Taking Cultural Competence Global


Building success within one’s own country requires an extensive set of skills, such as strategy, communicating, and being able to read market movement and predict corporate trends. But building success internationally requires an additional skill set, including being able to spot any cultural gaps that could get in the way of communication and collaboration with one’s overseas counterparts, and finding ways to bridge those gaps in order to create a mutually comfortable business dynamic.

Whereas most successful leaders are comfortable within their local business context, doing business overseas presents often-unforeseen challenges. It is just as essential to prepare for cultural differences ahead of a business trip abroad as it is to conduct other types of business planning.

Let’s look at an example of a successful business leader who neglected to prepare for the challenges presented by cultural gaps:

Marcus was an Australian team leader at Darlington Industries. His team had made numerous attempts to work with the Darlington Japan branch, but had not been able to connect with them in a sustaining way. In order to address what his company identified as a series of communication failures, Marcus decided to fly to Tokyo and make a personal presentation to the Japanese team members outlining a more intimate partnership between the two Darlington branches.

Members of the Australian Darlington branch were proud of their ability to work together, but generally favored independent research. Marcus planned to emphasize this trait in his speech to the Japanese team. With more of an individualized approach, he believed, the two teams would be able to develop new products in their respective geographies in tandem.

Marcus arrived in Tokyo just two hours before the meeting was to start. He walked into the conference room 20 minutes late, took the stage and greeted his audience with a short apology for his tardiness.

Though his delivery was good, Marcus’ presentation ignored several key orientations that are specific to Japan. It emphasized individualism and linear thinking, while the Japanese prefer a collectivistic and systemic approach. On top of this, his late arrival agitated his colleagues, since the Japanese prefer a fixed approach to time.

Though these lapses in judgment did not guarantee the failure of Marcus’ proposal, they did not help him achieve his desired goal. After what the Japanese saw as a confusing and tone-deaf presentation, they invited Marcus out for dinner, which he accepted. During the meal, he and the members of the Japanese team were able to establish a friendly rapport, which led to Marcus securing a second meeting for the next day. During the next meeting, Marcus was sure to arrive ahead of time, and he presented his ideas in a more systemic fashion. He also picked up on the collectivistic preference of his Japanese partners and underlined the potential for more intimate group work, instead of individual focus.

In the end, Marcus learned about what is required of truly international leaders. Treating cultural differences as an important part of doing business that require the same study and preparation as anything else, helps leaders make partnerships and expand globally.