Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness? (Part 2)

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the importance of openness within teams. About how our perception of openness can vary much from culture to culture, and how this can seriously hinder teams from being successful. In ‘Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness – Part 1’ I described the case of an executive team that experienced difficulties in creating openness among each other. They found out that the way they communicated with each other was a fundamental obstacle for openness, in the way they interacted, how they listened to each other. In this Part 2 you read what they decided to change in their communication, how they changed their listening mode and increased the mutual openness in the team.

Never underestimate the power of listening! That is what the team learned. We human beings are drilled in processing loads of information, filtering out what we need, analyze what it means, and responding to it. We are used to do this almost non-stop. And we are really good at it! Why? Because we have a secret weapon: our brain. Our brain can process all information that comes in and it guides us in how to react to it. It is immensely effective in categorizing all those numerous pieces of information in very little time in cleverly constructed boxes. Therefore, it is able to process huge amounts of data and making information out of it that makes sense to us. And it can do this at the speed of light (or something like that). But this incredible ability has a disadvantage. It makes us lazy! The brain works so well and so fast that we tend to rely too much on its processing. We believe too easily that all the tiny constructed boxes are the right ones. We trust that the way the brain categorizes information into those boxes is correct. Even more, the repetitiveness of many of the categorizations creates recognition and strengthens our believe that they are correct. And many times they are right, but not always. When we are confronted with unknown new information it is tempting to put it in already existing boxes where it seems to make sense. But what if it does not belong there? What if we actually need to create a new box based on new insight?

If we don’t trigger ourselves continuously to challenge the way we process information we run the risk that we do not create knowledge and insights, but prejudices.  That is why listening is often more difficult than we expect. Especially in cross-cultural environments it is crucial to shift your listening mode from ‘listening to react’ (where you keep using your existing boxes) to ‘listening to learn’ (where you are open to creating new boxes).

The team I described in Part 1 decided to specifically focus on the way they listened to each other. They defined together a set of listening principles that they decided to use during each team meeting and during 1-on-1 meetings with each other. These listening principles became a crucial part of their team operating principles. And it changed the level of openness within the team in a drastic way. This is the set of principles they used:

  • Ask questions to receive information and explanation, not to sell your idea

Often we raise a question directly followed by a long explanation why we ask this question. We are so eager to explain our culture, our values and beliefs, our reasoning and wisdom. By doing this we are in fact (even unconsciously) ‘selling’ our idea or opinion instead of really listening to how others perceive it. We are in fact not really open to receive, but instead we are sending to convince. When we force ourselves to raise a question without additional explanation, we change our thinking and it triggers us to focus on the other and to open up.

  • Openness means asking open questions

Textbook stuff, right? Sure, but if you combine it with the first principle it becomes less obvious. Just try it out and play with it during meeting. And keep in mind that by asking a really open question you hand over the steering wheel to the other. He or she will now steer. You will not know where the conversation will go. It is very well possible that it is a different direction from the one you were steering on. That is exactly the purpose of an open question: let the other steer and choose the direction. You follow. It’s amazing what unexpected and valuable information comes your way.

  • Listening means trying to limit your thinking

This is maybe the hardest part. Real listening means that we receive as much information as possible. The more information, the better we can learn to understand the other’s perception, cultural beliefs, opinions, etc. But the fact that the information is coming from another cultural background makes it harder than normal to process. We might have difficulties with understanding what the meaning is of what the other is saying. And then our brain kicks in and starts to help us by putting these peaces of strange information into our existing boxes. It makes it easier for us to process the information, but it is potentially strengthening our prejudices. In fact, we are no longer really listening but are thinking in ourselves and creating a picture that makes sense within the boundaries of our cultural values and beliefs. Real listening requires being aware of this mechanism and being able to stop it when it happens, and to keep actively focusing on the other. Limit your thinking as much as possible until the other is done talking.

  • Probe first, react later

When the other is done talking you have time to think through what you heard.  Some of us feel uncomfortable at this moment of silent reflection. But don’t you worry, it proves you are really listening and are taking in the other’s message.  Immediate reaction or reply often creates the opposite impression that you are not really interested and are mainly focused on you. Reflecting on what you heard allows you to check if you completely understand what you heard. It triggers new questions that further explore parts that are still not clear to you. Open questions, sometimes introduced by a small summary of what you do not completely understand. Avoid to react on what you heard based on your own interpretations (your own boxes). First make sure you really understand what the other means before you react.

  • Use questions that leave space for the other

This is a principle that is often overlooked. As described in Part 1, asking an honest question does not necessarily mean that the other feels comfortable with it. You try to be honest and open, but the other feels pushed and confronted by you because he or she does not feel ready yet to talk about it. Be alert to these potential situations and try to avoid them by asking questions that leave space for the other to choose how to respond and what to share with you at this moment. It might feel a bit strange but the other will recognize it and will appreciate your respectful approach. And very likely the other will open up to you much quicker when you leave them some space. Example: you want to know how this person is thinking about a certain problem; you don’t ask, “what do you think we should do about this problem?” but for instance “how are these kind of problems perceived in your country?”

  • Only give your opinion when it adds value

A powerful principle that in my experience is valid in every culture. If your opinion is adding value to a discussion then share it. If not, then keep it to yourself. There is no point to share it. You probably disturb the dialogue by sharing it, create useless discussions, loss of time, or even offend others unintentionally. If it helps to build better understanding, to create openness on where you stand on a certain topic, to get to a solution together, perfect!

The team followed these set of principles carefully. At the beginning it felt artificial, but after some weeks the first signs of change became visible. Gradually the team developed a better mutual understanding and openness.

What is your experience with communication in cross-cultural teams and with creating openness? I am looking forward to reading your stories and comments!


