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Helping women understand the cultural assumptions that drive business in foreign lands.


Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

Helping women understand the cultural assumptions that drive business in foreign lands

Both men and women can learn how to bow, kiss or shake hands effectively, but when it comes to global management, addressing deeper cultural issues is the challenge for both sexes. This challenge, however, is slightly more complicated for women than it is for men.

Most men will never have to experience flirtatious behavior or deal with sexual advances, nor will they need to defer power in a meeting, or go the extra mile to prove who they are in order to succeed while on a foreign assignment.

When I coach female global leaders, the most common question I am asked is:

Q: When I am traveling overseas on business or working on a global assignment in a foreign country, how do I handle flirtatious behavior and sexual advances?”

A: Begin by understanding machismo. Most people might think that this problem is a “women’s problem,” but it is not, it is a problem faced by both sexes, women, however, feel the negative effects of it more often than men.

In most Anglo Saxon cultures “machismo” means acting in a manly fashion so as to magnify the male role while diminishing the female role. In the other 90% of the world’s cultures, machismo has a totally different meaning. For those cultures, machismo is about female virtues, defending and protecting them VS male honor, displays of and enforcing it.

For example, in some cultures, the belief exists that whenever a man and woman find themselves alone, regardless of circumstance, they will be irresistibly drawn to one another. The man will be unable to restrain himself; the woman, unable to resist his charm. This has great implications for women when working on a foreign assignment and will determine if she works late at the office or if she’ll accept an offer to network or attend after work hour events.

The second most common question I am asked is:

Q: “How can I establish my authority when working overseas?”

A: For male leaders, the concept of authority is almost a given because they were born male, or hold titles of power. Female leaders, however, must go through a series of steps to gain the respect and admiration of others even if they hold titles of power. This involves more than understanding cultural workplace power and how to leverage it. It involves looking at the cultural attitudes and expectations of women in the society in which you are working in, so you don’t get blindsided.

In some cultures, men have a fraternity like attitude that is difficult to broach. It stems from centuries of learned behavior that women are to be respected as mothers and homemakers, not as business people.

In other cultures, women are to be seen and not heard. The idea stems from the age old concept that women should be creatures of beauty and admired for that trait. Hence, the concept of beauty pageants experienced in some cultures that is as popular to the locals as the world cup.

Establishing authority and fending off sexual overtures are only a few of the challenges and differences women experience while traveling to or living and working overseas. There are many other cultural assumptions that a woman must understand and manage in order to be respected while on a global assignment.

If you are a female working in the global arena or a leader who must develop a pool of female talent to send on global assignments I share the following:

  • Build awareness about your assumptions of the business world. Where and how do you view women in that space, are they support staff or do you see them as leaders who can hold power and delegate with authority?
  • How well do you understand the local environment in which you must lead? I’m not talking about the superficial stuff, or the how to do this or that. I’m talking about the deep levels of assumptions and expectations, the biases, the feelings towards and about women that exist in the local environment. Believe me they are there and you must become aware of them if you expect to succeed.
  • Look at the management and leadership style you hold and compare them to what you see in your local environment. How do the locals behave? Where can you improve? What do you need to change? How much or how deeply do you need to adapt in order to be successful? Are these differences acceptable to you and are they in alignment with your personality?

When it comes to the female leader, what men take for granted, women must work harder at achieving. For example, many times while attending meetings in a foreign country, it is assumed that if you are the man, then you are the one your foreign counterparts defer to, and address with the expectation that you, the male, hold authority to make decisions. However, if you are a female leader in the same situation, the local leaders will assume you have no decision making capacity. They display this behavior by looking for and addressing a male in your team. As a female leader in this situation, how do you handle it without losing your authority or worse, losing the deal altogether?

Prior to the meeting you prepare your colleagues by instructing them to defer directly to you, both verbally and with body language. This lets the other party know that you are the one in charge.

