Don’t get stuck in the international terminal.
Don’t get stuck in the international terminal — get out and experience the culture!
How apropos considering the lockdown we’ve lived under for the past year and a half. As outside life resumes, we must get out and experience life outside our own four walls once more.
For many business leaders international travel is an opportunity to jet-set across time zones, sample new food and drink, and buy kitschy souvenirs — but they lack the opportunity to truly interact, appreciate, and soak-in the local culture. Business events often orbit around an international airport’s hotel, restaurant, and conference center complex, and so business leaders often fail to stray into the unknown world of foreign culture.
Most of us have seen, or at least heard of, the culture diagram that represents culture with an image of an iceberg. 10 percent floats above the water line — this would be the visible cultural artifacts like simple language use (hello & thank you), food, clothing, signs, and other obvious indicators that you’re somewhere different. The other 90 percent of the iceberg sits beneath the water’s surface, unseen by the casual observer — and here lies, in the depths, the true culture of a people — customs, values, ideas, and preferences. When we travel around the world glimpsing cultures from the international terminal, we only see the tip of the iceberg. Business leaders, however, need to get out of the terminal, walk around, and experience the differences!
In my college days, I had the fantastic opportunity to travel abroad to Germany. The program provided the opportunity to live with Germans for an entire year. I was able to experience language school, college courses, and an internship, all while living with a wonderful host-family. Needless to say, my experience enabled me to dive under the water’s surface and closely examine every inch of the hidden iceberg.
Fast forward a decade and I was once more living in Germany as an employee of the US Government. I expected the same opportunity for my family, to experience the joys of diving deep into a foreign culture, but it wasn’t the same. The difference was that for over three years we essentially lived in the international terminal. We made our home in government housing, worked mostly with Americans, even did our shopping in a government commissary. Despite the length of our stay, we continued to remain at the tip of the iceberg. My family (wife and two sons) never experienced the same depth of understanding with the Germans that I had during my year abroad in college.
So how do we get our leaders out of the terminal and below the surface? Global leaders must engage with their international counterparts directly. As I experienced, first-hand encounters are critical to developing a deeper understanding of the culture. It comes back to a core tenant of leadership: relationships are essential. Leaders build relationships that strengthen the bond between leader and team member, facilitate open communication, drive progress towards goals and positive change. This is impossible if you remain in the terminal, so take four simple steps to get out the door.
Step 1 — stay open-minded. Strong relationships require leaders who don’t pass judgment or apply labels on people or their culture without having first-hand experience. This is an essential skill for all leaders, especially those operating in a global environment. Leaders must be cognizant of their natural tendency to develop preconceived notions and consciously fight back. Passing judgment on people and labeling them as lazy, ill-tempered, or rude, for example, creates a negative barrier between the leader and the people they mean to develop a relationship with. This is a roadblock to overcome in one’s thinking. If possible, it’s better to enter a new situation with neutral thoughts, pushing aside any possible biases that may surface.
Step 2 — remain humble. Remember that your strength, skills, and knowledge at home may not automatically translate to success in a foreign environment. What works in the home office, for example, may not work in an environment with different regulatory practices or cultural norms. For that reason, leaders must remain humble when they enter new work environments, and maintain the perspective that they have everything to gain by putting aside past knowledge. Culturally speaking, the best global leaders remain open to the host-culture, new ways of doing things, and specifically make a point of accepting the fact that their own culture does not represent the only right way of doing things.
Step 3 — ask questions. Great leaders ask questions and listen. This is especially true in a global environment. It’s imperative for a leader to get out and about with their team members, counterparts, and people from different departments, if nothing else than for the opportunity to ask questions. Asking questions enables leaders to receive feedback, show people that they value their input and want to hear from them. Seeking feedback from their own team members makes the team feel involved and shows a degree of humility in that the leader needs them. Especially in a foreign environment, question asking builds bridges of understanding across cultural differences. Asking questions, with a solid dose of tact, will help leaders get below the surface of the water and learn about what makes the culture tick and how the business operates.
Step 4 — learn. Staying open minded to differences, remaining humble, and asking questions all build to the final and most important step: learn! If a global leader doesn’t soak up knowledge then the whole experience is for naught. Effective leaders learn, seek continual growth, and desire ever-increasing levels of development. It’s what makes a good leader into a great leader. By learning a new culture, leaders will begin to see the value in doing things differently, appreciate the beauty in its uniqueness, dig into its complexity, and appreciate how far they’ve come. Learning a new culture, understanding how to do business in a foreign environment, and most importantly having the capability to build relationships with people from different backgrounds is an invaluable skill set. It prepares leaders to go into any situation with a confidence that simply doesn’t exist without the learned agility of tackling foreign environments.
During my first trip abroad as a college student I went into the experience with a feeling that I knew nothing. Although I should have given myself a bit more credit, it fortunately put me in a learning mindset, ready to soak up every minute of interaction with my classmates, German colleagues, and my host-family. After a year abroad, not only did I learn the language at a high level, but I also began to accept and assimilate cultural tendencies, emulating what it was like to be a German. It didn’t make me any less American, but it did make me that much more of a global thinker. My perspective had shifted from a rigid view of what was right and acceptable, based on my own culture, to something more culturally agile that accepted different ways of doing things. Ultimately, the experience prepared me to remain open-minded, humble, questioning, and with a desire to learn in every situation.
My newfound knowledge helped pave the way for future success throughout my career. A decade later, when I returned to Germany with the military, not only did I have language skills (although they were a bit rusty) but I knew how to work with and around cultural differences, all because I had first-hand experience. My own family may not have been able to appreciate the cultural nuances, but my experience helped me see below the surface of the water.
This same experience is open to all people, regardless of background or training. I was a poor college student still trying to figure out my path in life, and you may be a seasoned leader in the midst of a developing career; regardless, you too can develop these skills, and it’s essential that you do. We all need these skills!
Business is increasingly multi-national. It’s not unheard of to work for a company that has its headquarters in a different country, or a US-based company that has spread its reach overseas, or attend industry conferences around the globe. In fact, over the past several decades globalization has pushed business to grow exponentially overseas, and the growth continues. With that in mind, companies are always in search of effective global leaders. A global leader is one who has first-hand experience developing their cultural agility, i.e. a capacity to interact effectively in unique environments, not someone who stayed behind in the terminal.
This agility is the internal capacity to remain flexible despite the uniqueness and differences that present themselves outside the terminal. The leaders who venture out beyond the terminal have the knowledge base to be successful. They’ve seen the signs, walked the roads, and talked to the people.
These simple steps towards global leadership are so impactful because it works everywhere — it’s a universal path towards working effectively with any group of people. Whether it’s overseas or across the river, leaders must be capable of approaching every leadership situation with an open mind towards the people and processes, remain humble about their own skills and knowledge, ask lots of questions to seek feedback, and learn from their experiences. If a leader can build this understanding within themselves then they’ll be ready to tackle any challenge, whether it’s outside the terminal or not.