Learning to Bridge the Cultural Divide – The Sunday Times

Executives are increasingly turning to coaches to bone up on etiquette and negotiating styles aboard.

When Colin Chorley arrived in Nigeria to take charge of a project installing mobile-phone infrastructure in West Africa for the telecom company Alan Dick, he was already sensitive to the perils of assuming too much about what people form other cultures think. “I know these issues are a minefield and that’s something you can’t ignore,” he said.

He wanted to ensure that he understood what his employees, African and expatriate European, were thinking and that they understood him as well as each other.

Chorley, 49, now an independent telecoms consultant, brought in Ian Claffey, an international executive coach with Oxondon Coaching.

In 2006, Claffey organised workshops in Nigeria and South Africa, as well as one-to-one consultations with senior figures involved with the company in both countries.

Everyone was encouraged to discuss their opinions and concerns with the group. “We wanted to get them to understand that they shouldn’t necessarily make assumptions based on their culture but rather be aware that some of the differences in approach to work may be cultural,” Chorley said.

Claffey said that a grasp of what the locals think always make life easier. “Although the office won’t look too different, when you start communicating you’ll find those who have an understanding of local culture will have people on their side and will be able to find answers to problems a lot quicker,”.

In previous jobs, Michael George had enjoyed dealing with Americans. It had never posed any real problems. So when tensions arose between executives in British and US subsidiaries of the Takeda pharmaceutical company, the London-based managing director of Takeda Global research and development (Europe) was taken by surprise.

“I couldn’t understand why we were finding communications difficult when dealing with our American colleagues,” he said.

George determined that the problem was cultural. So he turned to a cultural coach. As globalisation gathers speed and new markets open up, professionals are increasingly dealing with colleagues, clients and competition from foreign cultures.

It is note even necessary to travel, with many multicultural teams operating in Britain or online. This can throw up a variety of challenges, from meetings etiquette to negotiation styles. Mistakes can prove expensive as the unprepared watch collaborations sour, deals falter and business head elsewhere.

In George’s case, Allyson Stewart-Allen, cultural coach and co-author of Working With Americans, was able to talk him through the specific business issues that he faced and showed him what underpinned them.

In the past 18 months, they have had half a dozen sessions to identify tricky situations, define them, act them out and discuss the differing cultural perceptions.

One revelation was that the US business culture is not homogenous.

George had previously worked with East Coast professionals, but his colleagues at Takeda were based in the Midwest and had a rather different outlook. In particular, they felt their job security relied on taking action and that the European tendency to be more reflective undermined their company profile.

Americans want to do something, Europeans want to talk about it,” George said. “We can appear slow to move on issues and also, surprisingly, we can come across as quite aggressive and rather pushy despite the fact that that’s note how we perceive ourselves.”

As a result of the coaching, George was able to build bridges, Communications have become more respectful and there is a deeper understanding of cultural differences. “People have more insight into the impact of what they say and do in cultural terms, and there’s a greater willingness on both sides to step back from a reaction and try to understand what issue is driving the business need,” he said.

Stewart-Allen stressed there was a huge cultural divide between the two sides of the Atlantic. “Although there were some stands of British DNA in American business culture, most have been bred out by now,” she said.

She likened her role to that of an optometrist, helping to provide British executives and corporate teams with the correct cultural lenses to enable them to look into the American psyche and get the best out of working with them.

Cultural misunderstanding is a big source of business failure, according to Fons Trompenaars, an author and world authority on cross-cultural communication. It is one of the principal reasons that 75% of mergers and acquisitions fail.

He said it was vital to recognise, respect and reconcile cultural differences and to gain an insight into other peoples’ intuition, emotions and mindsets. “It’s about knowing what is ‘Asian’ in you so you can understand them,” he said.

At Ernst & Young, cultural coaches are brought in to help staff about to embark on three to five-year assignments abroad. Jane Collette, mobility leader for the professional-services firm, said: “We have many programmes to make sure partners are well prepared to live and work in their host organisations so they can hit the ground running.

“We want them to gain the skills and the knowledge to be most effective in the environment in which they’re working.”

Richard Ireland had six months to prepare before starting a three-year assignment in Beijing to head Ernst & Young’s telecoms practice last year. Despite extensive experience abroad, Ireland took his preparations seriously. He paid four visits to China, took part in a particular induction course and was brought up to speed on local problems.

He also had weekly sessions learning Mandarin and gaining cultural understanding. “Without the coaching I would have upset a few people,” Ireland said.

Business etiquette in China is more hierarchical than in Britain – even car seats are allocated according to rank. “Local colleagues and clients can see that I have made an effort to understand,” he said. “That is really appreciated and it gives me a business advantage over those who haven’t tried.

Furthermore, the experience has given Ireland’s career a boost. “I have a whole different dynamic to my CV that you can’t get from web-based learning or reading books,” he said.

“It has built my capability to be a much better client server, something that I will be able to apply when I leave Beijing.

– Steve Farrar