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“I firmly believe that whether you’re building a company or leading a country, a diverse mix of voices and backgrounds and experiences leads to better discussions, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.”

In the week following Republican candidate Donald Trump’s loathsome proposal to stop all travel in and out of the US based on religion, until “we figure out what’s going on” with “terrorism,” there have been a number of voices raised in protest. Finally. Trump’s brand of nationalistic fascism is nothing new,  and we’re seeing a resurgence of it around the world as crisis and change make people afraid. But Trump has hit a new low for Americans, at least since Japanese-Americans were interred and stripped of all possessions and dignity in the panic following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December , 1941.

One of the most eloquent voices is Google’s CEO Sundar Pinchal, who speaks with the voice of experience and authority. It’s worth the read for anyone who is concerned about allowing everyone from different cultures the possibility to be respected and to perform their best.

Let’s Not Let Fear Defeat Our Values.

Herd Behavior, Useless Meetings, and Solomon Asch.

An interesting blog entry from a Blanchard consultant. On the “uselessness” of meetings, his conclusion states, “When describing the attributes of an outstanding team member, we frequently include the word loyalty. Some well meaning leaders see candor and honesty as potential indicators of disloyalty—but actually, it’s the other way around. Pioneers should be honored, but frequently they are punished. Leaders should be informed, but frequently they are shielded. High performing teams are willing to tell it the way it is. This may be uncomfortable initially, but the long term payoffs are priceless.”

My response follows:

The reasons for meetings are highly contextual: on intended purpose, style of meeting management, level of personnel involved and situational urgency, as well as on company and national culture. Meetings in some countries are simply public confirmations of decisions already taken beforehand, whereas in others they may be truly necessary to gain consensus, and in still others a generator of new ideas through brainstorming. Or all three. In Dr. Asch’s research example, were the others around the table of equal social stature, higher or lower? Were they subject matter specialists and you are the only generalist?

“Truth” and “right answers” are almost never as clear-cut as Dr. Asch’s example. Nor are “high-performing teams who are willing to tell it the way it is” always the way to achieve results, long-, medium- or short-term. One person’s “candor and honesty” is another’s social faux pas or lack of respect, causing more damage than good. Don’t forget that any one person’s opinion is highly influenced by their own individual perspective, one that you may not necessarily share.

The best leaders, in my opinion, are those who leave open the possibility that they may be wrong, and are willing to “sacrifice face” in order to get to the more essential, more elemental shared truths. In Dr. Asch’s experiment, the true leader wouldn’t have given an answer at all, but instead would have asked “Why?” Why have you given an answer that I see as different? Why have you all answered the same? Am I missing something? It takes courage to ask these questions, and true leaders are those who display this sort of courage, instead of contrariness through “candor.”

An interesting experience over the weekend. In the course of last week a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. Young fellows with an appearance that would be familiar anywhere in the world: white shirts and ties, short cropped hair, youthful. We had good conversation and afterwards I asked them if it was possible to join them in their service. As regular readers of this blog may know, not only am I busy with intercultural dynamics in businesses, I’m also active in interfaith activities. I’m slowly becoming acquainted with various faiths and their forms of worship.
Last Sunday was their gathering at the Kingdom Hall in Almelo. I was a few minutes late and even though the parking lot was full, there was nobody to be seen. The security gate securing the lot was shut tight, but a walkway fence was unlocked, so I walked my bike inside the immaculately kept grounds. At the main door there was, again, nobody in sight and I tried the door: locked. Even before I let go of the handle, though, a clean cut, smiling young man bounded towards me and welcomed me inside. On leading me into the building I realized why his timing was so good: he was sitting behind a bank of security cameras which monitored my arrival.
 
I was asked to wait in the foyer and was then introduced to a smartly dressed gentleman, my age. He asked me a few questions and after determining my intent was benevolent, showed me to a seat near the front of the main hall. A group of maybe 75 equally smartly dressed, freshly scrubbed churchgoers of all ages sat listening to a handsome young man giving a sermon. I glanced around the room and noticed that everyone there was neat, clean, good looking and well dressed. A diverse group, probably one of the most diverse gatherings I’ve ever seen in Almelo. The average age was somewhere in the late 30s, which is about half the average of the parishioners at our St. Georgius Catholic Church. I was joined by Wesley who was one of the young men who came to my door, and he stayed with me during the nearly 2-hour service.
 
It was very interesting, the service. After the sermon (which, I learned, is performed on a rotating basis by any number of fellow parishioners – apparently JWs believe in a very flat organization), there was an interactive reading of an article from “The Watchtower.” Parishioners were called on by a moderator to contribute, and most of the responses included relevant quotes from the Bible. What it lacked in spontaneity was made up for in thoroughness and preparation. Nearly everyone in the hall contributed at some point, from 5-year old kids to seniors well into their 70s.
 
