders start months ahead of time to prepare themselves, their teams and families for transitions. They collect information about their new teams, including nationalities as well as professional and personal backgrounds, age, gender and a general ‘feel’ based on writing style and photos. Performance and personality profiles accelerate the preparation tremendously. When I coach leaders in this phase, I also advise them to build mutual chemistry by reaching out to future colleagues. But the riskiest moving part isn’t either of these elements: it’s the transitioning leader himself. How someone adapts to challenging cultural environments is determined above all by personality.

 

This doesn’t imply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ personality types for expat assignments — it simply points at various optional styles. Almost all incoming expats I coach experience a period of self-doubt and regret. A new environment, job, team, hierarchy and responsibilities can shake anyone’s confidence. Leaders who accept this gracefully can better identify their main personality traits, the most likely coping strategy they imply, and whether it will work or needs adjustment. Since the leader is busy with professional preparations, a coach can share the burden of collecting and analysing data, creating predictions and strategies for the new assignment.  

 

Prepare a cultural startup plan

Focusing on personality, gender, age and personal history is time better spent than reading about the destination culture, because they are stronger predictors of future problems and solutions. First, understanding a new culture takes years, while we can bond with people in a few months. Neither is it sure that conflict will come from the local culture: in a management team I coached in Asia, the main spat was between a German and an Italian member. Can we just forget about the local culture? Surely not: many global teams fail by ignoring cultural diversity. But expat leaders have neither the time nor the exposure to become skilled in the nuances, so I suggest starting with a ‘3+3’ approach: learn to say 3 greetings and to avoid 3 essential taboos of the local culture, then move on to business.


If a leader has done the homework on the team’s personality and job profiles, she only needs to fine-tune it with a behavioural element. The same percentage of people are born extroverts in Japan and Brazil, but in Asia, curiosity and affability often remain hidden potential. Coaches help expats match their own character with that of team members and the local culture, and calibrate communication, problem solving, delegation, motivation and conflict management accordingly. They also apply systems like Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to predict challenges and find solutions. Finally, experienced coaches help keep ‘culture’ in the background where it belongs — an exciting element in a complex process with higher priorities.

 

Build a second nature

Trust is the key to any successful team, but cross-cultural situations are complicated by our instinct to distrust people who are different. I coach expat leaders to initially put culture on the back seat and focus on shared factors such as personality and business goals, because this speeds up the process of forming a community. Once trust emerges and communication channels widen, people will start ‘teaching’ each other about their respective cultures without reminders. Meanwhile, I coach the leader to sooth the inevitable amygdala responses to ‘these Koreans’ or ‘those Brits’ — natural reactions that we must tame, like the urge to smash the phone when we hear bad news.

 

Out of the countless ways to curb unwanted behavioural responses and create productive ones, my favourite is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Week after week of coaching, we discuss re-occurrences of the participant’s culture-shock reactions, which we practise to see calmly through personality-induced styles. Duhigg called this a “cue”. Then, we recall the agreed substitute reactions, and create strategies to use them better. My CEO client’s dilemma was his naturally supportive style as opposed to his predecessor’s dominant one. But as it turned out after observing the team, his natural style was more suitable to the local culture anyway. Once we get to that point in coaching, leaders easily answer the questions they asked at the beginning.

 

Read next: Cross-cultural leadership skills are not what you think

 

 

 

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