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:
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” (read interview)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
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:
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.
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.
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 .
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:
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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)
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:
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.
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 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:
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:
Do you recognize this story? How do you create alignment in your team? Please share your experience with us and feel free to comment!
“We decided on a clear strategy, but up to now we still didn’t succeed to put this strategy into action.”
“How many times do I have to convince my people that this change is necessary for us? They clearly told me they understood, but when I turn my back they continue like nothing has happened!”
“Everybody here will tell you that we now know where we are going because we defined together this shared vision, but when you ask each individual team member what the impact of this vision is on the company, they come up with totally different stories.”
“We could have achieved much more in the past period if everybody would have pulled their weight. We are falling behind significantly because a number of people lack a sense of urgency and ownership. They do what they are asked to do but are not really committed.”
Are some of these situations familiar to you? They are all life examples of situations that I experienced over the years in working with organizations that were dealing with change. All situations where people thought they were aligned, but actually were not. And this lack of alignment caused serious obstacles for reaching the desired outcomes.
We all know it, change is a constant factor for organizations. And it is almost unnecessary to say that crucial for achieving change is the ability to make people (managers and employees / leaders and followers) act together successfully in making the desired change happen.
But why is it then that in the organizations above effort, energy and time was put in engaging each other, empowering people and giving them motivating responsibilities and that despite this people did not show the expected behavior, drive, teamwork and results?
The list of reasons can be quite long because every organization, its people and change process have their own specifics, but what I found over the past twenty years is that the following recurring root causes play an important role:
Stay tuned to Leadershipwatch! I look forward to sharing more of my experience and thoughts with you. Please feel free to share your questions or comments on this and other posts! —————— Related Articles
True alignment between people creates commitment (instead of compliance), ownership (instead of participation) and ‘self generated energy’ (instead of hitch-hiking on the energy of others) to reach common goals.