The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Intercultural Business Leaders

What is the most highly valued skill in the business world? Get In Front Communications recently published a poll of Harvard Business Review subscribers. Here is what they found:

Ability to communicate is the most important factor in making an executive promotable. It is even more important than ambition, education and hard work.

As your organization becomes increasingly international, your work demands more than mastering your own language. It’s hard enough to get your message across and convince people who share your cultural background. The challenge is far greater when your audience has different values, beliefs, as well as different ways of communicating, listening and organizing their world.

In working with these varied cultures, how do you…

  • Convince superiors to modify their approach?
  • Sell your concept to people from a specific background?
  • Recruit the right people for the right task?
  • Speed up completion of outsourced or delegated work?
  • Get your sales team to implement a new strategy?

Here are seven habits that have proven to be valuable in meeting these challenges.

1. Adapt first.

The best communicators do not keep score of who should adapt to whom. Instead, they practice leading the way, adapting first within any situation, with anyone from any culture. They will change how they speak and listen.

Great communicators see such adaptation as a process. They expect some failure along the way. They simply keep practicing at every opportunity. Like athletes training for the Olympics, they know that mastery only comes to those who never stop practicing.

2. Take Communication Risks.

Would you describe yourself as a risk-taker? Taking risks makes many people feel uncomfortable. Adapting to a different culture might make you less confident. Yet great leaders in business know that feelings of discomfort, sometimes even of incompetence, go with the territory.

One instructor who had prepared hundreds of students for life in foreign countries said, “Many people love to laugh. Some of them will be laughing at you. Learn to laugh along with them.”

If the road to communicating with other cultures seems like walking a tight rope, resolve to persist in your efforts, despite the discomfort.

3. Learn to see and listen impartially.

Everyone has definite feelings about the “right” or “wrong” way of asking, offering, promising, declaring something, or even expressing an opinion.

Effective communicators are willing to set aside these preconceived ideas and listen objectively. They know that in a certain culture, what can mean one thing can often mean something totally different in another.

According to BoldTask Labs, less than 2% of people have had any formal training in how to listen. Yet many difficulties and business losses could certainly be avoided by developing this valuable skill.

4. Build a multicultural identity.

More than we often realize, who we are is defined by our language. We are constantly exchanging ideas with others, including opinions of ourselves.

Outstanding business leaders clearly convey their identity to various cultures. They use every opportunity when writing and speaking to convey what they are capable of, what they care about, and how this benefits others.

5. Use innovative business communication techniques.

These days we have more methods than ever to communicate, including video, text, email and phone. However, with the ever-faster pace of business, we have less and less time to get our point across.

Powerful cross-cultural communicators use innovative means to communicate. They realize that what was successful in another time and place no longer works. They are ready and willing to invent something new in order to succeed.

6. Be humble.

The Greek philosopher Socrates emphasized the need to realize what you do not know. Please note that in all of these seven habits described here, one must develop and maintain a curiosity and passion for learning.

No matter how long you have worked with people, remember this: great communicators never pretend to know everything. They honestly acknowledge that there is always more to learn. Let people know this about yourself. You just may be pleasantly surprised at the power this gives you in an intercultural setting.

7. Make cross-cultural training a priority.

Why is this so important? Consider Karen, a US sales manager. She had been very successful with her US business for some years.

Karen began making plans for a presentation in front of an intercultural audience.

Before the big meeting, Karen wanted to attend a cross cultural training program. However, her life was very busy, so she decided to skip this training. After all, business is business everywhere, or so she thought.

Karen had delivered many motivating lectures to middle and senior management before. She had even attended several conventional courses in public speaking. What could go wrong?

She knew the importance of structuring her presentation clearly.

Karen also knew her introduction and conclusion should be as effective as possible. As a New York Yankees fan, Karen thought her speech should open with a description of this baseball team’s legendary successes.

Karen also knew the importance of using visual aids. However, she didn’t want a lot of numbers cluttering her presentation. Because of this, she decided to give a “bottom line” presentation, starting with just one point, and giving only a few figures.

From her speech training, Karen knew to use her voice and body language to create interest. In her college days she had been a talented amateur actress, so she did what she thought was best: using sweeping gestures and speaking with a high level of enthusiasm.

Karen wanted to keep her speech entertaining and weave an illustration throughout the presentation. To accomplish this, she kept repeating the baseball theme.

She gave her audience an opportunity to respond and ask questions, as she knew she should.

However, the reaction in the room made Karen feel more than a little disappointed and insecure.

The Japanese attendees smiled when Karen mentioned the Yankees, but they just put their heads on folded arms and didn’t really seem to listen.

Several Norwegians looked very uncomfortable at the most emotional part of her presentation. At break, she overheard one of them describe Karen as “another flashy American.”

The German delegates seemed not to be impressed either. After the presentation, one approached Karen and said: “Don’t take it personally, but there just weren’t enough sales figures to back up your claims.”

Poor Karen. She just wanted to go back to her hotel room. Perhaps some multi-cultural training would have helped after all.

She would have been glad to make the time had she known how it would help her avoid failing!

Successful business leaders know from experience: even a little intercultural guidance can go a long way to build trust and communicate effectively. This training can be crucial when working with varied backgrounds.

Highly effective business people make cultural education a continuing habit.

Sana Reynolds offers cross-cultural communication courses and workshops for those wishing to succeed in business conversations.