Sunday, July 02, 2006

Soft Skills For Global Managers

In my previous article, I had written on what it takes to be a global manager. But being a successful global manager. A successful global manager need to have global mindset and necessary soft skills.

Today most of the top managers have worked abroad for a substantial number of years. Success of managers in a foreign country is mostly based on their soft skills. Given the fact that only their current top performers are sent abroad -expatriates.

Yet not all expatriate managers are successful. Main cause of failure of expatriate managers is that they lack the needed soft skills to succeed abroad. Unfortunately, people for foreign assignments are selected based on technical skills. To understand this better, read the following story:

T. Subramanian Iyer, a highly successful sales manager from Chennai in India was asked by his company - Prestige products to work as regional sales director in San Antonio, Texas. Prestige regarded T. Subramanian Iyer (TS) as its finest young executives and promoted him to sales director for this new assignment. When offered the opportunity, TS was excited and looked forward for this new assignment and the new challenge. Top management was also confident about its decision of sending TS.

TS is a deeply religious man and had never went abroad. He and his family - wife and two children were exited of this opportunity. On arriving to US, the family’s excitement slowly turned into uneasiness.

Adjustment to American life proved difficult. His wife was unhappy - and apprehensive of her children education - The public school where TS had enrolled his children had a substantial Hispanic population and the quality of education was not the same as their earlier school in India. Moreover TS & his wife were constantly worried that their children would eat non-vegetrian food at school - which was very much against their religious beliefs. She also found it difficult to run the household without her usual servants.

At work, TS found things to be very difficult. The absence of a personal secretary - cramped his style. He was angry that he had to do all travel arrangements, type his own letters etc. Moreover many of his customers expected him to have lunch with them at a steak house or at a BBQ place. TS being a religious man never ate meat - and desisted eating at places which served meat. The idea of eating beef appalled him. All this had a negative impact on his performance and the company was worried due to his failure to succeed.

After 6-months, TS requested to be transferred back to India and was even willing to settle for his earlier role as sales manager - a demotion.

This story shows how a high performing manager in home environment can fail when sent abroad.

While top performance usually is what gets global managers their international assignments, soft skills are essential to succeed abroad. Global business is highly competitive and firms need executives who understand the world and have had experience working in foreign cultures.

Despite nearly two decades of corporate globalization efforts, many organizations still struggle to find managers who are comfortable and effective in the increasingly global economy. Most suffer both from a lack of cultural awareness when dealing with employees and partners overseas and from a lack of experiencing managing increasingly complex processes over long distances.

Though a few insightful corporate giants such as Intel, Cisco, HP, General Electric, Cisco Systems, and IBM have made strides in developing successful global managers. But in many companies, leaders and senior executives continue to be frustrated with the available skills and resources.

Why is it so difficult to develop effective global managers? The answers are as complex as the world's geography. Each company has its own specific needs and challenges and every country presents a unique and rapidly changing landscape in which work must be accomplished.

But even so, there are steps companies and managers can take to better prepare for the challenges of managing globally. The focus here is threefold:
  1. To develop a clearer understanding of the challenges of managing people across borders
  2. To instill in new global managers an awareness of and an appreciation for the vast differences among the cultures in which they do business
  3. To give global managers the tools and support they need to succeed.
The yawning cultural chasm

With the emergence of China and India as the newest and most daunting playing fields, experienced executives and thought leaders agree that softer cultural issues have become the source of notable management problems.

Managing in a global environment means you manage people who are separated not only by time and distance but also by cultural, social and language differences. The main challenge here is to integrate and coordinate these individuals in ways that will ensure success. Global managers need to build a relationship and have frequent interaction and communication among your team (local & abroad) members. They also need to be sensitive to and respect the cultural differences. People from different cultures tend to misunderstand each other's behaviors or stereotype people from other countries. It is therefore essential for the global manager to recognize the discrepancies between cultures in order to work together effectively.

This, of course is no simple task.

Letting go of the headquarters mindset.