I once attended a business meeting with a male colleague. The leader we were meeting was top in the organization and from a high power distance country. He politely shook my hand, but immediately focused all negotiations and conversations towards my colleague. My colleague very diplomatically turned his attention towards me and deferred questions to me by saying, “Candida is the expert here and she is in charge of the entire program, I will defer that question to her so she can properly answer you.”

That was it; my colleague’s words, body language and actions let our potential client know that I was the person in charge, the decision maker and the expert. There was no loss of face or disrespect for anyone, the leader took the cue and understood how to proceed, he immediately pivoted the conversation towards me. My colleague listened patiently and intervened when I deferred the conversation back towards him.

In other words, at times you may need to speak through a male colleague while at other times; you can have your colleague defer the conversation towards you as is illustrated above. It all depends on the culture and the situation you are in.

Establishing authority as a female leader is not impossible; it just takes a bit of pre-planning coupled with the understanding of local behaviors, expectations and values. Even when armed with such knowledge, at times you may need to do some “on the spot adjustments.”

Knowing where to focus your attention and how to maneuver in your local environment is of utmost importance to success in the global market place, not only for men, but especially for women.

“Remember – you are a foreigner everywhere except in your own culture.” © 2018, Global Arrival, LLC




Culture Is Like A River…


Through the years, there have been several theories used to describe culture. Since culture is so hard to describe, having a theory to try to explain it makes sense, but how much sense does it actually make when you are living in the midst of a new culture? Do you actually remember to apply the theories?

Below I describe two well known theories and add my own thoughts about culture. I hope you will find it helpful in your global work.

Culture is like an Iceberg: The top visible 10% of the iceberg is what one sees when in a new environment. The way people dress, the way they talk, what they eat, the cars they drive, the buildings they live in, etc. The bottom half of the iceberg states that 90% of the iceberg is not visible. You can’t see how people think, what they are feeling, how they process information, how they learn, etc. This theory is very popular, and does help some individuals grasp the concept, but doesn’t allow you to experience culture in the moment. It’s too mechanical.

Culture is not a “thing.” It is a state of being where groups of people and individuals act on their beliefs and those beliefs are what govern their behavior.

The second theory is Culture is like an onion. To effectively understand it, imagine an onion, and like an onion, you peel each layer of the skin, which brings you deeper into the core of the onion.

Comparing culture to an onion insinuates that for you to understand others you must peel away at layers of their personalities to get a clearer understanding of who they are. People are not like that, and you are not a psychiatrist, you are a global leader and you can’t peel away people’s personalities to get to the core of who they are.

It takes time to get understand your co-workers, colleagues, clients, business partners, etc., that is because people are growing and developing all the time, they are not fixed. Their behaviors can’t be peeled away.

These two popular theories make culture seem mysterious, dangerous and even complicated. Understanding different cultures is not an easy process, but it is also not as black and white as these two popular theories suggest.

In my opinion, culture is about feelings, perceptions, attitudes and behavioral processes coupled with action, all of which allow the existence of what is, and change of what could be, to surface. The collective mentalities of a society are what govern their culture.

Understanding culture and cultural differences or similarities, for that matter, is about suspending your own judgments about how you think things should be and to look at what really exists, what is real, right in front of you.

This type of understanding takes time to develop. As you spend time in a new country and allow yourself to become submerged in a new culture, the invisible things that were not apparent in the beginning start to surface. What seemed strange, different, mysterious or even dangerous is no longer there. This mental shift is what allows you as a leader to begin seeing things with a fresh perspective; it is what gives you the ability to lead effectively in any surrounding.

Let us explore a new approach. What I call: “The River Theory,” the idea that culture is always changing, slowly and steadily changing, like a river. Rivers change very slowly as they flow steadily along their paths. Rivers are guided by the energetic pull of gravity and it is the contours of the Earth’s surface that allow rivers to shape themselves. People in different societies also shape themselves. They too are guided by their surroundings.

