My hands were sweating, my thoughts racing. I was fairly uncomfortable – which is definitely not the norm – for this “all hands” meeting. As I opened my mouth to speak, I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to make sure that my message resonated with the team. I stumbled. I couldn’t even pronounce what rolled on my tongue.
And this was how I started my first international all hands meeting. I was in Romania for the first time, just months after we had acquired the office.
In the five years since this experience, I have learned quite a bit about multicultural management, and I have witnessed people who do it right and those who don’t.
The funny thing about international leadership and multicultural management is that the principles remain the same as for local leadership. Here are four realizations to keep in mind if you’re just getting started.
1. Be confident in yourself.
Yes, you may be a foreigner, but that’s nothing more than reality. People are people. Your employees, regardless of where they are from, are individual people.
Be yourself. Be genuine. Employees, regardless of heritage, simply want you to be you.
Don’t think you need to be someone different just because you’re in a different country. Stay true to yourself. Have integrity. Say and live like you would anywhere else in the world. This is one of the most enduring attributes of any leader.
2. Be respectful of the local culture.
Don’t just be yourself. Allow your international team to be themselves. Respect their differences. Seek to understand. Learn their culture. Embrace the unique qualities that they bring to the table.
Realize that some things are important and some things are not. Don’t dictate things that don’t really matter. Instead, acknowledge local preferences and empower individuals to be themselves. Use multicultural diversity as a differentiation tool. Respect it. Don’t squash it.
3. Be genuinely interested.
Develop a natural curiosity in your team. Show an interest in their daily lives. Take the time to visit your team on a somewhat regular basis. Ask them about their families, their upbringing, and their interests.
People are people. Don’t shy away from treating foreign employees like you would treat anyone else. Be interested in their daily lives. Show that you care. Demonstrate that they are truly part of the team.
4. Be dignified in your approach.
Many managers treat foreign employees like children. Essentially, they install watchdogs and provide babysitters. They are less transparent, more stringent, and implement checks and balances that would never be accepted in their home office.
Different does not equal inferior or less trustworthy. Resist the temptation to assume the worst in people. Instead, see every person as who they really are. Show genuine respect. Maintain a consistent approach across your business by setting the same standards, processes, and rules.
International leadership is no different than any other form. Just because you speak a different language, have a different heritage, or live several time zones apart does not mean that basic leadership principles do not apply. Yes, there are tactics that may need to be learned, but there’s nothing that elevates to the point of being nervous about a simple conversation.