Challenges of Global Cross-Cultural Leadership—An Interview with Ms Gudrun BjØrnØ

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Home > Articles > Challenges of Global Cross-Cultural Leadership—An Interview with Ms Gudrun BjØrnØ

 Challenges of Global Cross-Cultural Leadership—An Interview with Ms Gudrun BjØrnØ

Sadie-Jane Nunis—An Interview with Ms Gudrun BjØrnØ | Singapore Management Review
June 1, 2011
SMR interviewed Ms Gudrun Bjørnø, who is currently based in Spain but conducts training internationally. A consultant with more than 15 years experience in the senior management field, she is also an expert in the field of people development, cross-cultural management and leadership. We asked for her opinions pertaining to cross-cultural management and leadership and got some interesting views.
SMR: What is your definition of cross-cultural management and cross-cultural leadership?
Gudrun Bjørnø, (GB): I would first think of culture and what it is all about. More importantly, how does one create a global corporate culture? The stress here is on the word “global”. That would cover behaviour, attitude, motivation, and creativity. This is what you want for people, wherever they are in the world, don’t you? Then I will consider how one leverages all the strengths of the corporation and look at it from a global scale in order to have a competitive edge. If you can answer the question “what is culture”, you will be able to define cross-cultural management and leadership, understanding the culture of the organisation, the people, and the country. Get your people to list down 20–30 definitions ranging from attitude, behaviour, history, religion, et cetera. This list and more helps define cross-cultural management or leadership which are such difficult and complicated topics to deal with.
SMR: Why, in your opinion, do you think cross-cultural management and leadership are so important in the 21st century?
GB: For more than 25 years, we’ve been talking or writing about the global village, haven’t we? The global village is a term everybody likes to use. It may be because they feel it sounds nice or sexy. But theoretically, the more popular phrase used by thousands of top management strategies is to “think local, go global”. This is the strategy used by the biggest global companies. Another statement many of them use is “uniformity is important”. Cross-cultural management and leadership is important, especially for the multinational companies because they’re big, they’re all over the world, and they need to cope with the various cultures within a country and keep the uniformity within the entire organisation. What organisations fail to realise is the importance of human capital, a term I prefer over human resources. If they do not understand that what they do affects human capital, they are in for trouble. You can attempt to unify the company strategies worldwide, but if you forget the impact it may have on the locals at the various branches, you are in for trouble.
SMR: How come some companies like McDonald’s which has uniformity, similar menus, the way they greet customers, et cetera are successful worldwide?
GB: Companies similar to McDonald’s work on a franchise basis. The concept is similar, like they greet you in the same way, regardless of language, armed with a big smile and say in English or their local language, “Welcome to McDonalds”. If you notice, their burgers vary. They may have the fillet o’fish but they have local flavours in their menus too. IBM tried to unify how they managed their human capital, performance, and contracts but it didn’t work. Not even in Italy; it was a disaster. The reason is they didn’t understand how to deal with cross-cultural differences especially in terms of behaviour. Think of how Disney World initially failed in France. They took their American concept and tried to replicate it in France. They learnt from their mistake and were successful when they opened a Disneyland in Hong Kong and so forth. Having a concept does not necessarily mean success. You need to know about the country’s culture, understand it and try to incorporate it with your concepts.
I had my own learning experience with regards to culture when I first came to Singapore in 1990. We were doing brochures and the Singapore Trade Development Board (TDB) came out with a new brochure which was black in colour. I didn’t understand initially why this was not a good idea but slowly I learnt about the local culture, how giving of a clock or watch as a birthday gift may be offensive to the Chinese, for example.
This actually reminds me of a Danish customer I still have, and they wanted me to help them out as they wanted to open a cement plant in Malaysia. Their problem was that they sent their best engineers to Malaysia. They went there, explained what needed to be done to the locals who then took over the project. Even when the locals did not understand, they never said so. The Danes were unsure as to whether the Malaysians understood. They were unsure whether they could leave Malaysia as they did not want the project to stall and they would then need to make another trip down. Both sides didn’t understand the other party’s culture, hence this was left hanging for a while until they called me in for help.
By understanding cross-cultural management and leadership, you will be able to find the best ways to motivate your people. If you can’t motivate your people, you are bound for failure, aren’t you?
SMR: What are some of the pros and cons of cross-cultural management and leadership?