Like the shifts and changes of the river, which are not noticeable to the naked eye, people’s attitudes about life also shift and change with time, those attitudes may not be so noticeable at first, but eventually, they will be impossible to ignore.

Let me give you an example: What was popular 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago may be passé today. That is because people define culture. People define the way of life they value and adhere to; they shape themselves within their own societies, inside their own boundaries.

Just like the banks of the river are its boundaries, societal rules are a culture’s boundaries. Banks give a river its shape; it holds it together so to speak, just as a river has direction, shape and boundaries, so do people of different societies. People make a culture, they are the boundaries of their own identities; they and their laws become the way they choose to govern themselves. People define culture.

Like the river, moving ever so slowly, culture too moves on, sometimes it moves rapidly, sometimes it moves slowly, at times changing course in some places, while remaining the same in others.

Culture and a river are similar in that aspect as they both are part of an existence. Both encompass their surroundings and eventually become part of it.

Are you encompassing your surroundings? Are you becoming part of it, flowing and changing ever so slowly towards mastering ease of operations in your new environment?

In my work with global leaders, the most successful ones are the ones that don’t follow any particular cultural theory. Instead, they flow, like the river, in a constant state of development and growth towards greater understanding and assimilation. This attitude is what allows them to not have to theorize away differences, but instead embrace them, work with them and flow along with the processes of what governs their new surroundings.

Building Culturally Intelligent Organizations


In China, companies are often asked to make sacrifices for the interest of the nation. That idea is strange for foreigners to grasp; however, you must be fully aware that if your organization decides to open operations in China, you must fully convince the government why your proposal is good for the nation, the economy and the Chinese people. You and your team will need cultural intelligence to manage entry into China as well as entry to any other foreign country, when it comes to conducting business effectively.

How Do You Go About Building a Culturally Intelligent Organization?

Below I give you a few best practices on building a Culturally Intelligent Organization that will not only educate your company, but that will also give you a return on your investment:

  1. Leadership commitment: Leaders need to demonstrate their commitment to cultural intelligence by demonstrating through their actions the global strategic vision that they follow and live by.

Questions to explore this commitment include the following points:

  • How does culture influence your business challenges? Look at your operations and ask yourself how culturally diverse are your customers, as well as the markets in which you operate in? How culturally diverse are your teams? Do you have global leaders in different parts of the world or traveling to different countries to conduct business? If so, look at your expats on long-term and short-term assignments. Lastly, look at your home based employee pool and get metrics on how engaged your employees are. Are they attached and aware of how diversity and culture affects your business? These insights will allow you to look at innovative opportunities, which will allow you to expand into new global markets.

Do not isolate cultural intelligence to a few global leaders, engage the entire organization. A truly global organization will integrate cultural intelligence across all functions as part of the strategic plan.

  1. Perform an Organizational Cultural Intelligence Audit. Conduct a cultural audit. The audit should focus on the organization as a whole, including divisions and teams, both in and out of your home country. Your audit should look to answer the following:

To what extent do the internal and external practices and marketing messages of the organization reflect a culturally intelligent approach?

What cultures represent the organization? Which ones stand out, and which ones fade into the background?

Do you have diverse cultural teams? How have you equipped them to represent themselves and their unique talents?

To what extent do your senior leaders demonstrate and promote culturally intelligent behavior?

Have you conducted studies as to how your organization hires and promotes diverse culturally intelligent individuals?

An audit can and should also be looking at your HR policies and practices, as well as input from customers and suppliers on how they view the cultural intelligence of the organization. Use these studies to organize and develop your organization into a culturally competent company.

  1. Formulate a Cultural Intelligence Strategy. After the audit, it’s time to formulate the strategy for becoming a culturally intelligent organization. As in any strategic plan, this plan should include milestones, action steps and target dates. Look deeply at the following areas to see where cultural intelligence should become a required skill:

Those who market, sell products and services to different cultural groups, both domestically and internationally.

International leaders, managers, teams and project managers should all have developed cultural intelligence.

