I’ll start with a cringe moment. As a young, confident business person I was dispatched to Shanghai by a consulting firm to set up an operation out there. I did no homework; didn’t understand the culture and did myself no favours wearing a spectacularly ill fitted suit I’d had sewn by a tailor upon arrival. Contributor Steve Bright, Director, International Human Resources – Northrop Grumman.
I returned a week later to be informed by my CEO that my expensive trip had achieved very little. I’m glad to say my intercultural competence advanced rapidly after this early foray but I wish I’d been thrown into unfamiliar territory much closer to home at the start of my HR career in international business. Too much executive development happens in-house or in the classroom and this can fail to prepare future talent to operate as agile and sensitive leaders.
For the past ten years I have been a Pilotlighter which means I’ve joined teams of business leaders from different companies tasked with coaching leaders in the charity sector. Each of these live learning assignments has taken me out of my comfort zone by exposing me to different business approaches, working styles, cultural contexts and stakeholder dynamics. And most unusually, this is a form of executive development that also delivers impressive, measurable results for frontline charities tackling disadvantage in the UK.
In recent years I’ve introduced two colleagues at Northrop Grumman, the global security firm, to the transformative Pilotlight Programme. It takes a time commitment of just three hours per month because all the matchmaking and facilitation is organised by specialist project managers. When a skills-sharing partnership is properly framed then I believe it is an uniquely powerful, immersive learning experience for leaders in international companies.
Let me illustrate some three key crossover skills that my experiences coaching fifteen charities have developed in me and how they translate perfectly to my global business role.
Seeking to understand before being understood
My experience developing leadership teams in Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea and the Middle East and elsewhere has taught me that the key soft skill that international companies require is the ability to understand how to operate in different cultures. To this day, I encounter business people making well-meaning but false assumptions about working in different regions. This is almost always driven by an urge to apply one’s own narrow experience to a new set of problems before engaging with the different perspectives present in the new situation. At worst this is accompanied by arrogance and hubris.
As a simple example, in recent years I was advised by colleagues to appoint a local director to establish operations in an Asian country. My own research speaking to governmental contacts was that their preference was to deal with an American national based in their country.
I’m not a fan of jargon but there is a term in my favourite business book ‘7 Habits of Successful People’ which neatly summarises this concept – non-autobiographical listening.
Even when I have felt comfortable in a non-UK country such as on a recent project in Germany, I paused to consider that working styles in the manufacturing industry in Germany, with which I’m familiar, may well differ to hi-tech companies in the same country.
Asking the right questions
Not only have I learnt from the charity CEOs that I’ve supported but also from the many inspirational business counterparts who’ve shared Pilotlight journeys with me. I’m still influenced by the way a former financial service boss probed a charity’s balance sheet and funding models. Often I learn more from the set of questions posed than the answers to them. I’ve also learnt from people’s mistakes. It can be difficult to resist the urge to throw a solution at a problem before listening, questioning and diagnosing.
When working for Cardiff City FC Foundation, I didn’t know the city, knew nothing of the operations of football club foundations, didn’t know about their target audience or ownership structure. Sounds fairly hopeless? In actual fact the role of a coach is not to be the expert, but to ask the right questions, provide different perspectives for consideration, to both challenge and support your partner charity. It is not my role as a Pilotlighter to prescribe solutions.
The international leader as a coach
Most businesses are far less hierarchical than they used to be and many leaders are no longer the experts in their company’s services or product pipeline. Of course, this is further heightened when dealing in a complex multinational environment. Working with charities over the years has taught me how to add value even when I’m not an expert in the specific issues.
When working with my charity partners I hone my coaching skills by following a process of helping others understand their objectives, helping them think about their options and determining if they have the will to follow the ensuing actions. In a similar way, when working with colleagues overseas, I’ll typically have an intense engagement and then step away. It’s far more sustainable to involve team members in developing and owning their own action plan rather than imposing a solution, particularly when you’re not always close at hand.
My observation is that it matters not where we find ourselves as leaders if we are able to listen, adapt, diagnose and empower others to find their own solutions. Working with charities in the UK is edifiying both personally and professionally and a great preparation for international business roles.