Afterwards, a great number of people came up to me, welcoming me to their church. In addition to Wesley’s entire family (mother, father and brother), the most interesting was a family from Armenian background: they had just returned, 3-days earlier, from a month-long holiday in Glendale, California, where they were visiting family. A great number of Armenians in Almelo, including Anton who cuts my hair, have family in Glendale. The most interesting comment of the day came from Gert Hollander, the my-age man I initially met in the foyer. I told him my very positive impressions of the service while sitting on my bike in the parking lot upon leaving. He said, “You know, if more people were open, like you, and would experience our service just once, the overall impression of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be far different in the world.”
 
I guess the same could be said for all religions and cultures, couldn’t it? 

The rule of the Kingdom of the Netherlands will transfer from Queen mother, Beatrix, to her son, Prince Willem-Alexander, on 30 April, in little more than one week. In preparing for the celebration, the State has commissioned various art and cultural works to commemorate the occasion.

Schermafbeelding-2013-04-19-om-10.49.06One of these works, the so-called King’s Song, has generated much negative commentary in the Dutch press. “Old fashioned drivel,” “schmaltzy,” and “forgettable,” are some of the more tame comments. Some commentators, perhaps full of Dutch courage, have even suggested that the composer be tarred and feathered, and worse. The critique has been so intense, and in some cases so personal, that the composer, John Ewbank, has resigned his commission. I’ll admit, my first reaction to the song itself was little more than lukewarm: “What do you people have against melody?!” was my first comment to my wife, who wisely holds her tongue against defending “her people” against my tirades. She knows I’ll eventually come around.

And come around I have. I came here to rant about the lack of diversity in the song’s text. To point out the irony that both the man who will be King and his wife who will become Queen – Princess Máxima of the Netherlands (née Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, of Argentina) – are both “allochtone,” of non-Dutch ancestry, yet there’s nothing explicit in the text about the diversity this country usually celebrates.

But then I watched the song’s accompanying video. I’ve been completely won over. I find the video a marvelous and genuine Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 12.55.26 PMrepresentation of all sorts of diversity in the Netherlands. And without the “Coca-Cola commercial” artificiality, where you magically wind up with exactly one of each national type – exactly one Asian, one black, one Pacific Islander, etc. The King’s Song video shows all sorts of diversity in a broad variety of Imagesettings: white, black, asian, young, old, all socio-economic levels, rural/urban, handicapped, obese (the heavy guy munching on friet at the train station is my favorite – just your ordinary “kerel” enjoying a snack), LGBT (lots of gays!) – even a hipster! And what comes through when you watch the video is these people aren’t from any sort of casting agency, but are truly the people you meet every day in this country. Well done! Image

Okay, the song’s not the strongest. And, as they are now saying, if your goal was to unite the Dutch in their dislike of something – mission accomplished! But my lesson learned is what it often is in multicultural situations: before you pass judgment, get the whole picture. And remember, as always, that context is everything.

Earlier this year I had the honor and pleasure of hosting Aebi Schmidt at De Baak Seaside during their annual 2-day strategy meeting. Aebi Schmidt Holding (AHS) is based in Zurich, Switzerland, and 50 top managers from the global company came to the Netherlands for two days to take a look at the year past, reinforce their company values, and look at the way forward for 2012.

Aebi Schmidt is the leading system provider of innovative technical solutions for the cleaning and clearing of traffic areas as well as the mowing of green spaces on difficult terrains

Regular readers of this blog perhaps notice that I often take the intercultural view of doing business. I’m always looking for ways to help leaders to recognize differences and to leverage those differences for mutual benefit. And in preparing for Aebi Schmidt, my colleague at De Baak, Raymond Eilander, and I sought ways to highlight cultural value differences while helping the participants align to company values.

To my pleasant surprise, there was remarkable homogeneity amongst the values of the managers. Not cultural homogeneity — far from it. Amongst the Swiss, German, Italian, Polish, Swedish, Dutch and Spanish participants there was a great deal of difference. The homogeneity was among the company values. Regularly, consistently and pervasively, I heard the following values expressed:

  • The importance of innovation (how to find it, encourage it and enable it)
  • Building trust
  • Shaping change
  • Working positively towards solutions
  • Respect for others’ position and perspective

How was this possible? How were the cultural differences of seven different nationalities trumped by a strong company culture? Of course there are many reasons and causes to defining a culture, many if not most of them invisible and difficult to define. But in the case of Aebi Schmidt for me there was a very strong defining element to the company: the CEO Walter Vogel.

