How to Lead across International Divides

By Consumer Dummies

Almost everything said so far about how you lead when your group is internally diverse is even more critical when you’re involved in international situations. To the normal cultural differences amongst your own group, you now have to add differences in language, customs, legal structures, standards, and other oddities, such as work rules and holidays.

On the other hand, there are some simple rules about working cross-culturally on an international basis. Because of all the biases we choose to ignore or refuse to acknowledge when we are dealing within our group, we freely admit to them when we are dealing with people who are obviously different.

Commit your brightest and best

When you are putting together an international team, you want your smartest, most flexible people at hand. You want people who have the capacity to learn what the differences are that separate you from your foreign colleagues and who are able to accommodate themselves to those differences. The Romans once said that the definition of being civilized was the ability to live comfortably in another person’s culture. So look for civilized people when you are forming your team.

Being civilized begins with civility, which is the granting of consideration to others. You will know by experience with your team who are the people who can quietly adjust to new situations, and who are the people who whine, complain, scream, or stamp their feet. Keep the first group and leave the rest home.

Sell participation in an international team as an adventure. Even the most civilized people are often reluctant to commit to something that takes them away from hearth and home, so an international team assignment has to be worth their while in some way that appeals to them. Find out what each person needs, and help him or her achieve it.

Use the de minimus rule in making decisions

When you are working within a multinational or international context, you are going to find yourself up against different rules and regulations. In Germany, for example, boilerplate can be no less than a certain thickness. In England, it has to be at least a certain thickness, but one that is less than the German standard. Whose standard should prevail?

If you use the de minimus rule — the minimum standard — you can’t go wrong. Your German colleagues will continue to make their boilerplate thicker, because that’s the way they do it, but they will not be violating the terms of your agreement by doing so. The added expense is entirely on their shoulders.

When you are sitting down with an international group to plan a mission, getting such issues in the open early is important. Language alone causes its share of misunderstandings.

Understand that capital doesn’t make right

A cynical version of the Golden Rule states, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” That version has undermined more international cooperation than probably any other idea, because people who have capital seem to believe that they have the right to set the rules for an enterprise. “I’m contributing most of the money, so we should do things my way” is the logic.

But there are assets beyond money. Markets are gold, and access to markets is worth at least as much as the investment required to open them up. People are assets, because they represent an opportunity for you to elicit their cooperation in the service of your cause. Knowledge of local customs is an asset, because these customs are integral to the fabric of the lives of the people you want to reach, so respecting local customs and assisting at the local level is imperative for international team success.

When you’re deciding how to make your enterprise work internationally, discard the idea that only money counts. Money, although important, is only a small part of a larger equation.