Monday March 19, 2012

Cross-cultural leadership


Learning from different cultures isn't just the right thing to do anymore it's necessary

IT'S only been six years since Thomas Friedman wrote about the “flattening” of the world because of globalisation. But already, there's some evidence that the world may not be so flat after all.

Rather, it's turning out to be polycentric, with multiple centres of influence and growing differences in purchasing power, consumer preferences and market characteristics.

Based on this view, learning from different cultures and viewpoints isn't just the right thing to do anymore it's necessary if the leaders of tomorrow want to have a truly positive impact on the health and growth of their companies.

Faces of diversity: Multi-racial students of SK Convent in Alor Star dressing up in traditional costumes during a Teachers’ Day celebration. Only through knowing other cultures deeply can a leader effectively connect the dots between them and highlight meaningful differences between cultures that impact business strategy.

Hybrid leadership is crucial to achieving success. We know that traditionally, leaders were mainly valued for their consistency, and today, non-traditional leaders seek, value, and leverage different perspectives and invite dissent. They make clever use of their geographic, professional or ideological diversity and make “difference” safe while constantly reflecting on their own assumptions.

This type of leadership involves deep immersion within different cultures to understand their values and specific context. This understanding would enable leaders to see how they, and their companies, can best reach customers, inspire employees, and drive organisational performance in geographies outside one's “home base” or comfort zone.

Only through knowing other cultures deeply can a leader effectively connect the dots between them and highlight meaningful differences between cultures that impact business strategy.

Having respect for diversity whether gender, culture, religion, age, or any other dimension is not just something we appreciate. It's also the impact that these dynamics are having on business outcomes, performance, and long term strategy.

No doubt, companies have made some progress in incorporating diversity into their organisations. But most are still far from achieving true diversity.

They need to see how flexible, open-minded and inclusive leadership can enable them to capitalise on global talent and propel them to succeed in a volatile world.

Diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams but only if they are managed properly.

Leaders must expect friction, and rather than try to defuse it, listen to what the various people in the debate are saying without punishing them for speaking up.

This means modifying the old command-and-control style of leadership and actively embracing a collaborative leadership style in an uncertain global community.

Collaboration, in this context, means more than just working together across geographical or organisational boundaries; it involves bringing together people with different backgrounds or capabilities, sparking healthy conflict, fresh ideas and potentially, new products and services.

In fact, the appreciation of differences of all kinds can help leaders manage better in the face of uncertainty.

This is not wishful thinking research has repeatedly shown that diverse viewpoints lead to better ideas, better teams and better decisions.

Inclusive leadership is probably the most effective and creative approach to dealing with the ambiguous and volatile environment that global leaders face today.

So leaders should have the ability to engage with individuals from all over the world, grasp the nuances of different cultures and understand the actions that work best in various contexts.

But research shows that companies are not doing nearly enough to develop such leaders, and rarely have global strategies that enable them to draw on talent from around the world and build workforces with diverse cultures and backgrounds.

A creative, globally savvy management team and workforce can be developed by encouraging employees to move around the organisation both geographically and functionally, experiencing a wide variety of roles and developing new skills and competencies through exposure to different cultures, industries, individuals and ways of thinking.

The good news is that there are practical techniques that leaders can implement to hone their hybrid leadership and ability to benefit from multiple perspectives.

Some of these are observing inclusive recruitment and selection processes to create a diverse talent pipeline for senior roles, creating a supportive and enabling environment for employees to work and appreciate the value that diverse teams bring to the organisation.

Organisations should make a concerted effort to help managers develop greater cross-cultural awareness and inclusive people management skills.

Let me tell you about one of our leaders who certainly demonstrate cross-cultural awareness.

Based in China and of Korean origin, he calls on parents of high performing frontline staff and uses stories and analogies of Chinese customs and history to reward and appreciate the employees' good performance and dedication at work.

In an increasingly global age, the capacity of organisations to build multicultural and transnational leaders will be a critical competitive advantage.

Tomorrow's leaders will possess traits that allow them to function calmly in an environment that you no longer “control”. Leaders will operate in what some researchers have called the “VUCA world”: a world that is highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Jaspal Bindra is group executive director and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Asia. This article is based on the talk he gave at last month's Women in Leadership Forum Asia in Kuala Lumpur.

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