Can you coach leaders to be 'cross-culturally capable'?

Or are skills like open-mindedness innate? HRD finds out

Can you coach leaders to be 'cross-culturally capable'?

Adaptability, open-mindedness and respect – can such skills be taught or are they qualities you either have or you don’t?

The workforce is becoming increasingly diverse and global. As HR leaders, it is crucial to find the right balance between managing teams, while recognising cultural differences to enable individuals to thrive. 

How can you develop leaders who are effective at cross-cultural management? Can you actually teach someone to navigate the cultural complexities of a diverse team?

HRD spoke to Charlotte Stewart, director, HR (APAC) at Expedia to get her insights and experience around cross-cultural capability.

READ MORE: How to get cultural diversity right

Impact of personal experiences on professional growth
Expedia has over 35 offices in Asia Pacific alone. With its geographical, cultural and demographic diversity, you can bet that the region is not an easy one to manage.

Stewart, however, seems “made” for the job, especially with the experiences and learnings she’s had that date back all the way to her early years.

Stewart shared that she was born an expat. Her family was originally from the UK. Due to her father’s work, the family constantly travelled and she ended up being born in Holland.

Although they did return to UK for a short period, they found themselves in Brunei for a while – and this was during some of her formative years. She attended an international school there and said that the multi-cultural school environment was probably her first learnings on the need for cultural capability.

Fast forward to her adult life, her first experience living and working in Asia was in Hong Kong. She said that moving there really took her back to her life as a kid – travelling and having to adapt to new environments.

“I think the first thing that you do, or one of the barriers around people are they will naturally apply their cultural lens to other people,” Stewart said. “Inevitably, you apply a stereotype and you judge.”

Challenges of cross-cultural leadership
When she first arrived in Hong Kong, her first instinct was to walk around the city to get a feel of the place. She was living in Soho and near the wet markets – she admitted feeling a little culture shock and found herself struggling with the language barrier.

“I learned Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) and was fortunate to have had a whole load of cultural awareness training before I went there,” she said. “But I definitely think language barriers are one of the things cross-cultural leaders have to be mindful of.

“The context of language barriers, geographical differences, and differences in values – all those barriers are just very natural.

“Because I grew up having to be a child in an international environment and having to survive, to kind of fit in, I think I learnt very quickly to try and find connections with people through ‘an international language’.”

What she meant by ‘international language’ involved moving beyond a verbal, spoken one. She shared that she adopted the skill from all the times she was outstationed to overseas offices – particularly to Japan.

Learning Japanese is by no means an easy, instant exercise. Stewart said due to her travels, she can “speak a tiny bit of Japanese…you know, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and the basics”. However, most meetings she attended there were mostly run in Japanese.

Once, when she was there to train executives on feedback and coaching, the local senior director asked if it was okay that the session was facilitated in Japanese.

“I’m like, ‘of course!’” she said. “But I actually understood more when they spoke in Japanese than when they spoke English, because you can just ‘hear it’ in how they speak.

“I love just observing any culture…I really connected with the Japanese during my time there.”

There, she said she learned how to “read the air”. For instance, without excessive prompting, she learned to pick up cues and knew when she was meant to take the stage and lead the session.

Can you teach cross-cultural capability?
Stewart acknowledged that she’s one of the lucky ones to have had extensive travel experience – personally and professionally.

In her readings through her career, she stumbled upon a concept called ‘global cosmopolitanism’ that she found highly relatable. Coined by Linda Brimm, professor of organisation at INSEAD, it referred to multilingual people who have lived, worked and studied for extensive periods in different cultures.

“While their international identities have diverse starting points and experiences, their views of the world and themselves are profoundly affected by both the realities of living in different cultures and their manner of coping with the challenges that emerge,” Brimm wrote in her book on the topic.

READ MORE: How to successfully lead a diverse workforce

So is genuine cross-cultural capability a teachable skill? Stewart shared another on-point anecdote to answer the question.

She once had a colleague who was transferred to the Singapore office and moved with her husband for the job. Stewart said her co-worker simply didn’t enjoy the experience.

“She genuinely came with the attitude of, ‘I’m not going to embrace it. I’m going to just be here because my husband’s here on work. As soon as I can get back to the UK, I will’,” Stewart said.

“I did some coaching with her, but can I teach her to enjoy the experience? No. I'm curious to see whether it’s possible to truly teach that kind of cross-cultural mindset or cross-cultural leadership.

“But I do think when you look at what makes an ideal, versus a less-than-ideal leader, it doesn't matter where you are in the world, you run on the understanding [that there are] core skillsets around what good leadership looks like.”

She added that good leadership skills are “universal”, for instance having a learning, growth mindset – which may be coachable. Helping others develop a genuine curiosity and enjoyment of different cultures, however, may not be as easy.

Stewart is thus grateful for her lifetime of experiences seeing and meeting different places and people, as well as her seemingly innate motivation to constantly “want to challenge myself to be innovative, to do things differently, and to go on a different pat”.

“I think it taught me to put myself out there,” she said. “And especially at Expedia…it’s a phenomenal environment because I’m surrounded by like-minded people who are super bright – far brighter than me – and who genuinely care about what they do.

“I come to work with a smile on my face every day and yes, I can be traveling crazy hours and doing late night calls, and it’s fun because the work we do genuinely matters.”

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