Managing Across Borders

 -  12/31/06

Failure to manage projects involving global employees and customers can cost millions and drive talent from the corporate ranks.

As recently as a decade ago, only a fraction of the American workforce participated in international work teams either virtually or through expatriate assignments. Today, just about every organization faces global integration.

Foreign employment by U.S.-based, multinational companies has grown at a faster rate than their domestic employment, and foreign-based multinationals increased their employment in the United States by 3.1 million from 1998 to 2002.

Think this global-work trend doesn’t include your organization? Think again. Do you have suppliers or customers in a different part of the world? Do you outsource some services to another country?

With technology you can be a “global worker” without ever leaving your hometown. Failure to manage projects or processes involving global employees, suppliers and customers easily can cost millions and derail careers while driving promising talent from the corporate ranks.

It would be easy to assume the best candidates for global assignments would be those whose who are open-minded and accepting of other cultures. Except, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so. While being open might make the experience more enjoyable, it does not necessarily lead to greater effectiveness in global assignments.

That surprising finding came to light in a far-reaching, five-year study by Personnel Decisions International (PDI) that explored the personality traits that characterize managers and executives across the globe. The study set out to discover the fundamental personality differences that often lead to miscommunication and misperceptions among members of cross-cultural teams.

My own curiosity on the subject arose when I was working with a client in Saudi Arabia in 2000. Before going there I dutifully studied “The Rules”: Don’t cross your legs. Don’t pass things with your left hand. Expect to be kept waiting for every appointment. I felt confident that my own tolerant, flexible nature, plus knowing the rules would prepare me for a successful consulting engagement.

Yet I was disabused of the importance of these “rules” when each was violated by the hosts during my first morning there. It was then I learned that cross-cultural engagement involved much more than minding your manners or adopting a “when in Rome” attitude.

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