Becoming a Global Leadership Coach

January 31st, 2016

A little over ten years ago I began my transition from an American executive coach to a global leadership coach. I became an associate of Grovewell LLC, a global leadership consulting firm founded by an interculturalist and an anthropologist. They engaged me to work with some global pharmaceutical executives, pharma being one of my coaching niches. As Grovewell’s partners shared their respective fields’ insights with me, I began to shift one of my central beliefs. I went from believing that personality was the major driver of leader behavior to believing that culture played a central role – maybe the central role. This was significant for me, a student of psychology for almost 50 years.

As I continued to work with business leaders from other countries, I began to understand that their culture of origin influenced, and in some cases determined, their leadership styles. The more I looked, the more I saw the influence of culture. Leaders from East Asia tended to be reserved and speak indirectly. Leaders from Israel tended to speak very directly and – from my American perspective – bluntly. Leaders from Germany and Denmark also tended toward bluntness and directness. The French tended to be very analytical, while leaders from Italy and Latin America expressed much more emotion.

All of these leaders were working outside their home culture, and therefore needed to adapt to American culture and to collaborate with people here from different backgrounds. Comparing and contrasting their culture of origin with their current work culture became a very valuable tool in their development. Examining specific differences in cultures was eye-opening for me as well as for them. It accelerated their learning and their ability to lead effectively in their new culture. It helped them alter their behavior and, eventually, even their beliefs.

CASE EXAMPLE

An Israeli leader working here in the U.S. was respected for her knowledge, her productivity, and her warmth with others. But she got into trouble when she bluntly spoke out about problems and openly challenged the responsible parties to step up. Her North and Latin American colleagues were shocked! They shared this observation with her manager, who became concerned about this high-potential leader. When the manager brought this to the Israeli leader’s attention, she asked to work with a leadership coach. Via Grovewell, this assignment came to me.

When I interviewed her stakeholders, they all cited this “too direct” behavior pattern. It became a central part of her development plan. As we explored her directness, it became clear that it was a culturally-based pattern that she learned from her family, her schoolmates, and her Israeli workplace colleagues. (Having visited Israel and having Israeli friends, I was not surprised by her directness.) Her challenge became how to develop a more empathic, diplomatic leadership style.

Self-awareness is central to behavior change. In her case, recognizing the cultural foundation of her pattern helped her to become aware of the urge to be direct to an extent that was not acceptable in the U.S. Self-awareness prepared her to resist this urge. We also worked on empathy to help her sense and predict others’ emotional reactions.  Once she refined these two awarenesses, we role-played several scenarios in which she would rephrase a blunt message into diplomatic, sensitive, culturally appropriate language. She learned quickly, and after a few weeks of practice – first in the coaching room, then in the workplace – she became able to communicate diplomatically. She demonstrated this recently by communicating diplomatically about a sensitive issue in a meeting with the American team. Everyone understood what the issue was and knew how to resolve it; but she did not need to spell it out and embarrass any individual. She was becoming a skillful cross-cultural leader.

But cross-cultural learning and behavior adaptation contains a built-in challenge; it requires a deep understanding of both cultures: one’s own and the other. A person with merely a general awareness of cultural differences is able to grasp the nature of the challenge. Effective change requires a fuller understanding both cultures. Habits, beliefs, values, and behaviors differ greatly, yet often subtly, from culture to culture. South Asians, French, Russians, Chinese, Danes, Argentinians, and people from every country on earth have very different ways of looking at the world and their behavior in it. In order for any of us to work effectively with each of our clients from abroad, we first need to understand the wellsprings and drivers of their cultures, and of our own.


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