Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thriving on Cross-cultural Complexity

Employers often make the mistake of sending star executives overseas on the assumption that they will continue the same exceptional performance in the global arena as they did at home, when in fact they fail because they lack the propensity to learn and succeed in a new and different environment.

I learned the importance of assessing one's own global mindset when I was sent on my first assignment, as a fairly new member of the Legionaries of Christ, to the Irish Institute in Mexico City - the "Instituto Irlandés." In hindsight, I know that it took me at least a year to adjust to Mexican culture even though I had already lived and studied in Spain and Italy."Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind" tells the story of my experiences.

Eventually, I adjusted well and came to love all things Mexican. The founder and first Superior General of the Legionaries asked me to devise some method to help provide pre-departure and post-arrival training for young Legionaries who would be coming to Mexico to fulfill their internship program. Cross-cultural training was not a common concept in the mid 1960s. So I had to invent some way of first identifying and then weighing the required strengths for cross-cultural adaptability. If I knew the strengths I could devise strategies to identify and overcome weaknesses in potential Irish, and Spanish Legionary candidates coming on three year assignments to our schools in Mexico. The training that I came up with relied heavily on three practical approaches to psychology that were in vogue back then. I used “Parent Effectiveness Training” to teach communication skills; “Reality Therapy” to reveal psychological barriers to change and “Transactional Analysis” to delve deeper into the underlying drivers of behavior.

The resulting program was successful and I certainly enjoyed teaching it for a couple of years during the summer college breaks in Rome. Legionaries who went through the training acquired at least a basic understanding of cross-cultural challenges and a heightened sense of self-awareness which is fundamental to crossing cultures.

That early experience served me well – and it remains the foundation of the international skills I went on to develop as a management consultant. In my Legionary life, I lived in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Mexico, the United States, and Gabon in Central West Africa. By the time I left, I had developed a pretty sophisticated practical understanding of how to cross the cultural divide.

Reading “Managing Yourself: Making It Overseas” in the Harvard Business Review (04/10) Vol. 88, No. 4, P. 109; by Javidan, Mansour; Teagarden, Mary; Bowen, David,  reminded me of my early struggles with cultural adaptability and how I have learned to help develop the global mindset of my clients in measurable ways. The following points are adapted from the article which you can see here. The conclusions are based on research and the examples provided are from the corporate environment.

Success overseas depends on having a global mindset. This mindset has three components: intellectual capital, psychological capital, and social capital.

Intellectual capital refers to the capacity to learn, and to knowledge of how international business is conducted. Attributes for intellectual capital include global business savvy, cognitive complexity, and a cosmopolitan outlook

Psychological capital refers to the ability to change, and to be open to different cultures.  The defining attributes for psychological capital are a passion for diversity, a hunger for adventure, and self-assurance

Social capital involves the ability to develop and nurture interpersonal connections, bring people together, and influence stakeholders who are dissimilar to the traveler in terms of cultural heritage, professional background, or political outlook. It is defined by intercultural empathy, interpersonal impact, and diplomacy.

Little did I know, when I first went to help start the Irish Institute in Mexico City that one day the skills I developed there would lead me to a fulfilling career in international business consulting, working with corporate leaders and multicultural teams. One of the key attibutes for cross-cultural success is having a "sense of humor" (meaning not taking yourself too seriously - it relates to the ability to learn from mistakes.) No better background than Dublin, Ireland and then Mexico to develop the requisite sense of humor!

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