Most of the talk about globalization focuses on the promise of expanding markets and opportunities. But unless part of your global go-to-market strategy includes something called "cultural competence," your plans could go awry.
I spoke with Sangeeta Gupta, author of Quick Guide to Cultural Competency and founder of the Gupta Consulting Group.
Just so you know, all proceeds from the sale of the book go to organizations that come to the aid of children in need worldwide.
Cultural competence: Building a global team
For the most part, my conversation with Gupta focused on cultural competence as it relates to partners and working with distributed teams.
The term localization -- certainly another aspect of cultural competency -- focuses more on the end customer and how to incorporate culture and customs when you're selling something to the local population. A cliché example is that Americans are attracted to red on packaging in stores; the Japanese, silver.
But Gupta took a step back from the final sale and talked about how important it is to understand the people with whom you are working.
One of Gupta's clients came to her after they blew a huge deal over an introduction.
The company's mistake: The female executive extended her hand to shake hands with a man whose orthodox beliefs did not allow him to have any physical contact with women.
The customer backed away in horror. The woman executive was equally embarrassed and humiliated.
The deal ended right then and there.
Obviously, this could have been avoided with a little cultural insight on the part of the executive.
Just as a company puts a localization strategy in place when opening a new plant or launching a new product overseas, company leaders must learn about communication styles, attitudes toward meetings and deadlines, even the very notion of what makes a good leader in a given culture before entering into business negotiations with an organization overseas.
In the United States, a direct approach -- even when critiquing a team member -- is admired, but in most of Asia, directness is not regarded as highly. A leader who practices that approach humiliates the person she is criticizing; moreover, in the eyes of the other team members, she humiliates herself.
Gupta condensed her executive training guidelines into three steps for me. There are lots of nuances, depending on where your team is located, but these are the three points to keep in mind when building a global team anywhere in the world.
Step 1: Self-awareness
The first step is to understand yourself. What is your style? How do you communicate, and how do you lead?
"You need to know yourself before you interact with other people," Gupta says.
Step 2: Develop cultural competence
You can develop cultural competence by learning about another culture, developing the ability to observe and understand that people do things differently. You have to be able to do this without saying this is right and this is wrong. This is just the way things are is probably a good attitude to adopt.
"It doesn't mean you leave it there," says Gupta. It doesn't even mean you have to accept it. But what you do have to do is learn how to communicate what your expectations are and find out what their expectations are for you.
Some of these are very simple things. For example, what does a deadline represent to your team? What is their norm of business etiquette?
In Asia, business is usually a bit more formal. As we saw from the example above, how you greet a person is culturally determined. In Asia, titles or last names are used rather than first names.
"Twenty minutes of research, even in a travel book or online, is helpful," says Gupta.
Step 3: Cultural adaptability
Now you must take the information you've learned about the other culture, include self-awareness, and adapt your communications style.
Understanding another's culture is important. But to truly understand, you will have to interact -- and listen between the lines. Is the person hesitating when they say "yes"? "Yes" may not always mean yes.
These three simple steps could mean the difference between completing a project and having it go up in smoke. Starting off on the right foot is critical. With a little training -- and an understanding that you are dealing with people, not pawns to move on a chessboard -- Gupta practically guarantees your business will be far more successful on the global stage.