Globalization in business continues to expand. The marketplace for goods and services has evolved from local and regional to global. As a result, many firms are forced to make the necessary adjustments to compete. These adjustments include developing technology and logistics capabilities along with leadership talent. My Ph.D. dissertation was a study exploring how global managers learn the skills to manage across multiple borders and cultures. The research was conducted by interviewing twenty experienced global leaders that worked in different parts of the world. This research produced six discoveries about learning to be an effective global or international manager. For this discussion, the terms leader and manager are interchangeable.
The role of a global manager is very different than that of a domestic manager. It is not clearly defined. International travel is much more challenging. Communicating with people with different languages can be extremely difficult. Understanding the cultures of foreign countries can be confusing and difficult to understand. Business practices vary from country to country and are generally learned from experience and mistakes. Because of these variables, global management is much more complex and requires constant learning and adaptation.
Global managers must be open-minded and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. While some of the methods of learning are behaviors and practices, this discovery indicates that a certain mindset is required to be an effective global manager. Open-mindedness and a willingness to learn from mistakes are prerequisites that enable the global manager’s ability to adapt to foreign countries, cultures, languages and business practices. Conversely, unwillingness or inability to be open-minded and adapt to foreign countries and cultures results in failure in the global manager role. Trying to bring one’s home country practices and approaches to another country is usually met with great resistance.
These global managers learned that they must respect the local culture, traditions, and practices of each foreign country. Showing respect usually resulted in being accepted and improved cooperation, as well as learning the culture. Some managers conducted research prior to going to a foreign country but found that practice of limited value. The two primary methods for learning other cultures were observing what locals do and seeking guidance from people who were more experienced in a specific culture. Managers found that even if they made mistakes if they showed humility and corrected those mistakes, it was accepted and seen as a sign of respect.
Communicating effectively is a fundamental requirement for management, but much more difficult in the global management arena. Communication challenges posed from working with people with different languages can be overcome with experimentation and persistence. Global managers who experimented with different words and visual tools improved their ability to communicate. They also learned that persistence paid off. Trying different questions until a mutual understanding was achieved was helpful. This discovery regarding learning to communicate overlaps with discovery three. Attempting to learn some of the language of the host country is often seen as a showing of respect and results in locals wanting to help bridge the communication gap rather than be put off by it.
Participants learned that building relationships was critically important. The act of building relationships could be considered a valuable competency in any management and leadership role but was found to be necessary in the global manager role. As with communications and culture, global managers working in a foreign country start off at a disadvantage with relationships. People generally do not trust people they don’t know. Global managers must make an extra effort to build relationships that enhance trust, communications, and cooperation. In many cultures, the relationship must be built before the business is conducted. There is no guidebook on building relationships that is universal; countries have different business cultures. Global managers use previous discoveries to help with relationship building including being open-minded, experimenting with communication, and showing respect. One common practice that seems to cross all cultures is having meals with locals to get to know them on a more personal level. Meals are the most commonly discussed practice to break the ice and get to know people in any country. The key discovery was relationship first, then business, not the other way around.
Global managers benefit greatly by building a network of people who are more knowledgeable about culture, traditions, and business practices in the countries they are working. The complexity of working in multiple countries and cultures can be overwhelming, and global managers know that they cannot go it alone. They understand that they have significant knowledge gaps when working in foreign countries. To close those knowledge gaps, they build relationships of various kinds that they seek out for guidance. The nature of those relationships includes peer groups of global managers; mentors, both formal and informal; paid agents with expertise in a country and industry; and colleagues from host countries that are willing and able to provide sound advice. Executive Coaches with global experience can be an asset to help shorten the learning curve.
Surveys continue to report that international firms lack enough qualified global managers to support their growth. The transition from domestic management to global management represents a quantum leap in the skills required to be successful. While global assignments are considered the best way to develop managers, not all managers learn from their experiences. Learning must be guided and supported.
Dr. Mark Hinderliter is an Executive Coach with extensive international experience. He has worked with leaders and managers in several countries and on four continents. He can be reached at Mark@thirdwayinc.com.