Intercultural Leadership Excellence – How to succeed in developing a virtual, global and intercultural leadership team?

Bernd, are you really German?

I had been working closely for a few days at an integration workshop after an acquisition with a Mexican engineer who was at home in Texas. Obviously, I did not correspond to his expectation of a German chemist. He was surprised and might have thought I had a different cultural background. I took his question as a big compliment.

These observations regarding my flexibility in cultural terms have accompanied me during my professional career. Much of it was intuitive and knowledge and experience gained from an early stay abroad.

But then, on the way from plant manager to global production manager, I suddenly faced a significant challenge when I became responsible for production plants with employees from different countries and cultures across the globe. I took on a mix of different work cultures also, because the division had emerged from two different acquisitions.

I can still remember the painful personal realization that I did not live up to my own expectations in my new and global role. I had landed in a dead end.

Good advice was needed. An “Easter walk” with a mentor cleared the mind for a rethink. Not my job and I should be the focus, but my employees, who were spread from eight different nations around the globe.

A change of perspective was called for.

Another coaching session followed with a systemic constellation exercise – an eye-opener for looking at the situation from all the various angles. Thanks to Sonja Finn and the fact that we had enough sweets on the table when we ran out of wooden sticks.

And only then did I develop the concept for next year and the future. I called it Intercultural Leadership Excellence.

Learning was the order of the day. On-the-job. I had to summon up all my courage to trust and accept my own learning process, and accept to have to go through a valley of tears in my own development process.

My goal was to develop the ability to understand, value and trust my employees in their respective cultures and to be able to pass on these insights to my employees.

Start with PEOPLE and behaviors.

After accepting this strategy for myself, my task in the company now gave me a completely new meaning. Every day I learned – for the company and above all for myself. Pure motivation and joy.

  • I read Richard D. Lewis, „When Cultures collide, Leading across Cultures“, and worked with his Three-Types-Model.
  • I introduced specific cultural trainings (including for myself)
  • I organized a physical meeting once a year so that the virtual conference calls got a real face and workshop elements could be used for intercultural exchange.

So, I had my intuition and brought knowledge and experience gained from an early stay abroad. But it wasn’t until I read Richard D. Lewis’ book – When Cultures collide, Leading across Cultures – that it fell like scales from my eyes.

Although understanding the risk of reinforcing stereotypes, Lewis’ three-types-model provided me with important insights into possible behaviors of the members of my global team. It gave me hints on how to develop steering elements to be taken into consideration, also during multinational team-meetings.

This model differentiates between three leadership / communication styles and maps those depending on cultural origin.

  • Linear-Active, task-oriented highly organized planners
  • Multi-Active, people-oriented loquacious inter-relators
  • Reactive, accommodating and respect-oriented listeners

I approached this topic of “intercultural competence” in such a way that I first dealt with stereotypes of cultures, understanding clearly, that it was a generalization that wanted to be reflected and adapted in the respective individual contact. Because in the end it is always an individual view and it depends on the ability to change perspective, to be able to ask empathetic questions and to be tolerant of contradictions.

Zooming then into individual and personal styles of my team members, was a learning process, immensely exciting and personally very enriching. Since then, cultural trainings and workshop elements for intercultural exchange have been an integral part of the team building of my organizations. Some typical learnings are shown on the flipchart below.

And this was my pathway to success.

  • Cultural Wisdom had to be developed in an exploratory way, not only in the bi-cultural relationship, but in the entire diverse team of different cultures. From China to U.S., from Singapore to Canada, from Spain to Sweden, Netherlands and Germany. Learn more about the importance of Cultural Wisdom in Chapter 4 of Furkan Karayel’s book “Inclusive Intelligence”.
  • New behaviors, often contradictory to one’s own instilled, had to be applied and adapted to the situation. Be tolerant for ambiguities. If you like to get a deeper dive how to master respective transcultural challenges, I recommend the new book of Anna Fuchs, especially part III.
  • Positions in the team had to be conveyable in a balanced way for everyone. For almost all of them, English was their second language. And that was a good thing. It helped. If you wonder why, I recommend stopping by the excellent LinkedIn posts of Jeff O’Dea and Shelley Purchon, allies to those whose first language isn’t English.
  • And finally, side effects and interactions with other stakeholders, outside of the team, had to be taken into account.

The focus is on people in their respective environments.

And the results actually have spoken for themselves. I crafted my own job and found my true calling.

And today? The transfer of recent intercultural trends from research to practical use in business is still a gap to close, I believe. Have a look at recent posts by Anna Fuchs (Managing Transcultural Challenges), Robert Gibson (Bridge the Culture Gaps) and Peter Franklin et al. (Global Fitness for Global People), if you are interested in new developments in this field.

For your reflections, think through the following questions, if you like.

  1. How do you handle intercultural conversations?
  2. Can you switch between styles depending on the individual situation and the respective environment?
  3. What do you do when you end up in a dead end?

Related Topics