GB: If you ask me, I think there are so many pros obviously. Cross-cultural management or business behaviour has become strategic, just like leadership. That is something that people have to understand. They have missed many opportunities just because of lack of understanding of cross-cultural management. This is only relevant for a company going international or regional, not a company expanding locally. The world has become a global village, hence it’s much more complex. It becomes more challenging to handle, especially in terms of human capital. Those who can handle it will have the competitive edge.
One of the cons is that people think by having practical tools, this will suffice in terms of cross-cultural management or leadership. You can learn, but that does not mean you will understand how to apply it. They need to continuously update themselves with the changes within the culture they are based in too. This makes a good leader.
Let me share a story with you. At the company I worked for in Singapore, I had an interesting colleague based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We discussed our different styles of leadership. He had 15 wonderful employees in his sales team. They were extremely profitable as the sales kept coming in. The top management knew that his team was a strong one and knew that they would need further development in terms of skills to keep them on board. His excuse for not sending them for development was lack of time as their customers were their priority.
I watched with interest, as I knew in the long run, something was going to give. They wanted the development and he didn’t want to let them go for it. One day, his people had enough and 12 of the 15 of them quit. As you can imagine, they took their clients with them in tow. I assure you, I didn’t run to the top management and tell them “I told you so.” Again, it boils down to leadership. It does not need to be complex. People just need to be aware, and if they’re not aware, they need to be aware of the cross-cultural issues on hand. It’s a form of leadership right?
SMR: What are some of the complexities of cross-cultural management and 
GB: Oh, there are many. The beauty of working internationally like I have, are the different cultures from which we learn everyday! And I will never stop. Different opinions, different ways of management, how you do business, you learn this daily. When different cultures lead, they tend to have the attitude of “we” and “them.” This is how “we” do it. They are the others. “Why is this so?”, you may wonder. Well, if you look at cultures within an organisation, it’s almost like a family, isn’t it? You develop, you grow up together, the behaviours that you learn along the way creates a culture within the organisation. I totally believe in leadership and its impact on cross-cultural management. Cultures tend to be tolerated, not understood. One needs to understand culture so that when it comes down to serious business, leadership, and negotiation or conflicts you have, it will be settled in a more amicable fashion.
Cultures tend to be tolerated, not understood.This is especially important because we are in the age of acquisitions sprees, all over the world. Acquisitions have to be handled with care. When two different corporate cultures merge, it’s a problem as it’s a clash of two cultures which top management need to work on to become a combined culture.I have an anecdote on this actually. A client I worked for, a large Sing-aporean organisation acquired a Northern European one. Top management decided to go 50–50 in terms of culture. Rather democratic one would think, and it may even seem like a good idea. However, it bombed. They ended up with parallel management because they could not handle cultural diversity. This was cross-cultural misunderstanding. The employees were all demotivated and frustrated with top management. The best employees started to leave the company quickly. As their consultant, I coached the top management as a team and individually too, with rather interesting results.
Cultures tend to be tolerated, not understood.
SMR: How does one manage the dynamics of cross-cultural management and leadership?
GB: This, of course, is taken from the umbrella point of view because it certainly would depend which country we deal with because you have to look at the dimensions. These dimensions would get people to open their eyes and their minds to the issues on hand, especially those pertaining to cultures that clash.When they can figure out what their role is and what impact they have in terms of the company culture, they can work out their strengths and weaknesses, and work their way to improving the cross-cultural situation from there.The only way this can work is if one is aware of one’s own culture first. Once you are aware of your own culture, you can then be awareof how another culture views yours. Upon understanding your own and the other party’s, you will look at the weaknesses and strengths and this is a tough exercise but it needs to be done. This is the only way to best ensure that there is no clash of cultures. The differences come up quickly.
SMR: What are some of the common problems and issues that managers face when dealing with cross-cultural management and leadership?
GB: I think the most important one is in leadership, and cultural management is the dimension of achievement versus ascription. I’m thinking of extremes. In my opinion, the most crucial differences would be an American versus a Japanese. Couldn’t be more extreme. They don’t understand each other at all. I mean, if you think about it, in the earlier years, the Japanese had a lot of money, they had a strong Yen. With the strong currency, they flocked to United States. They went there to bring their knowledge of the automobile industry. They tried to influence the Americans with adopting their methods but that failed. In the end, many were unemployed. They tried it in Europe and faced the same thing. They couldn’t understand that you can’t take your own culture and just plant it somewhere else and just say: “ It’s my way, or the highway”.
