The business news is full of stories about the fact that large corporations are expanding at breakneck speed outside the U.S. while the domestic economy stagnates. And the best and brightest employees are seeking opportunities to work overseas in order to accelerate their upward trajectory.
But for most rising executives, leading successfully in global markets is easier said than done. Recently, I spoke with Linda Sharkey, an author and expert in global leadership development and culture change, to chat with me about this issue. She described some of the common traps that new leaders working in overseas markets can fall into:
The Mirror Trap. You fall into this trap whenever you assume that the rest of the world thinks like you do. The leaders at Facebook mistakenly did this when they assumed that beliefs and attitudes about open space communication are the same all over the world. Wrong! Falling into this trap has made their foray into China a huge disaster. (This is the most obvious trap – yet you’d be surprised how many people still get stuck here.)
The Superficiality Trap. You fall into this trap when, mindful of the Mirror Trap, you attempt to understand and adapt to the culture around you, but you only understand this culture at a surface level. Think about Disney when they first tried to go global in the 1990s. They spent an enormous about of time and energy trying to make EuroDisney embody the culture and style of the French. They thought they were immersed in the new culture, but they merely took on the exterior trappings and maintained their core U.S.-based beliefs about what people wanted in entertainment — and it was a $ 200M catastrophe.
Fortunately, Disney’s leaders appear to have learned from this experience. Venturing into Shanghai, they have used local talent to help design the park. They completely changed the flow of the park to deeply reflect the Chinese entertainment norms. They learned the cultural requirements and beliefs about entertainment and leisure time in China and, in so doing, appear to have avoided past mistakes that had landed them in the Superficiality Trap in Europe. (The park has yet to open, so it remains to be seen whether the lessons really take effect.)
The “Avatar” Trap. You fall into this trap when, having shed the Mirror Trap and the Superficiality Trap, you go too far. You open your mind and heart to the new culture, and begin to lose connection to your past. You see everything through the new lens. For example, Nestle Japan localized their offerings to the point that they disconnected from the global brands. They rendered the global power of the company useless because they could no longer leverage Nestle’s massive supply chain or brands. In essence, Nestle Japan acted like a local provider in a local market. They lost their scalable reach, but their overhead still reflected their reality of being part of a big global company – which caused their profits to drop.
Here are three things you should do as you develop your own capacity to lead from a global perspective:
1) Ask yourself: “How attuned am I personally to other cultures?” Take yourself out of your own comfort zone and spend time with people from different cultures, and keep a log of what you notice about yourself.
2) Review your team. Are they all like you, or do they represent diverse and global perspectives? Start insisting that you work with people from other countries. Build cross-functional teams. Hire people with different backgrounds. Volunteer to work with people overseas.
3) Conduct deep listening tours with global customers on their home turf; learn how they think and how they react to problems and issues.
Taking these three steps will open your eyes and get you going in the right direction for global leadership.
How about you? Have you seen others fall into any of these traps? Which one is most common in your company today?
Saj-nicole Joni, chief executive of Cambridge International Group, is a confidential advisor to CEOs and top executives worldwide. The Right Fight, by Saj-nicole Joni and Damon Beyer, (HarperCollins, 2010) is available in book, e-book and audio formats.