Mr. Vogel at first blush appeared to me, when I first met him in Zurich during the planning stages of the meeting, to be the epitome of the Swiss executive: impeccably dressed, formal, stiff and encouraging to deference. Even though I was on the mark regarding his sartorial taste, I was way off base about the rest. Walter (please don’t call him “Mr. Vogel”) put me immediately at ease and we had a very pleasant 2-hour conversation about what we should plan for his company.

Later, during the 2-day event, Walter clearly showed outstanding characteristics of an excellent leader. He was engaging, participative, continuously present but low-key, encouraging and supportive. During the entire 2-day event, he excused himself exactly one time to “tend to an emergency.” Within 15 minutes he was back and again in the flow of the program.

We’ve worked with many companies at De Baak. Some with success and some less so. Seeing the positive, supportive leadership style of CEO Walter Vogel was truly an inspiration and, in my mind, the well-spring of a strong, positive company culture. I find it significant that Walter’s #2 man, CFO Stephan Naef, has won Switzerland’s CFO of the year award. I can imagine the the supportive, encouraging leadership style of his boss had a great deal to do with it.

 

I got an email from my daughter Mary today. She is 25 and lives in Riverside, California.

Hey Dad! I was watching a rerun of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (which I see as the late night show for tech-savvy youngsters, compared to Jay Leno or David Letterman.) and thought of you! You were (/are) the only one excited (and recognized) the new scan [QR-code – see the left column of this blog]. This particular episode had Steven Colbert and a crazy dance and song in it. One random guy in the dance scene was holding a cardboard sign with a scan! I paused the episode, scanned the code and got this website: http://www.latenightwithjimmyfallon.com/blogs/2011/04/fallon-colbert-project-bonus-video-thank-you/ It’s way cool seeing where technology is taking us! Moving forward every day! [See the episode here: Late Night with Jimmy Fallon – Stephen Colbert Sings ‘Friday’ with The Roots (4/1/11) – Video – NBC.com]

It’s wonderful Mary associates me with the “tech-savvy” culture. She could have just called me a “nerd”!!

During De Baak’s “Who Are We: Reflections on Dutch Leadership and Society,” we reflected on what leadership in the Netherlands was and what, if possible, other cultures could learn from the Dutch.

On 15 March I attended a MoveOn rally in Riverside, California (US) to express solidarity for the public service workers unions in Wisconsin who were being stripped of their collective bargaining rights. Again I stressed the benefits of working together, espousing the “Dutch model” as an ideal way to achieve sustainable solutions.

You can find my contribution at 04:35 🙂

I’ve been a bit disturbed by the general tenor of the conversation on the LinkedIn group ExpatWeb (members only) the past week or so. The opening question was, “Cross-cultural training: waste of time, money and efforts?” The reaction from the cultural professionals was, of course, unanimously “NO!” with a host of reasons why not. Most of these reasons I use myself, seeing as we all reference the same research materials.

That was predictable.

What was disturbing were the answers from businesspeople. The ones who eventually are, or are not as the case may be, our clients. Their responses were all, to a man: “Yes!!” that cross-cultural training is a colossal waste of time, money and effort. Some of the responses were telling:

  • “Absolutely [cross-cultural training is a waste of time]; time better invested in a nice holiday!”
  • “The most expensive consultant can give you cross-cultural coaching in Spain about communicating with Arabs, but a good Arab friend can give it to you over a nice meal and a few drinks…”. I assume he means non-alcoholic drinks.

Of course my immediate response to these businesspeople is to quote Donald Rumsfeld *, of all people, about “unknown unknowns”. In other words: they don’t know what they don’t know.

 

My co-trainer with client @deBaak, 12 October 2010

Vin Morar, Intercultural Entrepreneurship Expert Extraordinaire!

 

But much better would be to let my client from the past couple of days do the talking for me. This client sent 23 managers to De Baak to follow a 2-day training in Intercultural Communication & Negotiation. The client has managers who deal with professionals from across the EU as well as, less often, the Americas and Asia. My colleague Vin Morar and I performed a quick inventory at the beginning of the course which uncovered the following culture-related problems:

  1. Multiple cultural interpretations of meeting agreements
  2. How to relate/associate with “distant” cultures
  3. Gaining a consensus from a large number of organizations
  4. Gaining a consensus from a large number of diverse cultures
  5. Gaining a consensus from a large number of individuals
  6. Gaining commitment / involvement of all the cultural positions
  7. Overcoming language / physical / technological barriers

By the end of the course I can confidently state that the participants increased their understanding enormously, as well as being in a far better position to recognize and deal with intercultural difficulties in the future. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is: there are very distinct problems endemic to this particular organization, and I suspect many many others, that heretofore have gone unrecognized as having a cultural origin. These problems can benefit enormously from an increase in knowledge, expertise and tools to deal with cultural conflicts. How that should be approached and what possible concrete tools the participants gained from this particular training will be addressed in a later post.