As international business advisor, change leader, facilitator and executive coach Aad supports companies, their leaders and leadership teams in achieving sustainable business success in cross-cultural environments. He works with his clients on topics about leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. He shares his experience and stories on http://leadershipwatch-aadboot.com.

Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness? (Part 1)

When you observe successful teams in action you witness that an atmosphere of openness is always one of the success factors that drive the team’s behavior and performance. But as we all have probably experienced a few times in our lives, creating mutual openness is easier said than done. Especially when we talk about cross-cultural teams? In that case, how do we deal with openness? How to create openness?

I still vividly remember the team meeting I facilitated a while ago for this cross-cultural leadership team. The team was newly formed after an acquisition and it was responsible for leading the new integrated organization. The team members were clearly struggling to find the right level of openness among each other. They asked me to support them in tackling this problem. At a certain moment in the meeting we decided to explain to each other what everybody believed was the essence of openness. No accusations, just explaining what it meant to us. The outcome was very interesting. There appeared to be two subgroups within the team. The one subgroup felt that openness was being honest and doing what we agreed, being straightforward, being open about our goals, being open to criticism, being open to tell each other what you think and feel about our performance. They believed that by being all this they were open and that it would serve the interest of the team. The other subgroup also believed openness was vital for the team, but they felt totally different about how to be open. They often perceived the ‘being honest’ of their colleagues as ‘being full of yourself’; they perceived ‘being open about what you think and feel’ as ‘trying to prove you’re right’; they felt that ‘being straightforward’ was rather ‘being blunt and inconsiderate, even manipulative’; they believed you reach your goals best by being patient and subtle, not by putting all your cards on the table immediately and sticking rigidly to rules and targets. They all wanted to be open, but perceived openness totally different. Why?

It was after they became aware of this difference that the team started to ‘open up’ and started to listen more carefully to each other. They did not understand each other, and this left them with two simple options: or sticking to your own perception and disagreeing with each other; or trying to better understand the other’s perception and where it comes from. They chose to do the latter. It resulted in a fruitful and productive discussion with a very important conclusion. They learnt that the way they perceived openness was related to the way they perceived relationships.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review Fons Trompenaars and Peter Woolliams describe the role of relationship orientation in cross-cultural differences. In one of the paragraphs they make a distinction between rule-centered versus relationship-centered cultures. The way the team above dealt with openness was related to this difference.

How strictly we adhere to rules and how eagerly we make them vary greatly from culture to culture. Rule-centered societies like the United States and Britain feel that general rules should have global application and that all comers should compete on a level playing field. Relationship-centered countries like China, Russia, and India value bonds with family and friends above abstract rules: Particular circumstances and the people involved may dictate the response to a situation. Countries in the former category probably better satisfy the desire for distributive justice, but they may become obsessed with rules and regulations—which explains in part why the United States has so many more lawyers than Japan does. Countries in the latter category tend to resolve failure privately, through relationships. The Swiss, North Americans, and Australians are the most rule-oriented, with 70% to 80% of respondents believing that exceptions to rules should not be made to help friends. In the BRIC countries, by contrast, only 25% to 40% would put the rule above the person. (Read article).

To bring it back to the situation of the team above, there were two different perceptions of relationship and that affected the mutual openness. For the one subgroup a deep and strong relationship was the outcome of being successful together in achieving goals. Openness for them was a prerequisite for being able to set rules and achieve goals together, and as a result the relationship would grow deeper and stronger. For the other subgroup it was the reverse. For them it started with the relationship as a prerequisite for being open. For them achieving goals together depended on the strength of the relationship. The stronger the relationship, then more openness there would be.

This situation was not unique to this specific team. Differences in relationship orientation play a role in many cross-cultural teams and have an impact on the level of openness. I have seen situations where genuine attempts to be open had exactly the opposite effect and even decreased the level of trust. This difference in relationship-centeredness exists in general terms between Western and Eastern cultures. But I also witnessed the same kind of differences between Northern European and Mediterranean cultures. Even regions within one country can show subtle differences in how they perceive relationships and therefore show different behavior towards openness.

Creating openness is an underestimated aspect of team development. Too little emphasis on creating openness can seriously hinder the team’s success. It requires special attention from leaders of cross-cultural teams. By creating awareness and deeper understanding of each other’s viewpoints. Postponing this, ignoring it, or trying to deal with it in a rush, will often have the reverse effect.

Successful leaders understand that creating openness starts with stimulating people to open up to one another.  Not opening by pouring out all our opinions. Not opening by expecting others to do the same. Not by expecting all questions are OK to ask. Not by judging that being less open is being less honest.  Successful leaders understand that opening up requires their team to go from the level of exchanging information to the level of really listening to each other. Listening taking into account the differences in how we perceive relationships. And really listening requires less talking! Funnily enough easily regarded as being less open.

The team reached an important first step; they got to the point of awareness. They decided to go a step further and to explore together how they could increase the level of openness within the team taking into account the differences in relationship orientation. They found out that a fundamental building block was the way they communicated with each other, how they interacted, how they listened.

In Part 2 I go deeper into how they did this. What did they change in their communication? How did this increase the mutual openness in the team?

I invite you to share your experiences. What is your experience with cross-cultural teams? Do you recognize what this team went through? What is your experience with creating openness? I am looking forward to reading your stories and comments!


As international business advisor, change leader and executive coach Aad supports companies, their leaders and leadership teams in achieving sustainable business success in cross-cultural environments.  He shares his experience and ideas on http://leadershipwatch-aadboot.com.  For more on Aad’s services, click here.

Leading Change: What does Change mean to You?

