“Let my house not be walled on four sides, let all the windows be open, let all the cultures blow in, but let no culture blow me off my feet.” (Mahatma Ghandi)
During the third module of the Next Generation Leadership Program the participants watched a video testimonial of Kai, a German manager leading a division of a multinational company in India. He had to deal with an employee who paid a small bribe to an official, a powerful supplier making accusations and a ‘Babu’ culture with “a lot of interactions, but not necessarily leading to results or real collaboration.” How to handle the employee, the supplier, the organisation? Not by following the corporate guidelines. Not by repeating the success formula of previous experiences.
The inter-cultural journey is uneasy because of two reasons. First of all, we don’t like diversity. “There’s comfort and ease in similarity,” as Banu Golesorkhi said. Banu bridges East & West through research, work & life and was the perfect guide for the inter-cultural exploration. “And we are ethnocentric. We see ourselves at the center of things and everybody else is a deviation. It’s a lens and all information is processed to confirm our beliefs.”
Secondly, we are not aware of our own tendencies. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. We tell coherent stories about ourselves, but leave out all the data that doesn’t fit that profile. Walking the talk happens only in our head if we don’t take our full walk into account. Therefore, the challenge in opening up for other value systems is about getting to know our own. This is a never ending process and demands for continuous challenging.
The NGL group counts 6 nationalities. Each nationality dived into it’s own ‘way of doing things’ and gave advice on how to be treated in business relations. “Don’t push to extremes and spend social time in China”. “Follow the rules and be direct when working in the Netherlands. “Belgians are make-doers and always check what happens below the radar.” “Slovakians are warm blooded.” “What we are doing when we don’t have war in Serbia? We like life, freedom, are very open and personal relations matter.” “Croatians don’t know how to sell themselves. We have a non-culture.”
The exercise proved that it’s not easy to get behind the stereotypes and archetypes. Banu presented research results that helped to crack the ethnocentric lens a little. Some cultures function more as a group and others value individuals. In some cultures the power distance is high, in others not. The need for clarity can be high or low. Rules can be more or less important then relations. Time can be under control or not. Status can be given or merited.
The differences became even more clear when ‘reality’ kicked in. The Antwerp Diamond Bourse and the Diamond Jewellery Management Instituted organised an exclusive dinner for the Antwerp Management School. The ‘next generation leaders’ inquired appreciatively in an open atmosphere the business model, the hidden rules and the challenges of this truly global and very closed diamond business. Their analysis was sharp and insightful. They put their finger on the struggle between protecting the harmony, trust and traditions in this ‘gentleman’s business’ and opening up to new markets, technologies and ways of doing diamond business.
The lens cracked a little more with master storyteller André de Barros Teixeira. He has 4 passports, speaks 10 languages, has lived in 16 different countries, visited 160 countries during a c-level career of more than 30 years in FMCG. And he knows how to tell a good story. His testimonial on working in Nigeria, Japan, Russia and Germany inspired. His life lesson: “Life is juggling with 5 balls. Four of them are made of glass: family, values, friends and health. If you drop one, it is broke. The fifth one is made of rubber: work. If you drop it, it will bounce back. So many people handle their priorities the other way around.”
Working with or in other cultures is one thing. Chosing for it is another one. The participants reflected on their international mobility choices and shared their personal stories with each other. The red thread throughout the discussion: “The future is international and there’s no doubt about our motivation to go abroad. At the same time we want to balance it with the ‘glass ball’ of our family.” Research shows indeed that ‘spouses’ and ‘children’ are the number one factor for satisfaction and success in international assignments.
“Inter-cultural intelligence has three components”, Banu concluded. “First step is to recognize the differences by e.g. fact finding, observing, diving into the arts and history of the other culture and about knowing your own non-negotiables. Second step is respect the differences. Push the pause button. No jumping to conclusion or premature judgments. Thirdly: deal with them through a combination of pushing and pulling skills: the world as you find it and the world as it finds you.”
This module was about sharing and learning from human stories, choices, problems in dealing with the real inter-cultural world. The development reward: a grain more cultural wisdom & insight leading towards more personal freedom. Some closing reactions were: “I’ve learned what culture means. Before I didn’t have a clue.”
“It’s about being humble, having a sense of humor and being open.”
“The way the chinese culture was presented was a true eye-opener.”
“I learned it all starts with trust. And now I can talk about it.”
“We went below the line, we didn’t stay at the surface. It became personal. That is very valuable.”
“I learned to look at a different way at time.”