Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Kyle Hegarty’s book, “The Accidental Business Nomad: A Survival Guide for Working Across a Shrinking Planet” (Nicholas Brealey, June 16, 2020).
“Don’t drink at the hotel. Find out where the people who work at your hotel do their drinking” (Anthony Bourdain).
These days I continue to travel around the world, working with organizations that wrestle with global leadership challenges. Every company challenge is different, but the underlying obstacles of communication remain the same. Leaders today and in the future need to build global mindsets in order to break the traps of following old scripts. They need to build teams that have the trust to bring their best ideas forward. Often, I help people and teams get to the next level of this journey.
Over the years I have put together a few tools to help business nomads as they go global. I call it The Global Survival Kit. To wrap up this book, I’d like to present some of the key ideas and tools I recommend packing into your Global Survival Kit. Many of the origins of these tools came from the people I’ve met and situations I’ve been through. And hopefully it won’t surprise you that it is constantly changing and adapting. Enjoy!
1. Know Yourself
Research continues to come out showing strong leaders have higher-than-average levels of self-awareness.
No one is perfect, so the need to understand strengths and weaknesses makes for an important first step in improving how you work with people across the globe. Hierarchies and various cultures around the globe make this one especially tricky. How do you show vulnerability in a part of the world where that is looked down on? How do you admit when you are wrong within a surrounding that punishes weakness? You have to first know yourself. Behavioral psychology assessments can be a good place to start.
2. Cross-cultural Data
These issues are not new. Five hundred years ago, Magellan and his shipmates landed on islands across the south pacific, and local tribes would come on board ships and start taking trinkets and anything that wasn’t bolted down. They were coming from a collectivist culture where the concept of individual ownership did not exist. Their actions were interpreted by the significantly more individualistic Europeans as stealing. Situations escalated quickly, from yelling to pushing to weapons being drawn. People died, including Magellan, who never made it past the Philippines.
I’d argue that half a millennium later, we have not really progressed that much. Today cultures cross paths daily, with the purpose of building business ties and doing deals. While most interactions tend to work out well, work situations, as we have seen, can quickly spin out of control. From start-ups to world leaders, these issues can cost money and sometimes lives.
There is hope! There is data. Differences across cultures have been defined and continue to get measured. If you can measure it, you can manage it. At least that’s the idea. While these datasets are far from perfect, they can be a great resource to better understand different working styles and how to adjust to interactions around the world.
3. Learn to Adjust in a Moment of Panic
From being unable to order a cup of hot water to negotiating multimillion-dollar global contracts, we all get those screaming on the inside moments. If you know one of these moments is happening, PAUSE.
Pause. Are you screaming on the inside?
You aren’t alone. Take a breath. When working through foreign situations, often gut responses can be wrong. So, before anything is said, pause.
This may be the single easiest and yet most important tool to manage people, excel in sales, find a mate, handle networking events, negotiate, etc. And it is absolutely critical when communicating across cultures.
Use cross-cultural data.
With big-data flooding in from internet use around the world, expect a lot more research from this field in the coming years. The datasets we use today will look archaic within the decade, but for the time being, they can be of great help to better understand cross-cultural differences.
See things from the other person’s perspective.
This is easy to say, but hard to do. There are ways we can practice and improve how to see situations from different angles.
Possibly the easiest but least used approach for any conversation. Before allowing a conversation to end, double check the next steps or the key point made. Simple wrap up statements include: “Before we end, can we quickly summarize the key points and next steps?” or “Can you feed back to me what you heard?” or “What is the specific next step here, and when will we reconnect to look at progress?”
4. Communication Contracts
Often the simplest words can be the hardest, yes, no, trust, respect, openness, etc. Invest time with teammates to lay out your communication rules. Establish guidelines to reduce misunderstandings.
A strong communications contract should be a part of any global or regional team, both temporary or long term. Ideally this agreement should be created together as a team so everyone understands the purpose and everyone has a say. You may be surprised at where the conversations lead. This is a good thing. Get the surprises out early and get the fundamentals out in the open early.
5. Share Stories With Friends
In a majority of workshops I run, the first activity is to hear from the participants about cross-cultural challenges they have faced. The rooms start out quiet. So, I share one of the many stories I’ve picked up or been a part of. It could be a small moment trying to get directions or something much larger.
A funny thing happens. Another person speaks up with a story. Then another, and another. Frequently, these issues, these frustrations have never been shared. Maybe people are concerned about sounding insensitive or maybe they are embarrassed and don’t want to sound silly. But you can feel the energy in the room rise along with a sense of relief. Finding others who wrestle with these common international issues feels good. It builds connections and often, friendships. We discover that most of us mean well even though we are frequently misunderstood.
We want to figure this stuff out. We want to understand differences and we want to be understood by those we work with. But often organizations hide these culture clashes or ignore them. The stories get buried, erased, or forgotten. We don’t learn from our past mistakes. We miss opportunities to make new connections. This has perhaps been the most surprising finding from my work. The hesitation or, in many cases, deliberate actions to erase the past. I would love to say that companies have become better at going global since I started my own journey back in the first years of the twenty-first century. I have not seen much evidence for this. Sharing stories and building connections are one of the most powerful tools out there. So, tell your stories and learn from others! Good luck and enjoy the trip!