Global Ease

Human resource professionals need to gain self-awareness, second languages and multicultural savvy to manage international workforces.

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2011
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Neil Currie, GPHR, a certified trainer with 15 years of HR experience with Johnson & Johnson in Brazil, has worked in South America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the United States. Despite his vast international experience, cultural faux pas occasionally have cost him opportunities and positive first impressions.

When pitching a proposal to deliver training for a Brazilian telecom company, his first trip to Sao Paulo was going well. “They were delighted I had lived in Brazil and was fluent in Portuguese. It was picture-perfect until my client suggested I stay for the weekend to go to a soccer game” and enjoy the local cuisine with him, he says.

Although Currie declined the invitation diplomatically, the next day he sensed his potential clients were not as receptive. They told him “they liked the program but would need more time. They wanted me to add a pilot that would take another month and one more trip.” On the plane home, Currie analyzed what went wrong. He had given them a “task” reason for declining the invitation instead of a “relationship” reason. “It’s a relationship culture, and I could just as easily and more successfully [have said], ‘There are people back home who are expecting me to be with them.’ ” But the reason he gave “sent the message that I was not as Brazilian as they initially thought—and it came out of my profit.”

Currie was able to salvage the project because he was culturally savvy enough to recognize and rectify his missteps.

Later, “we did go to the stadium and had feijoada [stew] and a caipirinha [cocktail]. They invited me to continue, so I more than recovered the loss,” he says.

Cultural misunderstandings are common, but they can be pitfalls to executives managing global workforces. “Global HR professionals need to have several competencies: knowledge of HR strategies, models, methods and techniques; problem-solving skills; people management skills; and, finally, the ability to adapt to international contexts,” says Silvia Bagdadli, an associate professor of organization and human resource management at Bocconi University and the director of the executive master in strategic human resource management program at the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy.

“A global mind-set is crucial. People used to need to understand a culture if they were going to another country to live. Now, people work across borders via technology. Companies ask us to teach global mind-set skills for people who will never be leaving their offices,” says Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 LLC, an intercultural business consultancy based in New York City, and co-author of Managing Across Cultures (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

On their way up the corporate ladder, many chief human resource officers gain international experience and global cultural competencies—self-awareness, second languages and societal sensitivity. But what if your company has just expanded overseas and you have hundreds, if not thousands, of new employees in another country? Or what if you want to increase the global cultural competencies of your staff? If it has been a while since you completed your international executive MBA or your last international work rotation, how can you keep your global cultural competencies sharp?

These are common problems. Global cultural competencies seem to be in high demand and low supply among all types of executives and managers. According to the IBM Global Human Capital Study 2008, 75 percent of companies cited the inability to develop future leaders as a critical issue. Many expressed “deep concern over the current and projected shortage of individuals” who can “serve as role models and mentors to individuals who are increasingly dispersed” geographically and who “come from a variety of generations, experience levels and cultures.” Almost half the respondents interviewed said a lack of leadership capability is acute in Asia, a country few expatriates are willing to relocate to.

A World-Wise Road Map

To gain the necessary skills, a combination of on-the-job exposure and formal training are required, says David Lange, managing partner of Aventine Associates, a global consultancy based in Pennington, N.J., and Belgium. He says formal training, which is useful at the outset of a global career, becomes less critical as employees gain experiences and capabilities. Career-long opportunities include the following:

Travel. Executives may find it difficult to spend long periods of time away from headquarters. Howard Wallack, GPHR, director of the Society for Human Resource Management’s global member programs, suggests commuting internationally: Instead of taking one long, traditional expat experience, an 18-month assignment could feature two-week trips every three months for 18 months.

“Work and travel abroad in cultures that are important to the organization in locations of operation, labor and customer markets,” recommends Gill Maxwell, Ph.D., an instructor and researcher at the Business School at the Glasgow Caledonian University.

International HR workshops. HR professionals do not need to earn an international HR degree to take global courses. Mansour Javidan, Ph.D., dean of research and director of the Global Mindset Institute at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., says the school works “with several thousand managers who take one-day to three-week courses on various topics related to globalization.” For example, Thunderbird courses include “Advanced Management Program for Oil and Gas Executives” and “Advanced Negotiating Strategies for Global Effectiveness.”

Read globally. Keep up on world news. Siriyupa Roongrerngsuke, Ph.D., associate professor and executive director of the HR management program at Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, recommends publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune and The Economist.

Wallack suggests reading daily newspapers from other countries regularly. Look them up online. “If you don’t speak the language, there is usually an English paper in most countries,” he says.

International projects. “Be assertive in asking [for] opportunities for involvement in global initiatives,” Lange suggests. “Demonstrate flexibility around working hours and travel, as global roles do not fit neatly into a regular U.S. workday.” Begin self-study of a language to indicate interest in a role in a specific country; Lange recommends courses like those offered by Rosetta Stone.

Long-term expatriate assignments. “Emerging markets are vitally important. You don’t understand them unless you are in the country one or two years. It’s a competitive advantage to build up that experience,” says British national Matthew North, vice president-head of talent in Bangalore, India, for ABB, a power and automation corporation. He speaks English and German and has worked in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Obtain an international HR degree. Dozens of universities worldwide offer international degrees. Most executive global HR master’s programs take one to two years and require immense self-discipline. Many international HR degree programs include common graduate HR courses, such as organizational development and communication skills, but from an international perspective. However, some offer region-specific courses, such as “Challenges in Emerging Middle Eastern Economies.”

Exposure to executives from other countries represents a valuable aspect of international degree programs. “You build a network,” North says. “You can talk to them and resolve your current problems. They are not all from one country, so they have different perspectives and can open your mind to different solutions.”

Johannes Kim, vice president of human resources for Carl Zeiss Vision Inc., a global eye care manufacturer headquartered in San Diego, notes that his graduate school study group included students from France, Germany, India, Korea and Switzerland. “The study groups mirror the business environment: You are pressured for results. You have to see how to apply and change your communication style to build relationships.”

Cultivate multicultural colleagues. “Network with other HR executives who have international backgrounds and responsibilities,” Javidan advises.

Lange suggests: “Be mentored by someone outside one’s own geography, or assume reporting responsibility for a team outside one’s own geography.”

Globalization for Everyone

The need for global cultural competencies will grow, so grab opportunities to prepare now.

Peyman Dayyani, SPHR, GPHR, vice president of organizational development and human capital for Mobile Communication Co. of Iran, suggests a “70-20-10 learning approach” to acquiring global HR skills—“70 percent is learned by doing and hunting for opportunities and challenges in real life, 20 percent is being a mentee of people who have earned the wisdom of a global mind-set, and 10 percent is learned by reading and attending classes.”

Dayyani speaks Farsi, English and French, and reads and writes Arabic.

The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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