The other day I heard a senior leader say: “More than ever we live in times of change. Our organization will have to face the fact that what was will disappear. We will have to adjust and reinvent ourselves or we will be pushed aside and others will take our place.”

True, we live in times of change. But, do we face more change than ever before? Is that true? Many of us like to believe that. Yes, globalization, rising of the BRIC countries and other emerging economies, technological innovation, social media, to name a few, they all have a strong impact on organizations and societies. And yes, companies are facing a lot of changes. And yes, these changes can cause uncertainty, and temporary chaos and disruption. But is it actually ‘worse’ than ever before?

In fact, change is everywhere around us. It always was and always will be. Our lives, the whole universe exists by the grace of continuous change. We all know this because we experience it every day. Not a day is the same. Our bodies change non-stop. The weather is always changing. Plants and trees, rocks, rivers, and seas change. Our relationships, friends, colleagues, customers, suppliers, they all change. We live through change every day and we are extremely capable of dealing with it.

Why then do leaders experience difficulties in leading change? Why do leaders perceive the changes of today as more complex compared to before? A big part of the answer can be found in the fact that the technological evolution in the world shows an exponential growth. During our grandparents’ lives there was a great technical evolution, during our lives even more, and in our childrens’ lives this evolution curve will still grow steeper. The impact of this technological progress, its consequences and its possibilities are huge. The speed of change has increased and the time for companies, leaders and employees to respond and adjust to it seems to be shorter and shorter.

Essentially it is our mental model towards change that defines whether leading change turns out to be a painful burden or a challenging learning experience. Change itself has not become more complex, but the average time to absorb it has decreased. In the past decades organizational changes could be boxed in time bound projects. Roll it out, perceive it as an assignment, get it over with, and return to doing normal business again. Nowadays that seems less and less possible. Change has become a structural part of business reality and it is there to stay.  So the challenge for leaders is to adopt this mental model themselves before they can lead change successfully. Not just by talking about it, but also by their actions. The more they support cultures in which change is approached as something continuous (in which flexibility, resilience, vigilance, proactive behavior and innovation are imbedded), the more their teams will be able to embrace and achieve successful change. It starts with the leaders’ mind set.

Let’s put it in more black and white terms: you find two kinds of leaders, those who lead change as a continuous learning experience versus those who do not … yet.  And their mental models are reflected in the successes their people achieve. A difference between two kinds of leaders:

  • Those who see change as being continuous versus those who see it as a one-off assignment
  • Those who see their success as something temporary versus those who are fighting to keep it
  • Those who believe everything is possible versus those who believe their future depends on the past
  • Those who let change evolve versus those who hide in procedures to keep everybody between the lines
  • Those who see life as non-stop learning experience versus those who believe they have reached their ‘destination’ and don’t want to move anymore
  • Those who keep their teams alert for change versus those who let their teams nod off
  • Those who see resistance to change as fuel for dialogue, improvement and insight versus those who regard it as disturbing and annoying
  • Those who radiate energy and personal motivation versus those who show fatigue and negative emotions
  • Those who believe they can gain something versus those who believe they will lose something

What does change mean to you?


As international business advisor, facilitator and coach Aad supports companies and their leaders in achieving sustainable business success in times of change and innovation.  If you’re interested to learn more about Aad’s services, click here.

Cultural Alignment: 4 Communication Traits of Successful Leaders

Companies face the impact of a globalized market. New economies are emerging fast. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing. Traditional market positions of companies are challenged. As a result leaders are confronted more and more with new and different ways of thinking, behaviors, motivations, and habits of people. As I stressed in an earlier post, being successful in creating a sense of relatedness among people despite cultural differences, is becoming a competitive advantage for companies.

Over the past years I have worked with executives and leadership teams of different companies and nationalities, and I see a clear difference between the leaders who enjoy dealing with people and cultural alignment and those who don’t. Between those who see it as a challenge that motivates them, and those who try to avoid it. Between those who see how tangible it can be and how big an impact it has on business performance, and those who don’t … at least not yet.

Mastering cultural alignment: is it a leadership quality that you need to be born with? No, I don’t believe so. Is it a skill you can easily learn? Just follow a course on inter-cultural management skills and you know it all? No, it will probably help but aligning cultural differences requires more. Human beings are too complex creatures to be boxed in generic models and answers.

The real trick is in the actual communication between the people involved. It is in entering the real dialogue with each other that the alignment starts to grow. Successful leaders give priority to this dialogue. They know they do not have all the answers, but they believe that this dialogue is vital to creating understanding and to defining the right actions to boost collaboration and performance.

There is a specific set of communication traits that distinguish those leaders who are successful in creating cultural alignment from those who are not. Traits related to our mindset and our way of leading team meetings and discussions, especially in cases of cultural differences that hinder effective performance and collaboration. I witnessed many times how these traits changed the atmosphere and the outcomes of meetings drastically.

Based on numerous discussions with leaders, facilitating meetings with their teams, individual coaching sessions, I have filtered out 4 communication traits that stick out. I illustrate these traits below by describing 4 brief case studies (the names are not real):

  • Focus on questions, more than on answers

Every time the discussion in his team turned towards conclusions, solutions or actions, John stopped them and raised a question. Always digging deeper into the issue, as if he was deliberately preventing the team from moving forward. It sometimes even caused slight irritations. They felt being held back. He continuously challenged the conclusions and triggered people to think deeper. If there was a problem, he wanted to know the details of the problem. He wanted to know the causes. He wanted to know if everybody was looking at it the same way. If not, what did they see differently? And why? And did the others understand what their colleague meant? What did they not understand? And why?

