Live Your Performance

Moving into an international position?
My thoughts on navigating language and mindset differences in your new role.

By Chris Rawden

So, you’re understandably excited! You’ve landed a great position working for an international company and you may even be relocating somewhere exciting abroad for your new role. There’s also some international travel, meetings, brand building, member services, recruitment, product development, quality control involved in your work… It all sounds fantastic – and it is!

It’s useful however, to bear in mind the differences between working in a single cultural environment and a multicultural environment, so that you can navigate the challenges effectively.

Especially, how to bring people on board and ensure they’re with you and not against you.

Achieving consensus is going to be important in a multicultural environment where there’s no single dominant culture, in a national context. In a national context, it’s as though everyone is wired the same way and has the same way of thinking. There will be disagreements about strategy and implementation for sure, but there’s a shared sense of how to progress disagreements for the greater good of the organisation and the project.

In an international organisation, the rules are different: there are as many expected ways to do things as there are nationalities within the corporate structure and they can vary enormously!

English may be the lingua franca across the international group, being the second language mostly everyone has in common, but if the HQ and leadership is based in Britain or the US, those countries may be seen to have the linguistic advantage and suddenly you realise the level playing field you’re trying to build is anything but level…

The importance of language, the mother tongue

Consider when you’re attending an international meeting – all the presentations are in English. However good the level of English of the non-native speakers is, the concentration needed by them to stay the course for an 8 hour day in another language than their own is enormous compared to someone with English as their mother tongue.

Let’s not assume that just because these delegates still have their eyes open at 4pm that your presentation has landed effectively…

As a mother tongue English speaker, you can afford to be generous and offer ways to connect with people that make it easier for them to take in what’s being discussed. And it will benefit you and improve the overall result.

But what do I mean?

Rather than just talk at-people:

  • Check in every few minutes to find out what main messages have landed with them.
  • Offer a chance for them to ask questions.
  • Summarise the main messages for them as you go through.
  • Make the presentation more interactive.

This way, you don’t just show that you care about the understanding of data and messages.

You send the deeper message that you value having everyone’s understanding in order to build a strong strategic implementation phase and process. You want inclusion, not divide and rule, for implementation to be successful.

Having the best strategy is one thing, but without successful implementation it means in reality that you have no strategy.

So it is also an enlightened organisation and leadership that talks openly about working to overcome the challenges to achieve common understanding and commitment across multiple language and cultural groups within the organisation, rather than making assumptions or brushing these difficulties under the carpet and wishing them away. It is certainly not a sign of weakness, as is sometimes supposed, for leadership to be consulting and involving the wider stakeholder community.

Language is a key example of the differences you will be contending with in carrying out an international role compared to a domestic one.

Views on how best to do things vary according to cultural norms and experience. You have your blind spots as much as anyone else, even if you are the leader and appointed because of your valuable track record and relevant experience.

Misunderstandings may occur because of simple differences in how language is used.

Think about your own mother tongue and corporate experience. What do you notice about things like:

  • Use of please, thank you, sorry.
  • Short explanations or longer discussion to reach decisions in meetings, prior preparation.
  • Length and style of corporate emails.
  • Process (or lack of it) for obtaining consensus, or simply ensuring your views are heard, including personal lobbying by individuals.

When we think about all these kinds of issues, it is a reminder to us that culture is so important: it stands head and shoulders above everything else.

No wonder that Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast” nearly 20 years ago! In an international context culture probably eats strategy for lunch and dinner too!

My personal experience:

I recall an incident years ago when the UK leader of my then international organisation received an email request from one of the Nordic countries. It caused him to call me and complain that the message was rude and not an appropriate way to address the international chairman.

On closer questioning it turned out the main upset for the chairman was the lack of please and thank you, leading him to conclude the tone was rude.

When I explained to him that in the Nordic cultures it is unusual to say please and thank you to the same extent as in the UK, he was completely unaware of this.

Please would only be used in an extreme case of need, such as “please help me!” in a road accident.

So it was not personal in the email that no please was used, just a convention that was normal in that country in the Nordic region.

My son, who is bilingual in Swedish and English, coined a phrase about the use of please in English and its frequency when he was just five years old: “the please disease”!

So when we encounter a difference, like the please one, we can get triggered. The good news is we always have a choice in how we respond:

An enlightened choice is to inform ourselves about conventions in language to see how far these differ from what we are familiar with and unwittingly expecting from others.

Mindsets can vary in other ways too…

Running a European regional operation for many years inside a global membership organisation showed me a wide range of attitudes and responses towards growth as a pillar of strategy.

Some member firms loved the word and couldn’t hear it enough: to them it meant progress, motivation, bringing their people on board, a demonstrable measure of success.

At the other extreme were member firms who found discussions about growth threatening and demotivating: what if our level of growth isn’t sufficient for international leadership? Will they throw us out? How can we grow 8%? In our country 3% is already good.

Still, others found growth to be a no-brainer: important but too obvious to be wasting time discussing. And so on…

Dealing with different mindsets can be challenging when you’re used to a certain mindset and way of doing things.

As a leader what do you do to address the mindset variation?

Do you set the bar for strategic compliance in line with the culture you understand best because it makes the most sense to you and you want everyone to grow? How successful is that approach likely to be if you do not have a mandate to demand compliance?

A key principle I share with people in my coaching and consulting work is:

Start from where people are, rather than from where you want them to be or think they should be.

This means finding out from your stakeholders what is driving them in maintaining their entrenched positions about growth, development, people etc.

  • What are the things they have convinced themselves are true that they’re wedded to and not prepared to let go of?
  • What are the key experiences they’ve had (good and bad) that have led them to think this is how to run a successful business?

To discover those things, and not just be met by resistance and mistrust, it can be helpful to remember that we all have blind spots and even more helpful if we’re open to discovering our own.

Have a dialogue and learn from each other. What are the fears and things we don’t want to admit to about our position on growth? What is the advantage to us in taking that position?

This kind of rich enquiry, done respectfully, will reveal all sorts of valuable things about our stakeholders’ comfort zones/stretch zones/attitude to risk/expectations and fears.

And another key learning point is this:

If you’ve taken a certain position about growth and you’ve managed to convince yourself it’s the only one possible for your firm, you also have the power to convince yourself to choose another option.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right,” to quote Henry Ford.

Getting to know where each stakeholder is now and mapping out a path to the group’s destination which is meaningful and ambitious for them, may well be far more effective than trying to bind everyone to a single route whatever the weather.

My final thought…

Everyone is working to reach the same strategic destination, but having some flexibility and regard for different starting points can prove motivational and valuable for success without compromising your strategic goal.

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