Research Paper By Lawrence Chi
(Expatriate and Cross Cultural Coach, CANADA)
The interdependence of different cultures in today’s world necessitates greater understanding and communication skills from as high as the organizational level down to teams and individuals. The globalization of our world has also made it a smaller place; people are travelling to and spending more time in new countries and cultures. Even individuals who never plan to travel outside of their home country must develop an appreciation of different cultures as they may be represented amongst peers, customers or leaders.
Multiple issues arise from our global village as a backdrop and has increasingly come to the forefront of management and organizational effectiveness. Expatriates may experience challenges with integrating into the culture to which they are moving and this causes professional and personal issues, productivity costs as well as hard costs for the sponsoring organization.
The Expat Compass Coaching Model zeroes in on improving cross-cultural communication and understanding through discussions of a client’s:
- Current perspectives and behaviours;
- Accepted perspectives and behaviours in the new culture;
- Observed perspectives and behaviours of incumbents in the new culture.
Creating self-awareness in these areas has helped numerous expatriates be more effective quickly in new international assignments.
Through the course of reviewing past expatriate clients, a number of common themes have emerged that underline the successful expatriate experience. A purpose of this paper is to outline three common mindsets that have surfaced from coaching with The Expat Compass Model. Another idea presented in this paper is that the three mindsets is also a basis of all successful coaching clients, and not merely a cross cultural situation.
I was an expatriate Human Resources Head for over twenty years in Asia Pacific, so I have interviewed, selected, managed, mentored and coached expatriates for the majority of my professional career. One particular responsibility I took on in my senior HR roles was mentoring and coaching expatriate managers and executives. The region I was in garnered a lot of commercial interest, experienced rapid development and was also a destination for a high volume of expatriate talent; either to fulfill a talent gap, expedite business development, pass on company culture, or act as a conduit between subsidiary and corporate office or between host and home culture. I began to notice that successful expatriates had common mindsets and behaviours. Expats who initially struggled in their assignment eventually succeeded once they became self-aware of these paradigm shifts.
For purposes of this paper, expatriates are individuals who have been displaced from their home culture to a new foreign, host culture, regardless of their job, role or seniority level.
Three Common themes
The first theme, curiosity, is the one that stood out the most. Related to this concept is the behaviour of “seeking”. This theme wasn’t the most obvious trait to me but over time, it has become the most important. Expatriate candidates who have a genuine curiosity that extends beyond just the base of their next international assignment will naturally seek out questions and answers. When I speak to first time expatriates and their families prior to departure, successful cases will always have a battery of questions about the lifestyle, the city and history of the culture.
Clients who have successfully navigated cross cultural relationships have an intellectual wonderment about the “newness” of the international assignment on which they are about to embark. While these individuals may have a strong affinity to their home culture, they also understand and more importantly, embrace, that there are multiple and different experiences to which they have not been exposed to yet. They recognize that the scope of the world is beyond their set of blinders.
I had coached a newly stationed business head from Germany. Upon his arrival, Gerhard and I spoke about his adjustment to China. To his credit, Gerhard did not take his previous expatriate experiences in Europe for granted and was deliberate in structuring his integration in China. Before we had our first meeting, I could tell that he was constantly looking around his new environs, exploring the city, talking to people. We eventually came to the conclusion that for Gerhard to successfully lead a large Chinese team and business (with associated relationships with local nationals), he had to understand how they thought and what motivated their behaviour. The best way to understand was to invest time and effort outside of the workplace to build professional and personal relationships, further explore the city through food, culture and local people. His effort to understand, learn and immerse in the culture with such reckless abandon, courage and enthusiasm, endeared himself to his team and local business partners.
In addition to “seeking”, there are other behaviours that underline this theme of curiosity. These individuals ask questions, lean into new or uncomfortable situations and admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. Underlying these behaviours exists a confidence, an open mind and a sincerity to understand and appreciate diversity to let go of preconceived notions and assumptions.
The second theme, humility, shares a number of behaviours with curiosity. Humble individuals recognize that knowledge is infinite and requires an open mind as a prerequisite to understand different perspectives. Related to this, humble individuals seek first to understand before making themselves understood; they listen and ask questions to learn rather than pontificating.
There used to be an assumed practice that hiring Mandarin-speaking Asian nationals to serve as expatriates for organizations in China was the most effective. This was predicated on the assumption that Asian cultures were similar, if not the same and that speaking the language made communication and thus management, much easier. While this generally can be a predictor of success, the element to increase its probability still lies with the individual.
I was in a position to observe and work with a number of successful Asian nationals but also coach and mentor Asian nationals who were not effective. The overseas Chinese who were most successful in their careers in China were extremely humble. They saw themselves as part of the host country’s team, not as an outsider flown in to lead.
However, there was also a segment of ineffective overseas Chinese leaders that did place themselves different than their Mainland Chinese hosts. This sense was particularly pronounced when the level of commercial development of many Asia countries was higher than that in Mainland China. On multiple occasions, Asian expatriates operated under the notion that their Chinese counterparts did not know any better. In our conversations, these professionals would either say something along the lines that “their Chinese counterparts did not know any better” or rhetorically ask, “what can I learn from the Chinese?”. These judgements and unsubstantiated underlying beliefs blocked them from endearing themselves with their local teams. Unfortunately, the majority of these Asian expatriates were unable to release these underlying beliefs or it was too late for them to do so; their careers in China never recovered.
