The International Entrepreneur – Leading a Multicultural Team

As entrepreneurs, we are told that the skills and experience of our core team members determines our ability to capitalize as well as succeed in our new ventures. We are also told that it is vital to have diversity. This week’s blog is about leadership style, which is definitely affected by a person’s native culture.

Based on your own professional experiences, have you noticed any differences based on culture? From my experience I know that a German executive is more likely to want to see detailed written plans while an American leader is more apt to focus on financial summaries (for a related blog on Americans & financials:  http://bit.ly/n9LlrN ). Some business cultures expect leaders to have all the answers (ex. French and Indian) while other cultures expect subordinates to openly offer advice (ex. Americans and Swedes). This leads to the question… how do you lead a multi-cultural team?

Bridge the Gap

If you can pick or hire your own team, then begin by seeking traits in individuals that more closely match your own values. There is great variance in all cultures. As an American entrepreneur, I would be looking for staff or partners who appreciate individual accountability and are not timid about offering suggestions to improve the process or task at hand.

Understand where team members are coming from culturally. Business thought leader, Stephen Covey always says “seek first to understand, and then be understood”. Ask your team members what they expect from their leaders. You might be surprised. Your Chinese team member may be looking for the common Chinese goal of team harmony, but it still depends on an individual’s priorities.

And finally, I would recommend paying attention to the details. For a few years I worked for a Filipino boss. As far as I can tell, I was his only American hire in several years. The rest of his staff typically were Indian. The Indian staff members treated our boss with great formality. Seeing his response, I did the same. I called him by his formal title. I learned a few polite phrases in his native Tagalog. I never questioned his judgment directly but instead would ask very indirect questions in areas that I felt we could improve. These were small stylistic changes, but they helped our working relationship greatly. Had our roles been reversed, I’m sure that there would have been ways that I could have helped bring out the best in this person by making him feel culturally comfortable.

Troubleshooting Friction Points

When forming teams of any kind, obviously you will want to avoid putting highly volatile personality types together. But that said- friction can also produce more varied ideas and healthy dialogue about decision-making options. A good set of ground rules can help team members from different cultures understand your expectations. This should include respecting others’ right to speak. Cultural friction may also require a leader’s coaching. Regardless, multicultural teams can grow to be one of your company’s competitive advantages.

For more great information about leadership, I highly recommend my friend Jan Rutherford’s blog: http://janrutherford.com/blog/