How to Be an Amazing International Business Leader

Thursday, February 11, 2016, by Eliane Karsaklian

Managing and leading culturally diverse teams has been a challenge for leaders worldwide for decades because leadership is not practiced the same way across cultures. Leadership is based on values, as are cultures. International leaders should not only know about national cultural values but also, and mainly, about diverse corporate values. Converging values are needed to cultivate a willing following. In some cultures, such as English-speaking cultures, adhesion and following are based on corporate values, while in other cultures (Latin, Asian, for example) corporate culture is built upon peoples’ values. I don’t mean ‘human’ values; I am talking about values brought by the people who work for the company.

Corporate cultures resting on employees’ values are more frequent in countries where employees have a lifetime job and grow with the company. There is a fusion between these people and the company they helped develop – they share the same values and are constituent parts of each other. In these cultures, involvement with the company comes from its social role. The workplace is also a place for socialization – employees need to be friends and feel comfortable with their colleagues in order to be productive. The human capital is the most important asset for companies who grow with employees who have invested almost their whole lives in these companies.

When followers are confronted with a change in the leadership style, they need to be convinced that the new leaders are trustworthy, reliable and legitimate. Following can happen because of hierarchy, but willing following is not to be taken for granted. The change of leadership is incompatible with continuity – it implies recruiting willing followers from the people who were already there. It has to do with trust. Trust is built over time when leaders and followers engage in an action-reaction sequence of interactions.

When working internationally, leaders should ensure their understanding of the real drivers of their teams and pay attention to the key factors of success for willing following:

  • Rewarding – which type of rewards are employees from different cultures sensitive to? ‘Bigger is better’ is not what everyone is looking for. Sometimes, sharing best practices in local cultures is more stimulating because people want their voice to be heard by their leaders
  • The notion of group and team – group is seen as a group of people working on a specific project, team is understood as an indivisible unity working together
  • Consensus versus opposition oriented cultures – in consensus oriented cultures one good idea is enough for people to agree on adopting it whereas in opposition oriented cultures, people will counter argue until they find the best idea. In other words, in consensus oriented cultures, followers select the leader they will follow while in opposition oriented cultures, followers proceed by elimination of the leaders they don’t want to follow
  • Transaction and transformation – transaction is a short term interaction between leaders and followers while transformation implies long term relationship thanks to which strong links are built between leaders and followers

International leaders need to be able to open up and put themselves in their followers’ shoes. There is no such thing as standardized leadership. Forget about ‘one size fits all’ and start learning more about specific local business and leadership practices.

Useful links:
GEMINi Award
The Intelligent International Negotiator
From Foreign to International: Lessons on Being a Citizen of the World