Successful expatriates are curious about the host country in which they will be located. They are culturally sensitive and realize that adapting to the new surroundings will require both agility and open mindedness.
When I was working for a packaged goods company, we had recruited a senior executive from the American Midwest to China. It was a risk because Peter had never left, let alone managed outside of, the United States but he eventually became recognized as one of Shanghai’s most effective executives and was highly sought after by executive search consultants during his 15+ year tenure in China. His success could have been foreshadowed by the first meeting he had with his executive team, when he declared early on, “I have as much to learn from you as you have from me.” Later on, he admitted to me that he asked this question to all his new teams, that it wasn’t intended for his China team. He was quick to admit to his new team that this was his first assignment outside of the United States, that he was fascinated by the what he had heard about doing business in China and was eager to learn everything he could during his assignment.
The example of the transplanted executive illustrates both curiosity and humility. His initial interactions with Chinese employees and customers were geared towards listening and learning rather than speaking and persuading. His approach ultimately was the first important step to avoid any judgement and towards establishing trust.
Humility is a prerequisite for the third common theme of highly effective expatriates: agility. One has to have a high level of self-awareness and confidence to admit a quick change of behaviours is needed, even if it is on public display. A culture steeped in 5000 years of history such as China’s won’t change for foreigners or their preferred style and it is this fact that often derail expatriate executives during international assignments.
International hotel executives are highly transient; their postings usually last a couple of years before they get promoted or posted to a property in another country. The experience at a hotel company I worked at was no different and leaders were eager to have tenure in China, which was both high-profile and commercially lucrative. One property General Manager, John, was selected to manage a hotel in China because of his brashness and his long track record of success in the United States. His unapologetic style was counter to all the mentoring and coaching he received during his on boarding. John’s exact words were that he was his job was to lead and to take the hotel to the next level. He was blinded by his previous success and the positive response that his previous … American … employees had to his maverick style; his Chinese staff didn’t know how to respond or were inadvertently offended, resulting in low morale and turnover in the executive team. His inability to pivot quickly and change his style eventually lead to his forced resignation six months later. The lesson in John’s case is that he had false underlying beliefs and wasn’t able to pivot these beliefs.
An agile expatriate can also be observed to be comfortable with ambiguity at the very least, not be frustrated by change and have a long time horizon. An expatriate was parachuted into China to save a licensing business that was for the longest time being neglected and ultimately abandoned by its previous leader. Stefano is an Italian national who had never been to or operated in China. He brought with him a long list of accomplishments and experiences with multiple consumer products companies. After his initial orientation, he was bold with his business goals and the strategy used to achieve them. The initial implementation was bumpy and he received coaching to deal in this new foreign business environment. Unlike John in the previous example, however, Stefano heeded the advice and adjusted his style. He accepted the challenge of building his business with Chinese characteristics … a play on Deng XiaoPing’s famous “one country, two systems” edict. He tweaked his communication and management style to the point where his team was initially confused by the change in approach. However, after the time required to restart and gain momentum, Stefano was able to mobilize his team, earn trust and accelerate the growth of his business.
Three commonalities of successful expatriates have been summarized:
- humility and;
These three paradigms were conceived and observed in the context of successful expatriate management but it can be generalized to success in a coaching relationship, regardless of context.
A successful coaching relationship ultimately leads to a client’s self-awareness and action. Two factors contributing achieving self-awareness would be a client’s humility and curiosity. Humility is a precondition to release judgement, gain confidence and understand one’s underlying beliefs. As stated earlier, humble individuals recognize that knowledge is infinite and requires an open mind to understand different perspectives. If a client has humility and can accept the possibility that s/he has blind spots or endless possibilities, this is the first step towards understanding and change.
Once they have a mindset of endless possibilities, then the client can move towards action through a sense of curiosity. Similar to the effective expatriate, successful clients “seek” alternatives, ask questions, have the confidence to lean into new or uncomfortable situations. Their open mindedness allows them to explore new realms or possibilities and alternatives that may in fact contribute to their self-awareness or actions.
In exploring new realms and possibilities, clients may have to have the agility to adapt, change or pivot. By releasing judgement and letting go of false underlying beliefs, clients will need to course correct their actions. The source of deciding to pivot is always from the client and through an effective coaching conversation, where the client leads the conversations and commits to the actions, there is more commitment if a course correction is required.
This paper initially started solely as an investigation of the lessons I’ve learned from coaching expatriates. However, after my structured and focused development as a professional coach, the themes extracted from my experience as a coach and mentor can certainly be extended to multiple coaching situations. I take comfort that successful expatriates who realize the three mindsets for success are probably good coaching clients too. I can also conclude that the paradigms that can generally be applied in a coaching relationship can have specific meaning in a particular context, in this case, the expatriate experience.