John understood that we have a natural tendency to jump to conclusions too quickly. We hear half the answer and we have our reaction ready. It is very human, but also very ineffective when we want to come to sound decisions within a business organization. Even when his team didn’t like it sometimes, he deliberately pushed them to find the right questions, more than to find the right answer. It felt like losing time, but in the end they realized that they saved time by understanding better what they were talking about. As a result they could make better decisions which motivated employees and created team spirit.

  • Look for the deeper assumptions

It was very interesting to see how Lisa dealt with her team when she noticed some of them were not taking up the tasks she had delegated to them. The team was new after the merger and the people came from four different nationalities. Others team members complained that some were not pulling their weight. Morale was declining. Lisa did not approach it as a daily problem, as something she had to correct, maybe in a directive way. She did not choose to put pressure on those who underperformed. Instead she called a team meeting and explained she wanted to have an open discussion on how they as a team wanted to deal with responsibility. What it actually meant for them. She forced herself not to judge those who acted irresponsibly. Instead she focused on clarifying together what we expected from each other and how we could improve.

And then after a while, one of the colleagues that was perceived as showing lack of responsibility carefully expressed how difficult he felt it was to step into the shoes of his superior ….! Surprised reactions. What did he mean? Nobody expected him to take Lisa’s place? Slowly it became clear that he felt that the job Lisa had delegated to him had put him on her chair. And he did not want that. Because he believed it was disrespectful to her to take over her responsibility. That was normal in his culture: you don’t do the work of your superior because it shows disrespect. He perceived it as being disrespectful while she and others perceived it as showing a lack of commitment. Everybody was pleased that they shared this together. Because Lisa looked for the value based assumptions behind the behavior of the team it now became clear that there was no lack of commitment, only a lack of clarity on how to perceive these delegated tasks. From now on she would explain better how the delegated tasks were supporting her job (and that of the team), and the team understood that supporting your superior was not regarded as disrespectful.

  • Avoid ‘agreement discussions’

Paul has become very effective in leading team meetings. He is able to speed up the process from problem-analysis to problem solving to decision-making. Not by hurrying or pushing or putting aside certain topics for later.  But by avoiding what I call ‘agreement discussions’.

He wants his team to have an open discussion where they can exchange their ideas, concerns and perceptions. He always wants to understand why others see things differently. He noticed that every time his team tries to get agreement on things, that they tend to get into discussions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Those hardly ever help the process forward and only create irritation or superficial compliance. Paul doesn’t want that; to him it is a waste of time. He believes that the biggest potential is in strengthening mutual understanding. That helps to improve performance. Whether his team sees things identically the same is no longer important to him, as long as they understand and accept the differences. He has learned to ask himself ‘Can I live with this, even if I do not share your point of view?’ If not, I need to explain why I can’t live with it. Otherwise, let’s do it! That is why he always interrupts discussions when they tend to become agreement focused.

  • Communicate on the same ‘scale’

Michael was having a meeting with his leadership team. The board had asked them to come up with a strategy to counter the impact of the financial crisis on the business. Seven country managers, and the group directors of Sales & Marketing / Supply Chain / Research, were all there. The discussion was lively and the atmosphere was tense. There clearly was a lot of pressure on everybody. Soon the discussion went into specific aspects of the operations to look for possible improvements. Without even noticing it the team started to argue with each other on details, trying to convince the other: we in the north manage our production shifts like this and that works, you in the south should do the same; we don’t have these issues with our customers in the south, because we arranged our teams like this, why don’t you in the north; etcetera.

After a few minutes Michael interrupted the team and said: “From now on I want everybody to use the Northern countries’ production shifts model. And I want everybody from now on to use the Southern countries’ customer service approach.” The team went silent and they all looked at him in disbelief. Did he really think that would be the solution? Of course it would never solve their problem! You can’t just approach our customers in that way. You can’t expect our people to start working in such a shifts model. Michael knew they would react like this. He continued: “Why are we here? What is our role here today? What is your role here today? Are you here to defend the interest of your country? Or are we here to defend the interest of the group? Both need to take place, but not at the same time because it is not the same. We need to decide together, before we continue, on what scale we are discussing here. Group or local country level?” Michael showed a nice example of how to bring a discussion to the same scale and by doing that creating clarity and common focus. It helped him and his team to go step by step and not to mix things. It prevented them from getting lost in details on cultural differences. And it took away a big part of the irritation. By splitting group responsibility (here we are the same) from local country responsibility (here we have differences and that is OK) it became easier to align cultural differences.


Aad supports executives and their teams internationally in creating leadership alignment and reconciling cross-cultural differences.  If you would like to know more about Aad’s services, click here.

Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Build Mutual Trust?

LeadershipWatch Aad Boot

For leaders of today’s and tomorrow’s businesses the ability to connect people and build successful teams in cross-cultural environments is a crucial competency. Many companies operate in globalized markets and leadership has to deal with cross-cultural differences. How do modern leaders create effective collaboration between members from different cultures? How do they build trust in one another? How do they install a sense of belonging together within the company? Understanding how to create people alignment is crucial for today’s leaders.

People alignment is more than just aligning functions and tasks. The essence of people alignment is creating a sense of relatedness. A sense of relatedness builds mutual trust between people. People that sometimes literally come from different worlds. This requires not just an operational focus, but also a mental focus.

