Are you going to be all American and say YOU CAN DO IT?

Leading with and embracing cultural differences.

As I was talking to a prospective client in London about leadership coaching, he asked “Are you going to be all American and tell me ‘you can do it!'” As he said it, he put on a goofy smile, giggled, and said the words with an excruciatingly fake positive voice. I laughed. He was not the first, nor would he be the last to confuse me with an overzealous cross of a cheerleader and a kindergarten teacher – shaken up with a dash of the cartoon character Homer Simpson.

In chatting with him, it brought me back to early my days of managing global cross-functional teams. In one project in particular, I was managing a team of volunteers to create a global corporate best practice and I had team members from every time zone. (Scheduling those meetings was pure joy! ha!) I remember coming out of the first few meetings feeling really confused. We had a clear vision and mission. We had established clear work streams and leaders. Each meeting ended with a clear list of actions, deadlines, and accountability in proper RACI form. And, yet, the outcomes post-meeting never seemed to match. It took a whole lot of one to one discussions to get us on track.

Part of it was personal preferences. Don’t discount those. No matter what culture you come from, we are individuals so it’s really important to design with your team ways of working and ensure that EACH team member is heard. I have made the mistake of skipping this step and learned the hard way how important it is to check in with the team members that start off quiet and seem to agree with a head nod. Trust me when I say it’s worth slowing down and to have the one to one meetings to really check in before you finalise your team’s ways of working.

The other part of it was cultural differences and norms that occurred not only between countries but even within specific offices. I was able to uncover this with a very complex request: “Tell me what you just heard in your own words.” These conversations were enlightening.

One of my favourite discussions was with a colleague from the Mexico office. He told me that the first thing I needed to understand was that if anyone from his office said they were doing something “ahora” (which directly translates to “now” in English), it actually means they would get to it sometime or more likely… never. In that office, it was the equivalent of saying I’ll add it to the bottom of the list. That certainly changed my optimistic thinking about my last meeting when I had a very enthusiastic “lo haré ahora” from another team member. An immediate phone call was needed.

My French colleague invited me to recognise the importance of coffee – and it required sitting, not walking with an oversized Starbucks coffee. The culture of that office required a personal touch for the big stuff. Important decisions were made over a strong espresso sitting eye to eye from each other and giving each other space to be heard before you moved. Obviously this wasn’t possible for every little thing but it was an important realisation that when I needed broader buy-in at the senior levels, I needed to get on the flight and work my taste buds up to some of the strongest coffee I had ever tasted in my life. (At the time I was more of a coffee drinking simulation than an actual coffee lover. I have a different appreciation for the dark liquid now!)

One colleague reminded me of the importance of punctuality. In the US office, it was a norm for meetings to start five to ten minutes late because we never accounted for the travel between meeting rooms (or bio breaks for that matter) in our schedules. In our Beijing office, however, it was as sign of disrespect to be late – particularly if there were more senior people in the meeting – and, let’s face it, they were often calling in during the late evening taking time away from their families to participate. Therefore, it became really important to make small changes. We had to agree on real start times and keep to them even if others were late. It sounds small but it made a world of difference in the interactions from the team members I had from that corporate region.

As a leader, one of the best lessons I learned to engage my team was to slow down to speed up.

I had to trust my curiosity and have conversations not only about cultural norms for that country, region, office – but also personal preferences. Taking the time to have these conversations made huge differences in how people contributed and the outcomes. When it comes to people, details matter. Engagement comes from caring about the people on your team, designing with them, and creating a shared goal and plan.

If you are currently leading a team that seems to be struggling and you can’t understand why things are not panning out, start with some curiosity.

Ask EACH team member:

  • What do they want to see in the mission, vision, and goals?
  • What are their unique superpowers and talents?
  • What types of support do they need from you and the team to be their best?
  • What are they hearing from you and the team in their own words?
  • What aren’t they saying or telling you?

And if you are feeling stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out. Strong leadership can be learned. I have quite the bloopers reel when it comes to leading teams (ask me about a text message, a picture of a cheeseburger and working too late next time I see you over a drink… ha). However, the beauty of those “failures” is what I have learned and who I am today. I am a stronger, more powerful leader. I left my last corporate role at a fortune 500 company leading some of the most complex projects and teams in the company because I was achieving results. My approach embraces people. It let’s me be curious, adjust, and learn. And, as a bonus, the people that I have met have led to so much more enriching relationships in my life – both personally and professionally. It’s okay to fail, to change, to learn, and to grow. Just ask my pal in France who was appalled when he suggested a coffee and I told him that sounded great AND my next meeting started in five minutes. (Cue roaring laughter.)

Thank you to my colleagues that engaged, that trusted me with their needs, that took the time to enlighten me, and co-designed with me. And to my former managers, mentors, and sponsors that let me play and learn: Thank you for letting me fail with you at my side in the early days. My success is your success.

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