Leaders on global assignments, both short and long-term, living abroad or right here at home, but operate globally should know how culture impacts the organization.

Employees who travel internationally or take on global projects should all be savvy when it comes to handling diversity in the workplace.

Members of virtual teams need to understand themselves and other company teams before picking up the phone to discuss any business issue.

Specialists, who you may hire help internally, including external consultants must be globally savvy and internationally competent.

Your home office staff and support service employees that interact with branches and subsidiaries in other parts of the world must be able to communicate and work effectively alongside people of different backgrounds and cultural influences.

Don’t overlook support staff – they too are part of your organization, they may answer emails, return calls, teach, interact with newcomers, greet guests, etc., if they are not culturally educated, you may find big mistakes will consume their time and the company’s budgets.

Ask job candidates to describe their cultural intelligence and explain how they would resolve specific intercultural and cross-cultural situations that may arise in the daily operations of their work that could affect your organization.

Reward culturally intelligent behavior and knowledge. When your hire or promote someone who has experience working effectively across cultures, be sure to highlight that part of their talent when you announce the hire or promotion and include culturally intelligent behavior on performance reviews.

Organizations with employees who have high cultural intelligence can expect the following outcomes:

  • An organization that effectively expands into diverse markets.
  • High-quality service for customers and clients.
  • Effective operations that work with speed and efficiency.
  • Productive assignments that get completed on time and within budget.
  • To win the war for talent, by becoming the employer of choice. Believe it not, today’s talent is looking for companies who embrace diversity and understand cultural differences. Good talent wants to expand in the global arena and be part of the global stage.
  • To have diverse team effectiveness and synergy within and outside of the organization.
  • To become profitable while cutting back on expenses caused by serious cultural mishaps.

“Remember – you are a foreigner everywhere except in your own culture.” © 2017, Global Arrival, LLC


How to Spot a Global Leader

jimmy-bay-207382NewWhat does a global leader look like? Are they walking around with any distinct features, or special characteristics that brand or identify them?

Just because you have an excellent executive in your home country who has given you great results year after year, doesn’t mean you can place them on a jet and send them to work overseas, it also doesn’t mean he/she will be ready to lead your global initiatives right here at home.

Knowledge, experience and competencies are all critical, but being a global leader requires some unique qualities. For example, can your best leaders be molded? Can you teach them sensitivity? Can you teach them energy?

The best global leaders are a breed in and of themselves, partly because of nature and partly because of their life experiences. They have a “magic mix” of skills and behaviors that come together to create a competitive advantage for your company.

Whether your leader is at headquarters or globe-hopping they need to succeed across countries, economies and cultures, they must be able to have excellent people skills and know when and how to adapt instantly. Here are some of the differentiators that spell success:

Ambassadors – Global leaders are the company they represent. They stand for and represent the company’s core values. People may never get to visit your headquarters to see how you operate; a global leader brings corporate culture to them, they are your spokesperson.

Explorers – Effective, successful global leaders love exploring new places and learning about new environments. A global leader once told me there are two kinds of global travelers, those who arrive, go directly to the Westernized hotel, visit the office and leave, and those who arrive early and have passion to understand the native culture. They want to know how do things work in this country. They take the time to learn how the unique, local environment impacts what individuals do. They are willing to look at changes in the business landscape. They visit and stay in local places and delve themselves into the local flare of their environment. Global explorers are passionate and inquisitive about understanding their surroundings, if you want to spot someone like this, look for the person who isn’t afraid to ask questions. As the quote on the back of Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel said, “ll Faut Aller Voir,” which means, “We must go and find out for ourselves.” Global explorers are curious by nature, they find things out, they are information seekers.

Energetic – The most successful global leaders have high amounts of energy. Imagine flying across the globe, going through customs, traveling to your branch office and walking into a meeting ready to conduct business. You must have a huge amount of energy to complete this task alone. Global business happens 24/7; there is no time to pause. This type of fast-paced environment requires boundless energy. A global leader is always on.