“Witnessing a person from our own group or an outsider suffer pain causes neural responses in two very different regions of the brain. And, the specific region activated reveals whether we will help the person in need. Researchers at the University of Zurich studied the brain responses of soccer fans and now have neurobiological evidence for why we are most willing to help members of our own group.” – ScienceDaily (Oct. 7th, 2010) (read article)

I don’t want to take this topic too far into the domain of neurology and psychology, but this article in Science Daily got my attention because it supports my observations in businesses: corporate leaders often underestimate the importance of creating a sense of relatedness in dealing with cross-cultural differences. They often focus on aligning tasks and business results as the sole driver for creating team spirit. When they are confronted with cross-cultural differences (for instance in cases like mergers or expanding business to other countries) they tend to expect their middle managers to obtain the required multi-cultural management skills. They reduce it to an operational management issue. The result is that cross-cultural differences and issues are managed (read mitigated), but in many cases do not lead to more trust in each other. The differences are still there, the misunderstandings are still there, but the negative effects are maybe more or less under control. No real change in mentality has taken place. Thinking in ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ is still active. People still do not feel they are a team and therefore they are not willing to go that extra mile for each other. The impact on business success is clear. Those companies, that can create mutual trust and a sense of relatedness despite the cultural differences, have a clear competitive advantage.

Successful leaders understand the importance of creating cross-cultural understanding and trust in their company. They understand their behavior individually and as leadership team sets an example for others. They understand it is part of their role to show how they build successful cross-cultural relationships themselves. They understand they probably have to go outside their comfort zone for it, and they show courage by doing it.

Leaders who are successful in creating cross-cultural alignment show a specific set of behaviors, that is fueling mutual trust:

  • Actively build cross-cultural relationships themselves

They start themselves engaging with people from the other culture and build relationships. They use this as an example to their teams and they convince others to follow the example: ‘if  I can, so can you’.

  • Get outside their comfort zones

They show an active will to learn from the other culture and to change their thinking and behavior. They show openness and vulnerability. They create an environment of learning from each other.

  • Embrace diversity and explore its potential

They see cross-cultural differences as potential for enrichment and improvement, not as issues. They create an atmosphere in which differences and frictions are ok. They focus on possibilities to reconcile the differences, not on eliminating them.

  • Act themselves towards relatedness

They take time to discuss cross-cultural differences in-depth with each other. They stimulate open dialogue. But they also set out clear actions.  They understand it is vital to build mutual awareness and understanding through dialogue, but that acting together in small steps towards common goals eventually creates the real trust.

  • Persistence

They realize that mutual trust is not built overnight and that in the rush of our daily business people sometimes fall back into old thinking and behavior, which revives old prejudices about each other. They create specific moments together to monitor and evaluate the progress, the positive things and the areas for improvement. They consider creating mutual trust to be a specific objective for themselves and their teams.

You find more about cross-cultural leadership in my post Leading cross-cultural teams: Do you understand the cultural differences in your team.


Aad facilitates and advises companies and their leaders in reconciling cross-cultural differences and creating leadership alignment.  If you want to know more about Aad’s services, click here.

Post Merger Integration: Who is your Enemy?

My sons play baseball. They love the game and are both playing in the same team. It is a team of young kids between 11 and 14 years old and living in Brussels gives an extra flavor to their team; it is a melting pot of different nationalities and cultures. Belgian, Dutch, American, Japanese, Italian kids are playing together and trying to understand each other. Their American coach has a hard job. He speaks English, is learning the basics of French and uses Japanese fathers as interpreter for the Japanese kids. Not easy for him to make a team out of this bunch. But he succeeds, and here is how he does it.

Before each game he waits until the other team has arrived. Then he brings his players together and explains them (using words, arms and legs) to check the opponent and to spot its weak points. He explains that there is only one chance to win this game, and that is by attacking the enemy in his weak zones. He stresses the importance of sticking together as a team and to join all our forces. He even lowers his voice to raise the tension and the excitement of the kids. He is no longer talking about the techniques they practiced during training. No, he has created a very clear target: the external enemy. It is amazing to see how the kids react to it and how they start to act as one. Language barriers seem to fade away, and a sense of togetherness kicks in. They get energy and confidence out of it. They build strength as a team by having an external enemy. They belief they are better than the others!

Now here is the thing, in businesses we see the same mechanism. In post merger integration processes or large reorganizations we often see leaders use the same tactics. They try to grow, support or protect their teams by focusing their energy on an external enemy. But what if this ‘external’ enemy appears to be the acquirer, the mother company, that other division or the holding, instead of the competitor in the market place? The impact can be devastating for the company’s success.

I have witnessed a company sliding down from being a proud and highly successful market leader to being a second-rate business unit with decreasing market share and lagging sales figures, since it was acquired by a foreign competitor. The executive leadership tried to keep the ship and its crew together by openly blaming the new mother company for the deteriorating figures. ‘They do not understand our company.’ ‘They want to crack our winning business model.’ ‘They don’t see that we are better in this than they are.’ ‘They just use us to become more successful themselves.’ And guess what, in the end everybody really believed this was the reason for their decay.

Leaders that focus on the wrong ‘enemy’ might end up with the opposite effect from what they intended to create. They may experience:

  • Growing lack of trust in the new owner (or in the new brother or sister company);
  • Decreasing self-confidence among the team in the ability to create our future;
  • Not understanding the other party’s way of working;
  • A mentality of closing of from the others;
  • Sticking to the old way;
  • Not taking advantage of new opportunities;
  • Low ability to innovate;
  • No structural growth and development.

Targeting the ‘internal enemy’ may generate togetherness and unity for a short period, but on the longer run it will lead to risk aversion, distrust and lack of innovation.

Successful leaders choose a radically different way.  They don’t lock themselves up or hide their failure by blaming the other party. They do the opposite. They engage the other party, try to understand the others and look for ways to join forces and to learn from each other.

They lead by example and stimulate the following behavior:

  • Openness towards the other party

They stimulate their teams to get to know the other party’s way of working and to learn from each other. They expect their team to do this effort. They understand that often it means people will have to get out of their comfort zones. Therefore they coach and support their people to take this step.

