As business becomes increasingly global, leaders must make pivots to earn credibility from their international colleagues and employees.
Both burgeoning and established businesses can no longer stay put. They must set down roots not just a continent’s breadth away, but worlds away. For those who’ve been called to lead globally, even the born leaders—polished, persuasive, with decades of success behind them—the landscape has been transformed.
On the surface, it may seem relatively easy to adapt.
Mastering a couple of new languages? Arduous, time-consuming, but straight-forward.
Sifting through modes of communication that may be low-context—the way most Americans, Canadians, and Western Europeans exchange words—and high-context, the “read-between-the-spoken lines” mode favored in most Asian and Mediterranean nations? Dizzying, baffling, circuitous.
The ways disparate cultures convey—or stifle—emotion while doing business, the ways they dispense praise or derision, how they perceive time and even relative distances, the methods they use to reason with or persuade their associates—run the gamut.
But those near-indecipherable differences are among hundreds of minute daily rituals that, to natives of these remote locales, are as natural as breathing in the air of their hometowns.
In her book “The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” author Erin Meyer explores international leaders making their way through a working environment that not only requires adaptation to new terrain and new languages, but deeper and far more subtle cultural differences among countries and regions.
A native Minnesotan who’s lived in Africa, Europe, and the US, Meyer has absorbed both the subtle and glaring communication glitches among world cultures and still finds new ones.
In high school, she learned that presenting to an audience was a matter of, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” Like most Americans, she learned from childhood to be as clear and explicit as possible. In high-context cultures, the reverse is true. Understatement, and what is known in Japan as “reading the air,” are common modes of communication.
There’s a similar disparity in modes of reasoning across the world. The US is just one nation among many that uses applications-first, or inductive, reasoning; we reach conclusions based on factual, real-world observations. It’s how we set out to persuade someone to take action. We focus more on the how of a situation. Some other cultures use principles-first, or deductive, reasoning, in which conclusions or facts are only derived from general principles or concepts. Your cultural background heavily influences the type of reasoning you are prone to use.
Famed cross-cultural researcher Geert Hofstede coined the term “power distance,” another metric of differences among cultures worldwide. Employees view leaders on a continuum, from egalitarian—“just one of the guys, or gals”—to hierarchical, in which the leader is nearly godlike, responsible for every decision, deferred to in every situation, and feared.
Such major shifts and understandings throughout the world are necessary to win the trust and respect of teams and clients in far-flung markets. And to reach success, winning that trust and respect is indispensable.
Lazy, fat-fingered, and slow to learn
When a Chinese billionaire set his sights on opening a branch of his automotive glass business in the shell of a long-shuttered auto plant in Dayton, Ohio, hopes were high, particularly for those Ohioans who’d been unemployed since the plant’s closing. If this plan came through, it would be a prime example of the magic globalization could conjure.
To filmgoers who have seen the 2019 Academy Award-winning documentary American Factory, the setup is familiar, and you know where it’s headed.
Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, both Dayton residents, had been on hand in 2008 to film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, a short documentary chronicling the day the plant closed for good, complete with tear-stained faces of former workers and the sullen, desolate landscape that remained.
In 2019, Reichert and Bognar released their feature-length documentary American Factory, which picked up eight years later as Chinese tycoon Cao Dewang promised to revitalize the area, bringing back some thousands of jobs to the area with Fuyao Glass America. Hundreds of Chinese workers, who solemnly—and in typical hierarchical leadership style—referred to Cao only as “the chairman,” arrived in the US to work alongside their new American peers.
A camaraderie grows between the Dayton workers and their Chinese counterparts, but there are mounting complaints from Chinese managers that Americans, spoiled by luxurious eight-hour work days and time off for weekends, aren’t keeping up with Chinese workers, who are used to 12-hour days, regimented, almost militaristic team-building chants and movements, and a focus on speed.
At the same time that Chinese overseers fret over slowed production brought on by the “lazy” Americans, whose fingers seem too fat to handle small parts and inexplicably are driven to make money more than they are to make glass car parts, US supervisors worry about substandard production practices, frequent accidents, and mounting employee injuries.
It’s an intense, real-time, fly-on-the-wall view into the myriad ways global business ventures can decline and collapse over vastly different world perspectives.
Portrait of a global leader
Nancy Pak, longtime Colgate-Palmolive executive and vice president/general manager of Tom’s of Maine, took on the role of CEO at Tate’s Bake Shop, a subsidiary of Mondelez International Inc.
It was the culmination of a whirlwind global career.
Pak has spoken of a pivotal moment in her trajectory: the day she told her husband she wanted to embark on a global leadership track.
“I’m in a global leading consumer products company, and I will have the opportunity to travel abroad and I really want to do this,” Pak recalls. “He said, ‘If you want to do that, we will make that personal journey together.’ That was the very first pivotal choice because it opened a world of opportunities. I was able to put my hand up and say, ‘I want to have that international experience; I want to be a global leader.’”
The couple moved from their home in New York to Bangkok with two small children in tow.
“It was a catalyst of this world of opportunity, but it was scary—we were certainly taking a risk,” she says.
In 2010, Pak was tapped to participate in Global 2030, a global leadership program offered to rising executives presented by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The one-year immersion experience allowed her to do her job while traveling the world. She cites that experience—as well as the book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith—as the launchpad for her global career.
She was one of 12 participants who were paired with a coaching partner who for one year gave her immediate feedback on all her work.
It was this dose of awareness of the world around her as well as her preconceived limitations that led her to global leadership.
“You find out that everything you knew, everything you thought you were and that you could be—you just threw it out the window,” Pak says. “You can be more than you actually assumed you could be.”
Understand culture, too
Learning language only one part of the process
Leading in the global context can be exciting, yet very challenging. It requires a global leader to develop “cultural intelligence,” which refers to one’s ability to relate and work effectively across cultures. One must transcend their own cultural perspective and learn not just the language, but also the history of lives and doing business behind spoken language.
A very important first step is to develop a deep level of self-awareness. Know your limitations and be humble and open towards things you don’t understand in a new context. Listen to your fellow employees when they talk, especially when they disagree with you, and encourage them to talk when they blindly follow your ideas. Also, try to drop the “should-be” mindset and instead take the “could-be” mindset. Something that does not fit with what you feel is “traditional” or doable could be a way to open doors for doing business in a different cultural context.
To be a global leader also requires one to have an intense and authentic interest in the lives and cultures of others in the first place. Those leaders who fail to put in significant amount of time and effort learning what a new culture is really about are often trapped in leadership dilemmas where they are leaders without followers due to misunderstanding or even mutual distrust. Such learning almost always starts with understanding how to show your respect towards the people you lead, perhaps by hanging around with them away from work, or writing them personal notes recognizing their accomplishments. Showing respect leads to the building of mutual trust, and trust is the foundation of everything for leadership in a global context.
Dr. Lei Huang
Dean’s Fellow and Assistant Professor of Management
Harbert College of Business