When I came to Singapore, it took a while for me to adapt too. I’m an achievement-oriented person. Now achievement-oriented people would say I have got respect for status in a superior when the superiors earn respect. They have to be a role model. Otherwise I wouldn’t have respect for this person. And for me, titles definitely are less important. Asians, South Americans, Italians, and even French have an extensive use of titles because it clarifies one’s status in the organisation. The status would refer to being, not doing.
I remember my encounters in Singapore when I first started working here, people were very inquisitive. I was not used to it. They asked me which school I went to, where my husband was, how old I am, et cetera. I was shocked and thought “it’s none of your business!” I had to adjust to the local culture, that it was them getting to know me better so that they can build a relationship with me so that it will be easier to work with me later.I remember another incident in Vietnam. An older man took a younger man with him for the meeting with the Vietnamese director who was rather senior. The Vietnamese director was offended when the more junior staff was asked to negotiate with him. In Asia, it’s about status. You can only speak with someone who’s the same status level as yourself. Europeans need to be aware of this or it could be a loss of potential business. It’s about hierarchy.
Building relationships is important. If you wish to collaborate or gain a customer, you need to build relationships. To some reading this, the thought of scheduling meals amidst discussions would seem like a waste of time. However, in many other places, all you end up doing is eating or drinking together. One time in Mexico, this exact situation occurred. It was a big contract up for grabs and both a German and French company were fighting for it.
The Germans had an itinerary planned out, timings for discussions, breaks, lunch, and so forth. Before the end of their trip, the Germans felt frustrated as there were no negotiations at all. They wondered what they had done wrong. The French company proceeded to woo the Mexicans. They had an added advantage as they had some similar cultural aspects as the Mexicans. They informed them that they would be flying to Mexico in a week. The Mexicans asked for their flight number which the French provided them with. From the minute the French arrived in Mexico, all they did was wined and dined with the Mexicans and had a very good time. Business was never discussed until a week later, when they sat down for negotiations. This went on for a couple more days and since they couldn’t finalise things in Mexico, they left and returned to France. Within the next two weeks, they eventually got the contract. Some people may view this example with raised eyebrows as they could not understand why the French won the contract. Others will nod in agreement and feel that is the way to do business.
Another example is someone from Germany or Denmark comes to Asia and says, let’s do business first, then go for a beer. The Asian businessman may think this person is obnoxious and rude. They would not even consider doing business with such an egomaniac. However, if the person proceeded to wine and dine this same businessman, build a strong working relationship with him, and then talk business, the success rate would be higher. The reason for the relationship building is simple. It is all about trust. To trust someone, you need to get to know them better. Relationship building is very important.
Know the culture of the person you’re dealing with. Are you in a culture where people would rather go straight to business or one where you have to build relations first before you can talk business? From my own experience, I must admit that one of the reasons why I love Singapore is because I’ve got so many people from my relationship network that I just have to let them know I’m in town and I’ll have my schedule filled up. Many relationships I have built have become a lifelong relationship. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen them for five years or so, it always feels like we just met yesterday, that’s what I love about the culture in Singapore. The key to note is to be aware of your own culture, and think about the other culture, what are their dimensions, and reconcile the dilemma. Turn it into a cross-cultural strategy.
SMR: What are some of the common mistakes they make when dealing with cross-cultural management and leadership?
GB: Well, one of the main ones is trying to incorporate your culture to a foreign place. Next, people assuming you can learn about someone else’s culture by reading lots of books and using what they learn from those books as tools. Being too egotistical to learn about another’s culture is another mistake. Imagine if an American comes to Singapore and goes around slapping people on the back as he usually does in America to congratulate someone. You may feel violated if you’re based in an Asian country.
Companies tend to forget that it’s very important to understand that culture has a significant impact on performance. You have to get the mutual understanding from whatever culture you come from. Instead of trying to push your culture into a foreign place, why not do something strategic and think out of the box. Try to see if your company culture can fuse with the country’s culture.
Many companies think that having expats running the show is the best idea. Some do not even consider having a local to helm the reins. They forget how costly an expat can be, especially with the big salaries, perks, and so forth.
SMR: Many tend to brush off the importance of cross-cultural management and leadership. Why do you think this is so?