  • Acknowledge cultural differences

They acknowledge the differences between each other, but they see it as opportunities. They do not deny their own culture (they are even proud of it), but they do not think their culture is better than the other culture.

  • Focus on complementarities, not on differences

They believe in the power of synergy as the key to innovation, improvement and long-term success. They focus their team’s energy on finding the synergies with the other party and exploiting it.

  • Lead by example

They communicate consistently to the team about opportunities and possibilities they see. They do as they preach by building relationships themselves with the other party. They support and back up their team in case of conflicts, they remove obstacles for their team and they lead the way.

In this way they create high performance teams and stimulate a successful integration.


Are you involved in post merger integration? How do you support your team to grow confidence? How is your team dealing with change and cultural differences? Please share your stories below!

If you want to invite Aad to your team or organization, feel free to contact Aad here.

Organization Development: The True Meaning of ‘People come First’

Lego puppets

A few weeks ago I received an unexpected call from a senior executive (I will call him Thomas) of a company I worked with some years ago. We had not seen each other for a long time and it was nice to hear from him again. He was facing some new challenges in his division and he invited me for lunch to discuss it with me and see if I could help him. It was great to hear how well he was doing and how he had taken up exciting new responsibilities in the company since we worked together. He was now leading the Eastern Europe division, a fast growing and fast changing market that required a substantial amount of change management and organization development.

While listening to his story I was struck by the way Thomas was talking about the changes he was managing. He was genuinely enjoying his work. He was facing complex transformation, resistance and no certainty he would make it, but he talked about it with a degree of calm. Almost as if he knew it would turn out just fine. When I mentioned this he looked at me with a smile and said: “I’m not alone in this you know. I have the best team of people around me you can imagine. Without them I would be in big trouble. We perfectly complement one another. It’s just a joy to work in such a team.”

His team was his key to success. That was why he could see opportunities instead of problems and handle the current reality with all its challenges and unpleasant details, and still keep the focus on the future organization he was building.

The story of Thomas is not ‘one of a kind’. If you look around you will find more leaders that build success by surrounding themselves with people who form a winning team. Also in leadership literature you can find many examples of companies that create their success by focusing specifically on bringing together the right people.

Jim Collins for instance studied a large number of companies for years to define the reasons for their success (or lack of success) and came in his famous book ‘Good to Great’ to the following striking conclusion: Successful companies have leaders that first bring the right people on board (and let the wrong people go) before they define the destination and the road to follow. They do not define the strategy first and try to find the right people for the execution afterwards. (watch Jim explain)

Another example is Richard Branson who claims that his success in building and growing his conglomerate of divers companies is based on the people he collected around him: “When it comes to business success, it is all about people, people, people.”

This may sound a bit logical and maybe even obvious to you. But if you take a closer look at what it takes for leaders to do what Jim Collins and Richard Branson describe, it is maybe less obvious than it seems. What does it really mean ‘People come first’?

Successful leaders have a special quality when it comes to bringing people together. They have a specific attitude and mindset. They go beyond ‘managing people relationships’. They put people in the center of their lives, in the center of their dreams, of their plans. They envision their success because of the people around them.

After his election for President Abraham Lincoln chose to put some of his biggest opponents in his team, people who openly had criticized and ridiculed him during the elections and in the years before. He knew these people did not even like him, but he knew they were the best men for the job and he wanted them into his team.

If you observe successful leaders in action you notice the following specific behavior:

  • First the people, then the results

They believe that creating success depends on the people around them. They believe that the people together define the destination and the road. They do not define results before they have the right team.

  • Genuine interest in people to understand each others qualities

They show interest not only in what people HAVE or what they DO, but also in whom the person IS. They want to understand the person’s background, experience, inspirations, ideas, drive, and concerns.  They are good listeners.

  • Patience with building relationships

They understand that it requires time to build relationships that are based on mutual trust, openness and respect. They know that merely ‘using’ people to establish results will only lead to incidental success, not lasting success. They don’t sit and wait but they actively invest in building lasting relationships and they are persistent because they know it is crucial.

  • Independent thinking without ego

Strong and deep relationships do not prevent them from staying independent thinkers. They will never just follow an opinion, decision, or action without checking the reasoning and the facts behind it. They will not ‘follow the group because others do’, and do not hesitate to choose a different direction on their own. They do not do this out of suspicion or driven by ego, but out of continuous curiosity. They want to go for the best and they inspire their team to have the same curiosity and independent thinking.

  • Always asking for feedback from others

Although being independent thinkers they are always open for feedback and different viewpoints. They actively ask their team for second opinions and alternatives and they trigger others to have the same attitude. They believe the complementarities of the team members are crucial for the team’s success. They embrace contradictory opinions as the necessary fuel for sharpening judgments and decisions.

  • Taking decisions when necessary

They detect clearly the moments when decision taking is required. They can stimulate people for in-depth discussions and exchange of ideas and opinions, but they know exactly when the time has come to take decisions. On those moments they will not hesitate to take a decision.

  • Not wanting to please others, but building mutual respect

They do things or take decisions that lead to the desired destination. If these actions or decisions do please others, even better. But they are willing to take unpleasant decisions if it serves the common purpose. They understand that this will eventually lead to mutual respect. Trying to please others but undermining the higher purpose, will not lead to respect.


Do you recognize these leaders? Did I miss some points in the list above? Please share your story or comments with us!

If you have questions about organization development, leadership alignment or related topics, feel free to contact Aad .

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: Do you Understand the Cultural Differences within your Team?

Creating people alignment is crucial to your business success. It always has been and always will be. But what does this mean in our current business environment where the globalization has spread like a fire? What is the impact on companies? How are leaders dealing with the different nationalities and cultures that are rapidly blending within their organization? How is it affecting teams and people behavior and performance?

