international leadership, international business, The American department leader stands up to give his opening remarks to the department’s new fiscal year. He confidently strides to the front of the room. His staff has been flown in from around the world to develop a sense of unity with the company headquarters and to energize the staff for the coming year’s goals. As he begins his speech, the home office staff laughs appreciatively at his jokes and appreciates his style of confidence mixed with casualness. But among the international staff members, this leader’s comments make him seem less like a leader and deflate energy. So what’s going on here?

Never All Things to All People

Many leadership traits are culturally defined. The French want their leaders to be all-knowing and never admit to a lack of information. Indians expect their leaders to be conscientious to the point that they’ll verbally reprimand their subordinates for any mistakes. Latin American leaders must personally know about their staff. But in Great Britain, don’t ask about anyone’s personal time spent away from the office. Filipinos want to be told what to do at work, while the Swedes want to have more equal input with their bosses.

As a leader of an international team, you’ll never please everyone. So here is some advice that helps to balance out an international team and get the most out of all staff.

  1. Build off of the company culture.

Even within any given culture there is variance among its members. Hiring practices should help to choose those people within any culture who can more easily fit with your specific company.

  1. Focus on the Company Goals & Objectives

This may sound obvious, but setting and communicating shared goals is the cornerstone of international business leadership. No matter the cultural differences, everyone needs to hear and understand the company and department’s goals. Business cultures have vastly different ways of reaching goals. A German colleague may spend more time in planning than execution. A Chilean may multitask several projects but still finish them all on time. But as leader, it is your job to make sure that these goals are set at the right level and that everyone is working towards their completion.

  1. Know the Cultures Involved

If your company has staff from just a few countries or a concentration from a single country, then focus on knowing the leadership expectations from that culture. For instance, many IT companies have an office in India. India is a much more hierarchical work culture, where the boss is not normally to be questioned. That means that you may have difficulty getting straightforward feedback from employees because they don’t want to deliver bad news. Research the business cultures in your company mix to better understand what adjustments might need to be made or expectations set.

  1. Input from Team Members

As a leader, it is so critical to have the information and perspectives necessary to make important decisions. This is why it is important to build relationships and communication patterns with these staff members. When part of your team is from a foreign office, it’s helpful to have an office/country manager who can act as an interface between the headquarter’s culture and the local team. Use whatever blend of techniques between cultures that works most effectively for communications. This may include private meetings, visits to foreign offices, and reporting.

  1. Internationalizing Team Communications

Now back to the original American leader speaking to his entire international staff. When speaking to a larger group of your team or company, there are some general adjustments you can do to make it more internationally friendly (compared with American only). First, error on the side of formality over casualness. The American business culture tends to be less formal than most of the world.

Next, assign no direct blame and admit no guilt for things gone wrong. These conversations should be reserved for private meetings instead of group shame. Many cultures “save face” and any blaming will backfire.

Tell no casual jokes or make local references to sports or movies. Humor varies greatly from culture to culture. It tends to create confusion, along with American cultural references.

I hope you find this article useful. Please contact me if you would like to talk about your company’s international leadership.

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