———————-

* I’m aware that “unknown unknowns” are well known postulations in epistemology and decision theory circles. But it’s more fun to quote the then-Secretary of Defense when he stated, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Resolve cultural conflict? Smooth things over? Why? This is a waste of potential creative power. By using the energy inherent in cultural conflict, it is possible to leverage the differences for added value.

The model, based on the research of Prof. Joseph DiStefano and Prof. Martha Maznevski, both of IMD. A summary of this research can be found here  https://srleosalazar.wordpress.com/resources-and-links/ as well as on the IMD site: http://www.ft.com/businesseducation/imd

The following “6 Simple Rules for Effective Global Team Management” are from a conversation I had with Sandra Biets, former Global Director, Product Quality Management, with Nike in the US. I met Sandra at an event organized by the WTC Almere, the Netherlands, an “Internationals Day,” at the end of June, 2010. We had a conversation with each other on 23 September, 2010, at Dauphine, in Amsterdam, to get to know each other better. This article is a result of that conversation. 

Background
Sandra Biets was asked by Nike in 2007 to manage their global product integrity team from the US. Team members were located in Europe, N. and S. America and Asia. Her experience with this team provide good lessons for intercultural team building. It’s a clear demonstration how the differences in the team were leveraged for added value, delivering results that far surpassed what might have been achieved by a homogeneous team.

Her qualities
Sandra found the assignment exhilarating. It fit perfectly to her strengths, which are process and project management, with a very structural and analytical approach to everything she does.

The assignment
In assembling this global team, it was the first time that she had brought together such a complex group: team members from three different continents (Europe, Asia and the US) as well as teams from two different divisions from each continent. This meant that not only did country cultures play a role within the six teams, but also different regional company cultures even within the same country.

The assignment for the team had to do with leveraging all tools available to drive/inform product decisions (i.e. sales data, trend reports, product integrity data, consumer insights, etc.); and coordinating product integrity within product conception, design and development. Because it was a global assignment, it was necessary to analyze and interpret mountains of data from various global locations.

The lessons
There were a number of significant lessons that Sandra took away from this experience.

  1. Build on team values: the team values were set very early in the process. She requested that they begin their project with a face-to-face and focused on defining the team values during this meeting.
  2. Create ambassadors: instead of directly managing each team, Sandra chose one team member as her surrogate. It was important that these were not direct reports, usually one level below her. These ambassadors managed their teams directly, and reported back to her.
  3. Open communication: Open communication crosses cultural boundaries. Every culture values open communication. The difficulty arises, however, in how “open” is interpreted. Often cultural signals are not explained and, as a result, can be misinterpreted. Under this heading of open communication there were a number of specific practices that created organically, from within the group, and in direct response to actual situations.
  4. Direct communication: No “triangulation” – even though she was team director, and encouraged members to communicate conflicts, Sandra always pushed the solution back to the participants, instead of going between. She would provide guidance and coaching, but ultimately they were responsible for solving their own problems.
  5. Simple techniques: By adopting simple yet effective techniques, Sandra got the team to focus on the positive interaction between the team members. For example, one of the techniques she used was to have the participants create index cards to help them as a handy reminder of conflict areas and agreements. The front of the card would show the value (i.e. “respect for each other”); the back of the card the method (i.e. “give room to allow everyone to express themselves”) needed to hold the agreements they’ve made with each other.
  6. Ownership: many of the practices that Sandra implemented consistently reinforced the concept of self-management and responsibility. The feeling of ownership – of the team, the assignment and the results – was, as a result, very strong within the team.

The results
The results of this team showed very clearly that there was a close relationship between performance of the team and support by the organization. Nike is truly a globally-thinking organization that spares no expense in getting the best from and with its people. Nike’s structure and culture reinforced these practices. As one of many examples, performance reviews were based 50% on achieving targets, and 50% how much a team player the employee is. This helped reinforce the cooperative aspect of intercultural teamwork.

Even though Sandra developed these rules for global team management in retrospect, they can be very effective in planning in advance. She was presented with a unique opportunity and made the most of both what the organization had to offer in terms of support, as well as the talent and commitment of the team members. This triangular relationship (Sandra, the Nike organization, the global team members) all worked together to create a remarkable success.

To contact Sandra Biets, her profile can be found on LinkedIn. If you wish her direct contact information, please leave a message on this site and she will contact you.

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Leo Salazar

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