Inter-cultural leadership skills have become key for leaders in multinational companies

Working with cross-cultural teams is no longer a ‘nice to have’ experience that you can share on parties, by telling entertaining anecdotes. Today’s leaders are dealing with challenges that are directly related to cross-cultural differences. If they are able to reconcile these differences they accelerate success. If they don’t, they very likely will face issues like resistance, misunderstanding, unexpected behavior, and conflicts that seriously hinder success.

And beware! Over the past decades the globalization of businesses may have mainly gone from the West to the East. Western companies (with the exception of Japanese companies) were merging and acquiring Eastern companies. They brought new cultural influences to the East. Eastern leaders were invited in corporate leadership development programs and educated at Western business schools, learning Western leadership principles. But in the future, merger and acquisitions, like Chinese and Indian companies are already showing, will also be in the reverse direction. This will make it even more important for tomorrow’s leaders (being Western or Eastern) to be capable of dealing effectively with the cultural differences that can hinder successful working relationships.

In my work with leadership teams on cross-cultural issues I frequently go back to what I learned years ago from Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. I had the pleasure to work with them and to experience how you can boost corporate success by creating leadership alignment based on the reconciliation of cross-cultural differences.

I learned three key lessons that are more relevant today than ever before:

It all starts with creating mutual awareness of the cultural differences that hinder us

Successful leaders are not afraid to start a discussion on the cultural differences they perceive and the effect it has on behavior and performance. They even want this discussion to take place. They understand it is vital to create an open discussion if they want to stimulate mutual trust and commitment.

You can only solve cultural differences when you understand the background of these differences

Frequently I meet leadership teams where the discussion stops at exchanging each other’s point of view and by agreeing on actions to diminish the negative effects. Successful leaders understand that this will probably not improve the situation in the longer term. Behaviors will now be recognized more easily, but will probably not really change. Successful leaders want to go beyond ‘just knowing’ the differences. They want to understand where these differences are coming from, learn from it, and they want their teams to understand and learn from it as well. They know these discussions are never about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but always about ‘perceptions’ and the ‘value based assumptions’ that are behind these perceptions. They understand it requires extra openness and mutual effort of each team member to get to this level, but they also know it is the key to real team alignment.

Solving cross-cultural issues requires reconciliation, not compromise

Successful leaders see cross-cultural differences as an opportunity to reconcile the best of both worlds. This means creating a new way of looking at and dealing with our differences. Not ‘fighting’ each other but combining our strengths.  They avoid compromise, because it often leads to mediocre solutions: we agree you will no longer do that and I will no longer do this.

“If we both pour water into our wine, we will both have poor wine. If we combine the qualities of our grapes, we can create a great new wine.”

I received this video a view weeks ago from someone who is dealing regularly with cross-cultural issues. A powerful presentation by Devdutt Pattanaik. A bit long, but I am convinced you’ll like it and that you will find it 18 minutes well spent!


What are the cross-cultural differences in your team? How is it affecting your team’s performance? How do you deal with these differences? How do you strengthen the alignment in your team? I look forward to your comments!

Do you want to know more about cross-cultural alignment? Keep following upcoming posts or contact Aad .

Leading Change: 6 Signs that tell you might be dealing with Compliance rather than Commitment

Word Commitment on orange wall

In my earlier post Why Alignment is crucial for those who Lead Change I explained how a lack of alignment can lead to compliance instead of commitment and how this can be a serious setback in achieving change.

In all the years that I’ve been working with business leaders I have never met a leader who stated that having a committed team was not important for creating successful change. Every experienced leader knows it is important – no not important – it is crucial. Commitment triggers a sense of ownership, of responsibility and accountability, a will to go that extra mile, an almost logical reflex to jump in and help each other with doing the job. But it doesn’t come cheap and be careful not to confuse it with compliance!

Compliance is often the enemy of commitment! Why? Because it disguises itself as commitment and by doing so can hinder change.

It is much easier to face open resistance. In that case it is clear, the cards are on the table and you can deal with it. In the case of compliance it all seems ok. No signs of resistance. But as soon as people feel the impact of the change, compliant behavior can rapidly transform itself into resistance.

In other words, the sooner you can spot compliance in your team, the more chance you have you can still change it into commitment and turn your team from a lagging mode into a leading mode.

How can you spot it? Here are 6 signs that tell you might be dealing with compliance rather than commitment:

  • Action orientation instead of result orientation

Compliance often leads to action-oriented behavior. ‘As long as I’ve done my task I’m ok. The others have to take care of the rest.’ There is no real concern about the result, about whether things could be done better. Committed people are mostly concerned about the end result and less about how to get there. ‘It is the end goal we all do it for.’

  • Little interest in higher goals, vision and strategy

Committed people are intrinsically interested in the vision and strategy behind the change. It is fueling their commitment. The stronger they can identify with the vision and strategy, the more committed they will be to act and make it happen. Therefore they will raise questions and discussions about the vision, strategy and objectives, where you will hear much less of this in case of compliance.

  • People are talking ‘YOU’ and ‘THEY’ instead of ‘WE’ and ‘US’

In conversations or team meetings real committed people don’t even notice themselves talking in ‘we’ or ‘us’ because it comes from within. They just know that we are in this together and that we help each other out where needed because we want the change to be successful. Compliant people use more ‘they’ and ‘you’ in their communication. They do not easily relate their work to that of others. You will hear things like: ‘I’ve done my share, the rest is up to you.’ ‘I don’t know what the problem is, you have to ask them.’ ‘It’s not my fault, I did what I had to do.’

  • Trying to stay below the radar

You might be dealing with compliance rather than commitment when people are staying low, when they make sure they stick to the rules and do what their boss expects them to do without any further initiative or extra effort. Real committed people show pro-active behavior, are continuously looking for things to improve, take initiative and do not wait for others to go first.

