Presented by Paul J. Kullman, President, Business Beyond Borders
At the Nordic Commerce Conference, Denver, September 21, 2018
Thank you for the warm welcome.
I know that this morning you have heard about the Nordic economies and investment opportunities, as well as Nordic companies that are active in the Rocky Mountain Region. So, what could be missing?
I would like to shed some light on what companies and employees need to consider when operating globally.
Globalization is the process of increasing connections between the world’s markets and businesses. Immanuel Wallerstein famously laid out the process of globalization from the 1500s up to the last century.
What’s interesting is that the rate of globalization has increased dramatically in the 21st century because of the widespread use of the Internet and the build-out of telecommunications infrastructure. Whereas products were made in one country and exported to others in the past, William Robinson points out that since the 1980s even the production of goods has become global. A pair of shoes can now be produced in numerous countries, something that didn’t happen before.
What does this mean for companies? Corporations benefit from globalization by being able to more easily access markets as well as labor. However, corporations also need to adapt to multicultural challenges. For example, some employees in a firm with a global footprint may feel that they are being honest and straightforward, but others, because of their different cultural backgrounds, might find that their colleagues are being disingenuous and myopic.
Teamwork is complicated, and teamwork among international employees can be even more so. But, the results from successful international teamwork can give the edge to put a company on top, which explains why companies will continue to pursue internationalization.
By far, most team conflicts are attributed to unclear goals. Multicultural challenges begin with different expectations. A company with an environment of mixed cultures needs to ensure that the company’s mission and goals are communicated clearly and that the workplace is driven by business requirements rather than personal preferences, according to Roosevelt Thomas Jr.
In other words, the company needs to be explicit about expectations; how will the decision be made? by whom? how binding will it be? Because employees from various cultural backgrounds will interpret what is being said differently, it is advisable to have them paraphrase back their understanding of what the expectations are.
A company should welcome feedback from its employees, and supervisors should actively listen. Interestingly, Jeff Bezos puts an empty chair at the table to remind people about challenging their perspectives. What would a person in that chair think about your presentation?
A global company should not be limited to a single location on a cultural map, but, instead, take a dynamic working approach in which the world is its home, and its employees are able to be effective anywhere in the world within that company.
Now let’s talk about a global company’s employees. What do they need to thrive in a multicultural business environment?
Personnel need to naturally have the relevant experience and technical know-how, but they also need to have the ability to understand people with different cultural backgrounds. They need to be able to show respect and build trust across cultures. We say that such employees have a high multicultural quotient.
Erin Meyer, who has done extensive work on multiculturalism, gives a funny example of the difficulties in communicating across cultures: “Americans precede anything negative with three nice comments; French, Dutch, Israelis and Germans get straight to the point; Latin Americans and Asians are steeped in hierarchy; Scandinavians think the best boss is just one of the crowd. It’s no surprise that when they try and talk to each other, chaos breaks out.”
The merger of Alcatel and Lucent, with French and American business cultures, respectively, failed, in part, because their cultural differences were not bridged. For instance, the French lay out principles before discussing the issue at hand, while Americans, and other Anglo-Saxons, lose patience doing that and seek to address the issues without much philosophizing.
I always use the expression, “You stand where you sit.” In other words, your viewpoint depends on where you come from. While working in Europe, most people commented on how they find Americans very open and friendly. However, while working in Brazil, most people remarked that Americans are cool and distant. Cultural relativity.
To prepare yourself to become a global employee or entrepreneur, it is very helpful to gain overseas experience, whether through studies or work. Speaking other languages helps tremendously because when you learn another language, you also learn another way of thinking. Inherent in the process is discovering the world with new eyes.
To become global, a person needs to be self-aware. What is your own background? What beliefs go with that? There are plenty of intercultural tests online to check where you stand in a global context.
You also need a spark of curiosity. Why is something done in a different way? It is not necessarily right or wrong, but different. Be humble. Be open. Dig deeper to understand why. To be a happy and efficient employee overseas, I would advise a person to be aware of differences, but not to dwell on the perceived shortcomings of another culture. Rather, emphasize the strengths of the culture, and how to enjoy and build on them.
James Clawson at the University of Virginia points out that successful employees and companies should be able to balance the idiosyncrasies of local processes with the firm’s global market demands. You and your company benefit from having such a global strategic way of thinking.
With your exposure to different cultures, you will be able to take advantage of the strengths that each culture possesses, and you will be better able to connect the dots for effective global manufacturing, distribution and management, among other business activities.
Returning to my expression, “you stand where you sit;” a person with a high multicultural quotient could say “I can stand wherever I sit.” If you are comfortable “sitting” in diverse cultures, you can understand different points of view and, importantly, you can gather people from diverse cultures to stand together.