Navigating the Cultural Divide

Effective Leadership Demands Acute Cultural Awareness

A number of years ago, TV producer Dick Wolf sold his Law & Order franchise to TF1, one of France’s largest networks. When interviewed by the French press, Wolf didn’t mince words expressing his frustration about how things work in France: it was difficult to research French cop culture because the country’s laws forbid civilians from participating in drive-alongs. Lunch on the set was almost a two-hour affair, and members of the French crew had the audacity to take wine with their meal while still on the job. Dogs were also allowed on the set, even when the script didn’t call for them. And then of course, there were those inflexible French unions to contend with.

Wolf must have known going into the deal that cultural differences would have an impact on how the Law & Order model would be applied in France. Or did he?

According to Keith Warburton, CEO of Global Business Culture, a cultural awareness consultancy based in Winchester, U.K., a common issue when people do business on a global level is that many companies try to impose their models and beliefs without understanding what the reality is on the ground, in their client’s country.

“One of the complaints that you get as you move around the world—and I’m not really picking on American companies here, because the same comments are made about British corporations—is that clients and stakeholders will say, ‘they really don’t understand our market,’” he said. “They don’t really understand what the issues are and they try to force their own approach as they would in their country, in our country, and it’s just not going to work.” This, he said, makes the argument for having people in your organization who are aware of these nuances and who can adapt to them, allowing your firm to be more nimble in unfamiliar territory.

For Tim Jackson, president of Jackson Leadership Systems, a consulting firm just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, cultivating a diverse workforce may also be good branding. “Some cities and countries are very diverse, and so if I was an organization in those communities, I would want to strengthen my reputation by letting stakeholders and community members know that I acknowledge the diversity of the community, and perhaps try to represent it to the same degree within the walls of the organization,” he said. He added that this also might serve to attract a diverse pool of applicants, perpetuating the diversity within the company.

But if you strive to make your workforce culturally diverse, leaders should be prepared to manage people from various cultures differently. “Some cultures are more hierarchical and paternalistic,” Jackson noted. “Some cultures are more direct in their communication style.” He urged managers to educate themselves on the different cultures they’re interacting with in order to be able to lead effectively. “Even if someone is leading a diverse group of employees in their native country, understanding that people from different cultures may come with different ingrained ideas about what effective leadership looks like can be helpful when deciding on a management and leadership approach.”

Jackson went on to point out that communication is vitally important when managing people with different cultural makeups. “I would say the need to communicate clearly and consistently is probably more acute when managing employees from a different cultural background, since there are many opportunities for misunderstanding, based on language or cultural norms,” he said.

However, Lenora Billings-Harris, a Greensboro, NC-based workplace diversity specialist and author of The Diversity Advantage: A Guide to Making Diversity Work and co-author (with Redia Anderson) of Trailblazers: How Top Business Leaders Are Accelerating Results Through Inclusion and Diversity, reminds leaders that if they are emphasizing the importance of being culturally diverse, they’ve got to walk the talk. “Remember that your employees are always watching your behavior,” she said. “Leaders have to be even more aware of how their biases show up, because they tend to show up at the most unexpected times.” She also noted that diversity should be an ongoing part of the conversation. “Build it into when you’re talking about the organization’s bottom line or the organization’s goals for the coming year.”

While Warburton concedes that cultural difference is interesting, it’s not just an interesting subject. “People often approach it with a degree of skepticism—understandably, I think, because they think it’s a soft, woolly type of subject,” he said. “But it’s not. It has direct impact on the profitability of the business. So it’s not a soft issue—it’s diamond hard.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.