AnandKharade: Do leadership skills change from country to country?
MK:Let me share a personal experience, and then some thoughts on this question.
When I joined Microsoft China as Lead Program Manager, I (like other expats in the company) was given 2 day training on ‘how to be an effective leader in China’. The training told us lots of things about what leadership principles work and don’t work in China. Among other things, I was told that people will not say no to you ever, 1-1s will be waste of time because people never open up to foreigners, use authority because Chinese people are used to authority-based leadership, etc. And I believed these. However, as I continued my work over next few months, I realized that the stereotypes they talked about were mostly useless. While I did find people who wouldn’t open up to me, I also found people who would open up and talk like we were long-lost friends. While I found people who wouldn’t talk in meetings, I also found people who would outshout others in the typical Microsoft manner. So much for the training!
After having practiced leadership for a number of years in 3 big economies and cultures of the world (India, US, China), my personal take on this question is that there are no clear differences that you will see from country to country. However, this doesn’t mean that what you are doing today as a leader will work straightaway when you move to, say, Ghana.
Leadership is a bouquet of skills – you need to choose the right one to use based on the context and the people involved. You also need to learn new skills to add to this bouquet when you interact with people and context where your existing skills don’t work. When I went to China, I honed many of my existing skills, I learned a few new ones to handle new situations I encountered (‘How do you handle it when you are having 1-1 and the person bursts into tears?’). Interestingly, when I moved back to US, I could apply some of my newly honed and learned skills with the people there with great results.
When you go to a different country, the cultural differences can make one of your preferred skills much harder to apply and that can become a big distractor. For example, in China again, I couldn’t talk to the Developers and discuss the technical problems (which I am used to) because they couldn’t sustain a conversation in English. However, instead of not undertaking such conversations (and risking loss of respect), I figured out 2 ways of communicating with them.First, I would talk to the PM (who reported to me and PMs had better command of English than Developers) who would then discuss it with them on my behalf. Second, I started doing more discussions 1-1 and on chat – typing out my thoughts and arguments was slow, but that gave enough time for them to respond and continue the conversation (they knew good English, it’s just that they couldn’t talk fluently).
If everyone could be aware of all cultures and languages, it would have been awesome, but surely not possible. Hence as leaders, we need to improvise, lean on others for help, be aware of what we are learning from our leadership experiences in multi-cultural situations and invest in continuous learning.