Finding staff who will succeed in an international business environment and providing them with the preparation they need to become effective are considerable challenges and organisations often underestimate the investment required to make successful appointments.
Frequently staff are promoted because of their industry experience, functional skills or their product knowledge. However, technical competence alone, while important, does not of itself produce an effective international manager. This is because staff will be operating in situations in which they will be expected to interact, manage, negotiate and even live and work effectively as individuals and in teams with people whose values, beliefs, languages, customs and business practices are very different from their own. It is also an environment where relationships are all important and where misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes and even business failures.
A working knowledge of the language in which your colleagues, customer or supplier communicates, will always be important. However, without an understanding of the cultural context in which language or actions are employed, international trading operations will be at a distinct disadvantage. Often the most basic aspects of local culture are different and even every day work activities like setting objectives, attending meetings, setting project time tables, agreeing contracts or even buying gifts for clients become unfamiliar, unpredictable and unreliable.
For example, strict timekeeping is likely to be impossible to implement in Latin countries. Direct criticism of staff in front of others in Asian countries will cause the recipient embarrassing loss of face and the use of indirect language to soften the impact of what is being said will be met with annoyance by Germanic people who prefer a direct approach. A direct culture, as found in Germany, the Netherlands or America, can withstand direct communications – blunt, to the point e-mails with a minimum of courtesy, introduction, niceness and small talk. In China, Russia or Italy this approach, in the absence of a strong relationship, could spell disaster. Here relationships rule.
It is easy for employees initially to believe that everything is broadly the same. Staff will encounter people who look like them, sound like them (after hours of language training!), and smile and agree with their initial statements. However, any attempt to impose home country values and beliefs will often lead to frustration and an inability to achieve targets.
Increasingly, organisations are looking for ways to develop their managers and internationally focused staff to handle this important dimension. The first step in this process therefore, should be to identify not only the people but the competencies, motivation and personal attributes required for success at international, managerial, functional and personal levels and then select and develop potential international managers against these.
While there are international competency models that have been developed to help in the selection and assessment process, it is essential that the one which is eventually used by the organisation reflects both the specific and various cultural needs of its markets and the organisation's culture, which sometimes can be in conflict. In identifying the personal attributes needed, it is also important not to assume that there is a single attribute (or personality) profile for all markets. For example, the person who is ideally suited, in terms of their motivation and personality, to work in one market, say in the USA, may find it very difficult to work in another, say in France or Spain.
A further part of the process should be to give individuals the opportunity to attend relevant country briefings and cross-cultural awareness workshops. This can help them more fully appreciate the opportunities and challenges of an international trading environment.
Advanced management and functional skills training, and country briefings covering the historical, political, economic, social and business environments of the required market(s) are a vital ingredient for success.
Also needed will be cross-cultural awareness training – including language training - to help them appreciate the values, beliefs and practices of the other cultures and importantly, how their own culture may be seen by people from the host nation.
In relation to language training, an expectation that the individual’s own language (or English) will be the acceptable medium of communication will not be helpful. Even though a programme of drip feed tuition may often seem the most cost and time efficient way to acquire or improve language skills, intensive programmes are generally the most effective way to provide training. As programme attendees are away from their office or home environment, they are free to concentrate on their training and can therefore, achieve their objectives more quickly.
There is significant expense involved in a company of sending employees abroad and the cost of failed negotiations can be considerable. Therefore, the importance of correct preparation and training of staff who work in an international trading environment becomes particularly clear.
Laura Mayo is the Business Development Manager at Farnham Castle. Their Intercultural Training specialises in cross cultural management development programmes, global mobility programmes and language training for every country in the world in addition to those coming to live and work in Britain.
Laura Mayo / Expatica
Head & text photos: thinkpanama / Flickr
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