Vision – Epic global leaders possess visionary skills, they must be able to leverage themselves in any environment. They must think entrepreneurial in order to be able to utilize highly developed analytical and decision-making skills to successfully manage in unfamiliar places. With their vision, they are able to take business to a higher level. Take for example, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of India’s Reliance Industries, who is creating what he promises to be the world’s largest startup. He plans to create 1 million jobs and reach $25 billion in annual sales by increasing the standard of living in India, by setting up airlines and trucking routes that never before existed. The vision is: we are not afraid, we can see what needs to be done and we know how to get there. Excellent global leaders follow their dreams.

Mobilizers – The best global leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with are masters at mobilization. Many are required to mange or start-up new operations, and sometimes don’t have enough resources or information. They need to influence decision makers and work with, not through them to obtain what they need to get the job done. They need to learn how to utilize local resources, to find the right people for the right job, how to organize the right teams to accomplish their goals and most importantly, be where their people are.

Personal Integrity – Integrity and acceptable business practices vary from one culture to another. In challenging local conditions, global leaders must demonstrate the highest level of integrity. They must be honest, committed and able to perform consistently in many differing situations. They must be genuine, true, transparent and real in order to gain trust from those they lead.

Chameleons – Effective global leaders are chameleonic, able to adjust to their surroundings without standing out. They must be able to adapt their behaviors and beliefs to unfamiliar roles and environments. This skill is important in any leadership role, but with global leaders it is imperative to adapt to your local environment instantly. You can’t change a person, but you can teach them to be sensitive to what’s acceptable within the different cultures they operate in. In addition, they must be able to understand their own personal leadership style as well as how to adjust their style in order to be effective in diverse situations.

Black Belts – Black belts represent the highest level of mastery in martial arts, in business it’s Six Sigma, at the global leadership level it’s mastery of cultural diversity and emotional intelligence. This type of mastery involves knowing and understanding how to engage, motivate, and inspire individuals within various cultures. Excellent global leaders know how to adjust their styles according to each situation. When it comes to understanding the importance of forming a human connection, global leaders are masters, the black belts of communication, and experts in what they do. For example, engaging and motivating in France requires a different process than what is needed to get the same result in Germany. Global leaders don’t fail because they lack technical skills or experience, they experience difficulty because they don’t have people skills, the ability to stop, listen and understand. An effective global leader is always respected by those they influence and lead.

Intellectual Stamina – Operating as a leader at the executive level is complex in any country. Operating a global organization with multiple regions, economies, political, social, and cultural factors; and understanding the factors that influence strategy is even more complex. Global leaders are sharp, they possess “street-smarts,” which is the ability and the intuitive knowledge needed to survive in difficult situations. They are on their feet and thinking all the time. They must be able to deal with ambiguity and crunch a lot of information into the smallest amount of time.

Research shows that there a significant difference between excellent leadership and excellent global leadership.

To effectively answer the question on how to spot a global leader, you need to delve into getting to know your people, dig in, ask questions, observe, listen and understand them and you may wind up finding your diamond in the rough.


Unconscious Bias Training… Does it Work?

Unconscious bias is all the talk in diversity these days. It is as if someone turned on a switch and companies everywhere are adding unconscious bias training to their diversity programs.

I am not against it, but it has been part of cultural training and diversity for decades. The only thing that happened is it became zeroed out as a point to focus on. Much like repacking products for sale at the grocery store; where the company will come out with a new and improved version, which is basically the exact same thing as the old product.

Whether you are a large or small company, a leader in your own home turf or overseas on a global assignment, diversity issues are everywhere. Singling out one area of it and focusing only on that one theme fails to address the bigger picture. And the big picture is that culture is the driving force behind much of human behavior.

If you are not addressing the cultural background and belief systems that individuals hold, you will be misunderstood.

The central contradiction of unconscious bias training is that you can’t train something you can’t control. Most of us can’t control what our brain does. You can’t become more objective just by learning about or thinking about biases; unconscious bias training does not actually provide you the tools to do something about how your brain behaves.

