Originally published at the Huffington Post.
It is fascinating to conduct business in a global environment, and see first hand the wide array of markets and resources which companies can access; it is almost unlimited. Now more than ever, the world is connected and borders are dissolving. For corporations, globalization is opening new opportunities for expansion, investment and profit. Governments and individuals now have solid reasons to invest in education, talent development and infrastructure in order to compete in this new global economy.
I see the business world as a glue that is bringing a sense of oneness to our world, as if we are becoming a one big nation, one big economy, and one huge melting pot. People of diverse races, with hundreds of languages and religions are connected daily by this single global market through the ranges of products and services they produce and consume. With all the opportunities that globalization is providing to businesses, it is also bringing new complexity to leadership. New skills are definitely needed in order to lead in such a complex and diverse environment.
In a speech, which I gave at the “Global Women Leaders Conference” in Dubai in March this year, I covered the topic of Global Leadership. My message was that the traditional leadership skills still apply in this new environment. We still need to focus on developing, empowering, and motivating the team members, creating a vision, driving strategies, and being accountable, etc. However, the difference is that in the global environment we need to build on top of these foundational skills a critical new layer of cultural understanding, effective communication across cultures, and a flexibility of understanding that no “one size fits all” and that there is no “one right way” for handling a situation or conflict. To add to that, relationship management and building trust is of the utmost importance, and they require an investment of time and effort in order to establish them.
Six years ago I had an experience that changed how I handle global leadership and manage relationships. It was at the beginning of an ex-pat assignment which I had in Japan. I asked my manager at the time for advice on how I should interact with the Japan team as I started my project, so I could hit the ground running. All he said was “just be yourself.” Being myself in the US brought me recognition and awards. My style was efficient and right to the point, which was positively perceived. Instead, using this same style in the Japanese business culture brought me criticism that I was being too aggressive and direct. After a couple of months of resistance from the team to my business style, I decided to step back and start all over. My plan was to spend my time mainly establishing relationships with each team member, and focusing on building trust. I made that my first priority, and it paid off with amazing results; the team had faster response times, an openness to exploring new ideas, and I was given access to data. I believe that experience taught me to be a better leader not just in Japan, but globally. Now I routinely apply what I experienced, and I couldn’t be more grateful for learning this lesson early in my career.
I realize that the virtual business environment can be uncomfortable to some personality types. Even today, many managers still want to have their employees in the office daily, and are only comfortable with the face-to-face interactions. Even with all the communication technologies that are available, they need to feel in control and want to see their team members in person in order to trust that work is being done. This style may have worked in the past, however, it does not serve us in today’s evolving interconnected environment. It is important for a leader to be able to establish strong trust in one’s team members and in one’s own abilities to lead. An office space made of walls, conference rooms, and a corner office, in many cases no longer need to exist. Instead, all that may be required is just a laptop, internet connection, and a phone. As long as these three are available, the office can be anywhere in the world. Likewise, as long as there is a common vision, trust, and communication, the team can also be anywhere in the world.
I have interviewed, hired, managed, and worked with team members for years whom I have never met in person. I believe that this remote style brings a new level of need for emotional intelligence. Early in my career I used to rely on reading the individual’s body language in order to get a sense of what one thinks, now since this is not an option for me in the virtual environment, I have shifted to what I call “reading the voice language”. Putting accents aside, the voice can give clues that could easily be missed, or ignored, especially on business calls. I know my team members’ personalities by their voice tones, and I make a special effort to observe its changes depending on the topic that is being discussed. I use the voice tones to connect with and acknowledge the individual on the other side in order to further build relationship and trust.
In addition to profitability and expansion opportunities, global business also comes with a wealth of cultures, traditions, histories, and spirituality. It makes daily work so much more enjoyable, and it awakens curiosity for exploration and adventure — as if the world shows up at our desk everyday showing us a little more of what it offers. Expressing curiosity is a great way to build relationships with global teams; I found that everyone wants to talk about their cultures, religious holiday traditions, weddings, birth ceremonies, and festivals. It is such a great way to connect and be part of their experiences even from far way.
Learning about the uniqueness of each culture enables a leader to have a better understanding of future business opportunities, and a cultural awareness when implementing a global strategy. Many leaders, especially in the West, assume when creating a global strategy that what works in the US and Europe should also work in other countries. I have seen many of them spend months developing strategies that end up failing. They missed the importance of the local element in the execution. The lesson learned was, “Think globally and act locally.”
Looking back at my experiences, I realize our world is truly small and ever more connected, yet it is also wonderfully varied and filled with diverse people who at their core are very much the same. Now more than ever we have the opportunity to work together and grow as global citizens. As leaders, it is our responsibility to make this a positive experience for all, and to respect the cultural uniqueness which we each bring to the business environment.