Embracing differences among cultures and taking advantage of them to build value begins by eliminating "The headquarters mindset". Most companies & executives assume that they can do things abroad in the same manner as they do them domestically. This makes the company select their best performer in the headquarters and send them on critical foreign assignments. This attitude can be summarized as "We have people who are just like me at home, and we expect everybody else to be just like me". This attitude results in cultural blindness - i.e., refusal to see cultural differences.

To succeed in this global economy, leaders & top management focus more closely on the empathic qualities of prospective global managers. What is essential in a global environment is the ability to work successfully with individuals, groups, organizations and systems that are unlike our own. Managers must also understand what differentiates people and what unites them. Understanding that tension - how are we alike and how are we different is a critically important starting point.

At the minimum, companies need to ensure that their managers have the opportunity to build a basic understanding of the new cultures in which they will be immersed with a particular focus on appreciating how behaviors are different than that of their own.

Key characteristics that successful global managers possess are:

  • A belief that differences matter
  • Openness to new and different ideas
  • Cognitive complexity, or the ability to focus on both the "hard" and "soft" metrics in an organization - the hard quantitative side along with the softer people side.

These three success factors provide a useful framework for prospective global managers to use as they assess their skills and their preparedness for their new assignment.

Remember that cultural differences matter. There are great cultural differences between the people who make up global companies. Understanding how people think, work, eat and interact in a foreign workplace is crucial to building a successful operation. Most managers, new to these foreign environments are ill prepared for these nuances.

In our story of TS, TS as a manager abroad was unprepared culturally to live & work in San Antonio. A xenophobic response to Hispanics at schools, need for personal secretary, disgust over people eating beef - are all examples of his unpreparedness.

To succeed, companies have to realize that there is a complexity involved in managing people in different countries. It is essential to understand: "What is important to them? How do they take information you give them and interpret it back to those who work for them?"

Unfortunately, mentoring skills are in short supply, particularly in small and mid sized organizations.

Openness to new ideas

As emerging markets such as China continue to expand, executives must also tap into the management expertise in these geographies and be willing to move international managers experienced in one country to other countries. Too many companies view globalization as a one-way street, which is a shortsighted view. The integration of international managers plays a big factor in developing global expertise.

Moving headquarters based personnel overseas is one thing but what about bringing some of the Chinese or foreign managers back to headquarters or to Europe or South America and plugging them into the mix? Very few companies have had success with this cross-fertilization. Most small or mid-sized firms are not even open for such ideas.

But consider what this can achieve. Mary Kay Cosmetics, for example, set up operations in China and discovered that it was not allowed to sell door to door as it did in the rest of the world. The Chinese government decided it had had enough Amway salespeople invading the country and called a halt to such selling. So Mary Kay's Chinese managers came up with a new distribution system in China, and a savvy marketing manager there led the development and introduction of a new midrange product that sold well in Chinese department stores. Mary Kay brought this Chinese marketing manager to its Dallas headquarters to replicate what she did in China and help managers see how it could be replicated elsewhere in the firm's global operations.

That is how you use the human supply chain very effectively. This kind of cross-fertilization helps domestic managers think about how to be more flexible in their thinking and to appreciate how incorporating different perspectives is good management and good business.Cognitive complexity: Getting the hard and soft in concert

A vast majority of companies lack the ability to balance the need for consistent corporate practices with the need for regional uniqueness both in terms of respecting cultural differences across geographies and seizing the unique advantages of each market.

HP, a California based computer manufacturer has learned how to balance the need for corporate consistency with the local needs in India. In the early stages of HP’s global expansion senior management allowed local managers from different departments to establish their own connections with other companies in India. The idea was to save money up front by avoiding HP’s corporate bureaucracy and taking best advantage of the local opportunities. As the company grew and expanded in India, management introduced a series of measures to help its Indian employees understand a clear reporting structures and brought in uniformity in process and procedures. This created a sense of pride and commitment among local employees.

But teaching new global managers how to balance corporate philosophy with the unique circumstances of the local market is not easy; it requires an awareness of cultures in the midst of dynamic change. It also demands a healthy dose of independent thinking among some very unfamiliar surroundings.

