April 2015 | 

Leading Across Borders: Business (Not) as Usual

Business (Not) as Usual: Leading Across Borders

In his book The Leader’s Checklist, Wharton management professor Michael Useem distills the practice of effective leadership into a set of 15 core principles that help leaders navigate complex challenges. Since they were published in 2012, those principles have guided thousands of executives around the world. But, says Useem, when you are leading a multinational team or otherwise working across national and cultural borders, those principles need adjusting.

Useem, who teaches in Wharton’s Global Strategic Leadership program, says, “In international markets, the checklist is a bit different. Mindsets vary from one country or culture to another, and when you have a diverse team, it is critical that you understand them and lead and react appropriately.”

He cites the ability to work well with those above you as a key leadership skill that must be adapted for different settings. “In the United States, most welcome upward feedback. It’s not a problem. But to do that in another setting might be abhorrent. Research tells us that status differences in the United States are relatively small. In East Asia, though, they tend to be larger. The checklist has to be modified for the specific country you operate in. You can lead up anywhere, but how you do it is key.”

Lenovo knows this first-hand. When the company bought IBM’s PC division in 2005, only one member of its top management team spoke English. The first few years after the acquisition have been described as cultural and managerial chaos. One key difference between the Chinese and American companies was upward feedback. At IBM, questioning a leadership decision was common, but at Lenovo it was unheard of. Useem notes, “The checklist for Lenovo had to be different. You can’t come to a multinational table with just your own mindset and national tendencies.” It took the company about five years to figure that out, and today it is the world’s largest PC vendor with double the sales figures it reported in 2008.

Managers also need to be well-versed in differing incentives and motivations. In the United States, for example, the mantra is “total shareholder return.” It’s part of the management mindset. But In India, explains Useem, “there is a much greater emphasis on developing products and services that will benefit the community and the country. There is great pride in being a responsible corporate contributor. Your checklist needs to include exploring these kinds of differences.”

How can you get up to speed on cultural norms to help adjust your leadership checklist? Useem says immersing yourself in the new context is the most valuable method, but working with other leaders and observing those norms first-hand can also help you understand behaviors and expectations. Attending a program that attracts global senior leaders is also beneficial. “The need for a diverse top team is something we all know conceptually. But when you work with the group of managers in Global Strategic Leadership it is reinforced. People work together and differences play out and get resolved.”

He explains that the executives who attend the program have many years of experience. “They have worked with and thought about many of the issues we discuss, so the key is to strengthen their resolve to consistently apply them. For instance, they have all heard about active listening, probably at age 20. But they have also been through the experience of having a meeting, not listening, and making an error or two because of it. They don’t need to relearn the concept — they have to slow down and recommit to it.”

Arun Roy, a director at Bosch, attended the program and agrees. “It has made me a better listener. I have slowed down. I always want to do things at my own pace, and at times that has caused me to make mistakes. I have learned over the years you have to listen. Everything is a negotiation at the end of the day. Take it a step at a time. You can’t race to the finish.”