What's the Big Idea?
We all know to pack light and arrive at the airport two hours early when traveling internationally, but once you've made it past customs, how do you thrive in your new environment? Over 215 million people worldwide live outside their countries of birth, including five million Americans who work abroad. Many more venture overseas regularly for business.
In a recent interview, Bausch & Lomb chairman Fred Hassan shared his strategy for leading effectively across continents. Born in Pakistan, educated in London, and based in the United States, Hassan is fluent in the language of global exchange. He suggests that expatriate managers earn employees' trust by becoming a part of their community. Gain trust, and you gain traction.
“I’ve found in my own career that you have to learn as much as you can about any geography that you are involved with," he says. "Having that local sensitivity does make a big difference as you go and work in different places around the world.” Even when he's not interacting face-to-face, Hassan is curious to know where his coworkers and associates are coming from.
"I got involved with a Swedish company at one time. I got involved with a Dutch company at another time in my life. I wasn't on the ground in those countries, but I took the time to learn about their history and the cultural backgrounds."
Whether you're a manager, an employee, or just visiting, Hassan recommends approaching cross-cultural relationships with confidence, humility, and respect. “While absolutely avoiding stereotypes, you have to be sensitive to the local situation.”
For example, “In an Asian context, the relationships aspect is a lot more important than the transaction aspects of relationships," whereas in the U.S., "people tend to be more focused on getting the job done. There is a stronger transactional element in the mix."
Of course, there's no way to learn everything about everyone just through research -- the world is simply too complex and diverse a place. “It's not possible to be everywhere and learn from the ground-up," says Hassan. Which means you needn't lose your self to assimilation, but don't be afraid to admit ignorance, either. Imitation is not actually the sincerest form of flattery. Listening is.
A May 2011 study conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Science Foundation found that cultural differences -- particularly, how restrictive or permissive a society is -- are often determined by accidents of history and geography. A society that has experienced repeated domestic conflict and natural disasters in the past 100 years will enforce conformity more strictly than one with a less turbulent past.
According to the study, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Pakistan are all extremely "tight" countries, while the U.S. and Brazil are only loosely knit around a set of norms. Like Hassan, the authors of the study believe that knowledge of a region's past is essential to the success of diplomats, global managers, and military personnel.
What's the Significance?
We all respond to the same core motivations. Leaders who "can build [a] sense of purpose, build confidence... build a sense of winning and a sense of common spirit" will be able to inspire their team in any society. "It’s amazing how much you can harness with people around the world,” says Hassan. Apparently kindness is an asset wherever you go.