Inexperienced managers may end up clinging to the practices they know and, thus, fall prey to the "headquarters mentality". Or they may succumb to a form of cultural intimidation in which they allow for whatever the local team is used to. In doing so, they open their organization to the problems. One way companies can help is to allow new global managers to immerse themselves in their assignments slowly. Companies can send managers on short term assignments abroad, or by having them work on a virtual team that is managing an overseas process or project while still being stationed in one's home country. By allowing people to learn to work together digitally, companies provide an opportunity for managers to hone the skills they will need to draw on when they are on the ground in a foreign country but to do so while still in familiar territory.

Diving in headfirst is not an effective approach.

Closing thoughts

Success of managers in a foreign country is never easy. It takes a lot more than technical skills - global soft skills: Ability to understand the cultural difference, ability to work with those difference and take advantage of those difference. It requires a cultural mind shift.

Even the very small things like where the leader sits at a lunch meeting or where to sit in the car. Some would assume riding shotgun next to the driver in front is where the big boss sits, but in US the seat of power is in the back behind the passenger seat. As the Indian economy grows, this problem will worsen because so many managers are sent abroad who are completely unprepared for what they are up against.

Teaching managers and top leadership to understand the need for global soft skills will make an impact on the performance & success of the organization. This is particularly important for Indian firms that are rapidly expanding abroad.

PS: As an individual I have worked in US, UK & India. I read the article written by Dr. Glenn Rifkin of Harvard University & wrote this article with an Indian angle.
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Munaz Anjum said...

Truly said, one of the most important reasons is the cultural chasm between home and foreign nations. A few days back there appeared an article on TOI highlighting why Indians fail to qualify for global citizens. They are unable to mingle with other global people.

The socio-economic upbringing of Indians supplemented by our educational system is different from the western world. We are so emotionally attached to these values inculcated in us right from the day we take birth and they remain as long as we survive.

What is needed at this hour is to break the rigidity and accept the foreign culture with respect. Old but still relevant nothing succeeds like success. If you want to be a successful global manager, you need to develop global traits.

India does not need managers but global managers. Many B schools produce good managers but many of them fail to develop the traits of global managers if they are sent on foreign assignment. Never let the cycle of mood (rising from up to down) dominate you rather devote time to explore their culture, market, and consumers so that when you return back your home country, you have experience to share with your corporations to explore further business opportunity in future.

Erica said...

Shouldn't you have credited the Harvard Business School and author Glenn Rifkin for much of the content of this post?


Have the westerners credited our so called orthodox Chanakya (Michavelli has totally stolen Chanakay's idology), leave alone giving credits, they believe in intruding others space & even converting to their religions for whatever it takes - sweet pill else bitter pill. Whereas hinduism the oldest religion) never ever put thrust on conversions et all...The west was a cave men till few 1000 years back, and breeds on convenience... what will they teach to respect others religions & sentiments who themselves dont know about values in life!American/Eenglish conumerism, Autocracy & materialism if put in simple words is - 'SELFISHNESS' & they have coined it as "LIBERALISM".... In today's psuedo showbiz world encouraging such mentalities will drive people to self-centeredness & not welfare.... It is not modernity or broadmindedness to slaughter mute animals (who cant save themselves). The double-standardness of west is exposed as they do not give opportunities to people who can't mingle with their food culture (read - criteria being to eat beef or rechristening for larger success), does work should not be the parameter to judge the employee? Why the employees are made to change their culture, religion or food habits as a criteria to accept them? Does beef (whom hindus regard as "mother" since we drink cow's milk from begining of our chilhood regarded as orthodox or un-west or backward? What will west understand about love or emotions as they can only understand to 'bodily love' or 'SEX" from childhood... Ironically, character buidl-up is not given signficance here... But, unfortunately, we Indians get so desperate to appease or bend down on our knees everytime in awe of the 'fair skinned' but self-centered & calculative westerners. A big reason that we Indian do soo goood in SERVICE INDUSTRY, than any other Industry!!! Rest, its the level of desperation what is driving we Indians to show disregard to our own culture ... (some Indian want to show how cool they are by defying our cultures or traditions, how much ever logical reasons are presented)... Truly said by a poet - "However powerful a second religion's influence - the Religions - of 'SEX', 'TASTE' & 'WILD continue to rule his senses foremost subconsciously....