  • Uncomfortable with questions like:
    • Why should we do this according to you?
    • What should be our desired result?
    • What do you propose?
    • How would you like to solve this?

A simple test is to ask one of these questions. Committed people will not only have an answer but will also appreciate this type of questions. They will react engaged. When you deal with compliance, people will react more hesitant or even annoyed. These questions appeal to their sense of ownership. In many cases they will only feel responsible for the short-term tasks that were appointed to them and therefore these questions are difficult for them.

  • Tendency not to set deadlines and being uncomfortable with others setting them

In situations of compliance you can experience a lack of deadlines. Because of the action orientation there is a tendency not to be too strict with deadlines and timing. Deadlines are perceived as extra pressure and therefore are preferably loosely managed or avoided. Committed people want to see progress and want to feel they are reaching the desired outcomes. For them paying attention to deadlines, timing and milestones is logical.

Are you dealing with commitment or compliance in your team? How is it affecting your change process? Do you encounter the same behavior as above or does it show itself in other ways? Feel free to add and comment!

Do you want to know more about how to turn compliance into commitment? Keep following upcoming posts or contact Aad.

Photo: thenext28days/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Is your Team really Aligned?

The story you are about to read is a real life story.

A few years ago I participated in a management team meeting of John (not his real name) and his team. John’s company, a Fortune 100 business, had recently done an acquisition in Europe and was in the middle of the post merger integration. He had been appointed as chief executive of a new division and was assigned by the board to lead and finish the set up and integration of this new division within 12 months. His first focus had been to select and form a new management team. He had selected a team of people from both companies and was confident that he had found some of the best people for this job. Together they had defined an integration strategy and execution plan and they had started with the roll out immediately.

But some months down the road things were not going as John had expected. The integration process was not going fast enough. Deadlines were missed. People were becoming restless and asking for clarity. Resistance from employees against the integration plans was increasing. The board was raising questions about John’s leadership and was putting more pressure on John to speed up. He had called me for advice on how to break through this.

John’s team was a strong team, you could notice immediately. He had gathered a group of people that had a lot of experience, strong minds, ambitious and a lot of energy. The discussions were lively and there was an atmosphere of openness. You got the impression there was mutual trust and a strong drive forward.

But then some other things also got my attention:

  • Almost all discussions were focusing on the HOW of the integration process.

Team members were trying to convince each other of their solution to speed up the integration. A lot of discussion took place and it led to agreement or disagreement. When there was agreement the team decided on the action to follow. Where there was disagreement the team got stuck and put the topic aside in order not to lose too much time. “We will park it for now and get back to it next meeting. That will give each of us some time to further reflect on it. But next time we need to have a decision!” Somehow a lot of topics took much more discussion and time to get solved, than expected upfront.

  • Team members were mostly in a ‘selling’ mode.

There were a lot of phrases like:  “Yes, you mentioned this already several times now but you are missing my point.” / “No listen, I believe this is the wrong solution.” / “I do not understand why you keep on saying that. We’ve discussed this now various times and we need to make a decision here!” Somehow the team was very open and respectful amongst each other but not really understanding each other.

  • The team struggled with having the right focus.

The team had put together a clear list op topics that were not going as planned. These points were translated into a priority list. Every meeting the list was the core of the agenda and was run through point by point. But not every point seemed to be equally important for every team member: “Why are we still talking about this point? We decided last meeting that you would arrange this.” / “I understand that it is important to fix this, but for my people it is more important that we give them a solution for the other point I just mentioned.” Somehow the team did not know which topics were creating the most leverage for speeding up the integration process.  Instead they tried to focus on everything.

When I shared my observations with John it became clear to him that his team’s drive to move forward prevented them from addressing some essential questions:

  • What are the mechanisms that are holding us back?
  • Where are these mechanisms coming from?
  • What should be our focus to break through these mechanisms?
  • What are the appropriate actions?
  • How are we going to carry out these actions

He realized that he had underestimated the importance of having team alignment around these questions. Although the team seemed very focused, open, forward driven, a real team, it was in fact still trying to find its way to become a really aligned team.

He decided to make some crucial changes in the way he was leading his team meetings. Changes that almost immediately started to have effect. Step by step the team gained focus, became more efficient in decision making and execution and grew confidence in finishing the integration successfully. And the organization and the board noticed this.

John decided to:

  • Ask his team what they thought of the level of alignment: he stressed the importance of being really aligned and made it a specific topic on the agenda.
  • Make alignment tangible: he expressed to his team that it goes beyond teamwork and ‘liking each other’, that it is about ‘do we have the same view on WHAT needs to be done to reach our goals’ before we go to the HOW.
  • Listen carefully to the differences in the feedback he received from his team members. He realized these differences were important signals of potential non-alignment.
  • Ask ‘getting to the bone’ questions, they deepened the discussion and got him closer to the essence:
    • What do you believe will be the impact of the integration process on your work/team/department?
    • What do you expect from your colleagues in making this integration process a success?
    • What according to you are we missing in the way we work together that is hindering us in reaching our goals?
    • What is your perception of the level of trust and openness amongst each other? What is missing? Why?
  • Not mistake what people shared with him for what they really thought. He probed and listened carefully. Created an atmosphere in which people felt free to speak. He installed a specific ground rule during the team meetings that was called ‘we listen to learn instead of listen to react’.
  • Focus on the perceptions of his team members, NOT on whether they were right or wrong. He realized that perceptions were driving behavior and that different perceptions could reveal non-alignment.

Do you recognize this story? How do you create alignment in your team? Please share your experience with us and  feel free to comment!

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