This is the basic problem with using unconscious bias as the starting point to improve functioning. You can show someone that he or she has an unconscious bias, and you can even identify what some of those biases are. But then, what do you do about it?  How do you use this information to effectively create positive change?

It’s like designing a weight loss program that consists of two steps, Step 1: proving to people that they eat too much and exercise too little, Step 2: tell them to eat less and exercise more.  Guess how well that program is going to work!

Reality is that it will only produce a slight improvement in a small fraction of people, for the very reason that the forces that drive the problem are unconscious.

These forces are not subject to conscious control, which is why the problem of obesity is so widespread and difficult to solve. At best, one can increase awareness, which will create a very small marginal improvement, but likely to fall far short of the results that organizations want to achieve.

So the common sense conclusion is that unconscious bias training is not likely to create much change in how people actually behave. Experience has shown me that this conclusion is accurate. However, I wondered what the scientists who do research in this field have concluded. They spend a lot of time researching unconscious bias, and they must know something about it. Do they agree with me?

Some of the best, and most honored, scientists in this field work on a program called Project Implicit, at Harvard and some other top universities. So I decided to take some of their unconscious bias tests and to see what practical recommendations they would have to improve an unconscious bias.

Their test is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT, and can easily be taken in about 15 minutes online on their website at implict.harvard.edu. They have versions for several different kinds of unconscious bias. The tests are well-designed, scientifically accurate and fun to take.

To give an example, one test is called the Gender-Career IAT. This test identifies unconscious bias that associates Career with Male, and Family with Female. Even if people consciously believe that females are just as appropriate for careers as males, and males are just as appropriate for raising families as females, the test can detect subtle reactions that indicate there is still bias in the associations of the unconscious mind.

This test has been given to thousands of people and shows that 75% have this particular unconscious bias.

The moment of truth comes after you complete the test, when they give you your results and you are left asking yourself, “What Can I Do About an Implicit Preference That I Do Not Want?”  I think their answer says it all:

”Right now, there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated. Packaged ‘diversity trainings’ generally do not use evidence-based methods of reducing implicit biases. Therefore, we encourage people to instead focus on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate, such as blind auditions and well-designed ‘structured’ decision processes.”

I don’t know about you, but I found it encouraging that, at least in this case, top scientists reach the same conclusion as common sense.

Practically speaking, according to the scientists, the best proven way to reduce the effects of unconscious bias is to set up an environment where personal reactions can’t occur. For example, have the hiring decision made by a person who doesn’t know whether the applicant is male or female. If this is impossible, you can set up a detailed and complicated process where a large amount of objective data drowns out personal reactions.

Such strategies could be a good idea for some decisions about hiring and promotion. But they are impossible to implement in the situations that matter most– the day to day interactions between real live people from diverse backgrounds and different cultures.

If your company is experiencing difficulty because its retail clerks are offending customers, identifying unconscious bias is not going to solve the problem. If your top male executives are having trouble working with female bosses, or making blunders while on an important overseas assignment, then unconscious bias training is not going to solve the problem.

The best approach is a cultural approach: one that gets to the root of culture and cultural differences that explores the cultural norms, expectations and beliefs that every person has.

One objection to a cultural approach is that it involves stereotyping people from different cultures. So how does one go beyond stereotyping? The answer is that every human being is different, no matter how many characteristics he or she might share with other members of his or her culture. Only an individualized approach can work.

It may be that an executive lives out a particular normative behavior from the culture they came from, and expects others to do the same. But the personal meaning of this varies greatly from individual to individual. The more you explore the things that members of a culture have in common, the more you realize just how unique each individual is.

For example in an overseas assignment, the starting point to cross cultural training is not giving the transferee a list of stereotypes about the country and culture he or she is going to. The starting point is exploring the employee’s own cultural background, in the context of the real-life, day to day, problems that they encounter in their daily work.


Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash