How To Be A Successful Manager Across Cultures

Tyler Blackwell Headshot
c/o Tyler Blackwell
Having a globalized workforce means managing diverse backgrounds. Here’s how leaders can build a supportive culture that works for everyone.

Managing a global workforce across a multitude of cultures can be challenging. Especially as an executive in charge of mid-level leaders, how can you be certain a healthy work culture emanates through an entire organization?

According to Tyler Blackwell, a senior consultant at Kincentric, a talent and HR advisory firm based in Chicago, the problems emerge in gray areas. So, the solution: “Be intentional and get creative.”  

If I am a leader with teams across the world—for instance, with people in Seattle, Stockholm and Singapore—how do I effectively manage people from such diverse backgrounds?

This question has been plaguing leaders for decades. The good news is that you can do something about it—with a little work. Here are a few principles to keep in mind:

Acknowledge and respect differences. Although your goal may be to establish a single unified culture within your organization, you must consider the different historical contexts and cultures your people come from, live in and experience every day. Instead of asking employees to assimilate, your job is to help build bridges between, for instance, the professional, political and personal contexts of each location. The best place to start is to take the time to learn about the cultural nuances represented within your team.

Say the quiet part out loud. To build effective teams, you must be as explicit as possible around expectations while addressing any stereotypes or silent assumptions around coworkers from other cultures. These assumptions often lead to friction, and even worse, can create an environment in which employees don’t feel psychologically safe.

Invest in more robust communication and a nuanced feedback process. It is critical that people throughout your organization, regardless of their location, understand how their work is aligned to your business strategy, and the key to this is clear communication. You must also be able to identify instances in which employees do not understand the strategy, you or each other. Strive to create a nuanced feedback process that helps leaders meet each employee where they are by framing communication and feedback within cultural terms and using a lens of empathy and understanding.

What you’re saying makes sense for leading individuals. But if I’m also a leader of leaders, how can I ensure other managers and HR business partners across the organization understand how to best lead cross-cultural teams?

Even the most well-intentioned manager can derail the efforts you have made to align your global teams. Your mid-level leaders are the lynchpin of your organization, and as such you can’t take for granted what they know or how they will support your approach. You need to invest in putting your best talent—and best efforts—at this very spot.

Leaders lead by example, but leaders also lead by accident. By this, I mean that your direct reports are probably making note of and perhaps even mimicking your unintended gestures, habits, reactions or biases they observe, so you must be sure you model the behaviors you want to see from them.

In addition to being a good role model, be sure you make a point of recognizing good performance. Call out good examples of ideal behavior—acknowledgement and praise are the surest way to get others to repeat and adopt those behaviors.

It isn’t enough to communicate to your managers and teams—you must also collect their feedback. In large global organizations, you can’t talk to everyone at once. Consider utilizing surveys targeting the entire enterprise as well as smaller, more defined populations, focus groups, “Ask me anything” sessions or even anonymous suggestion boxes to enable your people to provide feedback more easily.

Make it a priority to ensure negative feedback makes it all the way to the top of the house and then create actionable plans to address that feedback.

There is a lot of disagreement around whether you should hire for skills and experience or hire for cultural fit, and having employees sitting in different locations with different cultures makes that decision even more complicated.  What do you think?

I think the answer is you should do both—search for talent that have the competencies and capabilities you need and are aligned with the company’s core values, mission and culture. It’s obvious you need people who can do the work, but let’s face it—if they are not aligned with your organizational mission, vision and culture, even the smartest, most experienced hires will likely fail to perform to their potential.

And because the world—and your business—is constantly changing, you also need talent with the desire and ability to learn just as much as their capability to do the job at hand. Look for people who can adapt to change and are motivated to grow with the organization—who can provide not only the skills and capabilities you need today but are able to transform into the talent you’ll need tomorrow.

How can leaders maintain the healthy aspects of a country-specific or region-specific culture within the larger organizational culture?

Give space and time for people and teams to be themselves and turn cultural differences into learning opportunities for everyone involved. Resist the urge to organize or orient teams based on nationality, market or region. Rather, consider teaming around purpose, such as product development; approach, such as scrum or scaled agile framework; or focus areas, such as market-based or function-based; versus region or country.

Create a charter for each team that outlines how they will work, what their values are, and how those things are in service to the organization as a whole. This begins with self-reflection and self-awareness at the individual level, which leads into team discussions around the best ways of working, and finally, how that team’s work and mission align with the overall business strategy of the organization.

The secret is to be intentional and get creative. Start with understanding, and then build out from there. If you stay focused, consistent and sincere, you can create the teams and the culture you seek.

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