GB: It’s not been taken seriously, cross-cultural management, and this leads to lots of potential business that may be lost. Not preparing yourself prior to meeting someone from a different culture could not only lead to embarrassing moments, but a black mark against your reputation as well. Sure, you may be armed with your numbers and power points, but if you do not have the due respect to understand a different culture, you have lost the people. When that happens, it is very difficult to win them over again.
Many international managers claim that they are very attuned to cross-cultural matters just because they have been posted to different countries. To me, that is a total misunderstand-
ing. I’m talking about leadership, across borders. Most importantly, get rid of any stereotypes you may have of certain cultures. If you are armed with that when you go in for a negotiation or if you’re trying to form new business relationships, you are in for trouble as you will not be able to wipe away those stereotypes and you may end up looking patronis-ing or like a complete fool.
SMR: What constitutes cross-cultural effectiveness when it comes to management and leadership in your opinion?
GB: Take advantage of different cultures because if you do that, you would have a competitive edge. So it’s important to be sensitive to different cultures and you have to develop this skill by working across cultures daily. The way to deal with it is by recognising what are the strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to find out what’s the strategy and objectives to have. So, you always have to think if you want to change anything, it has to be because if you don’t change or reconcile it, it will have an impact on performance. It’s all about reconciling dilemmas but of course only if necessary.We have to also stop blaming other cultures. It’s really a co-existence with all the organisations’ perceptions and beliefs. Every company has a set of company values like responsibility, mutual respect, quality, and so forth. So, a very good way of starting is to take these shared values and put the teams together to work for the organisation’s better good.
SMR: How would you deal with cross-cultural teamwork?
GB: As mentioned earlier, use the company values and weave it into your leadership. Find ways to highlight the values at least 15 to 20 times a day. I’m not kidding. You have to keep the values in mind and not just put them on the wall or nice reception area, and nobody notices them. Create a dialogue amongst your team. Proceed to share the knowledge across cultures. Share all that is visible and invisible, especially attitudes and behaviour within each person’s culture. First of all, I think you should concentrate on what are the similarities with the different cultures. Then you might look into the differences. Look at everything positively and ensure that everyone keeps an open mind. Discuss what is useful to create the organisation’s culture and what isn’t. Then you reconcile everything on hand and create an action plan.
Proceed to split up the teams to ensure that they all come from other cultures. Find out what motivates different cultures. Encourage good ideas and positive constructive thinking. You would then come up with schemes to recognise people for doing something by giving them a reward, either by acknowledging them or giving them some monetary award. You can create teams across cultures, because they have common ideas and issues, and armed with action plans, the organisation is on the way to successfully creating a culture that crosses borders.
SMR: Do you think a strong corporate culture can influence staff? How so?
GB: Any strong corporate culture is worth gold. This is the essence of what global leadership is all about. A strong corporate culture makes people happy and motivates them. A strong corporate culture occurs when people find it fun to go to work, have a good time, we can laugh, and still be profitable and successful. I really believe in this. Being positive ensures that no “water cooler” talk about the culture that may result in total disaster. Colleagues who are all about helping each other, assisting each other, you can see them being more motivated. As a leader, check on your people. How do people look, are they happy? Or do they look stressed? How are they among colleagues? This is very important. Some companies believe that they will perform better if people are controlled, and told what to do every day then proceed to go home and see their family. I don’t believe in that. I know there are many successful companies who do it, but I’m not sure it would hold, especially if you want to expand your company internationally.
SMR: What do you foresee to be the future of cross-cultural management and leadership?
 GB: Well, I’m happy to say that I see the wheels rolling faster and faster on this subject. Companies are starting to realise, if they can sort cultures out internally, they will be able to expand internationally. Companies are afraid that this topic may be too academic or theoretical. They want pragmatic toolboxes to work with. If they can get these toolboxes, these companies will include cross-cultural leadership in their global human capital strategy, thus having the competitive edge.
The challenge of cross-cultural leadership is getting even more crucial. That’s why you have to use these customised tools to work with. However, those tools need to be put into practise and understood. We are still dealing with people and there is much sensitivity. It is important to understand this, otherwise the toolboxes won’t work either.
I hope that more organisations start to understand the importance of reconciling the different cultures within the organisation and the impact it has to the success of the organisation. Cross-cultural management training tends to be pushed aside and I hope more people know that they should stop pushing to the back burner. A company’s success depends on their people. The more motivated they are to come to work and perform, the higher the success rate.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Institute of Management

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Singapore Management Review SMR Vol 33 No 2, 2011

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