Leading Across Borders Takes More than A Multi-cultural Background

I recently had a phone conversation with Cosimo Turroturro, who runs a speakers’ association based in London. Simply on the basis of his name, my assumption before the call was that he was Italian. But as soon as he spoke, starting sentences with the German “ja”, it was clear from his accent that he was not.

Turroturro explained, “My mother was Serbian, my father was Italian, I was born in Italy and raised largely in Germany, although I have spent most of my adult life in the UK. So you see, these cultural differences that you talk about, I don’t need to speak to anyone else in order to experience them. I have all of these challenges right inside myself.”

I laughed, imagining Turroturro having breakfast alone and saying to himself in Italian, “Why do you have to be so blunt?” and responding to himself in German, “Why do you have to be so emotional?” But then I got to thinking about what it would be like to work for Turroturro in a multicultural team.

It seems rather obvious that any global organization would be lucky to have a lot of Cosimos wandering their corridors. And there has been a spate of research in the last few years detailing the upside to the Cosimo profile.

My colleague, Professor Will Maddux, has demonstrated in a number of correlational and experimental studies that managers who are bi-cultural or who have lived in more than one country score higher on creativity tests than those who have lived in only one culture. That’s good news for any global innovation project that has just hired a Cosimo.

Another of my colleagues, Professor Linda Brimm, calls people like Cosimo “global cosmopolitans.” She shows these multicultural types quickly assess and integrate into new cultures and are therefore highly valuable assets in any international organization. In addition, “global cosmopolitans” are usually multilingual, which makes it easier to build relationships and connect with clients and employees around the world.

That sounds like even better news for Cosimo, especially if he has a German, an Italian, a Serb, and a Brit on his new team. In fact, who better to lead the team? With his experience of living in a variety of countries and a multi-cultural family, he can help his team to decode their cultural differences, coach them to be more cross-culturally flexible, and offer strategies to improve their effectiveness — all in their own languages too.

Well, maybe not. Don’t assume, just because Cosimo speaks three languages at the breakfast table, that he is the best person to lead your global interactions.

First of all, Cosimos are often so culturally flexible themselves, having been adapting from one culture to another since they were infants without giving it a thought, that they don’t understand why working across cultures would pose challenges for the rest of us. They may have never thought much about cultural differences, and although they switch cultural contexts as easily as some people change clothes, they might barely realize they are doing it.

As a result, people like Cosimo sometimes lack empathy for those who are caught in a trap of cross-cultural inefficiency or frustration. Time and again, I have had someone like Cosimo attend my classes, only to annoy everyone else in the room with a comment like: “Working across cultures is easy! Why can’t my team just get over it?!” That is definitely not the type of coaching a global team needs when differences in cultural values are hindering collaboration.

My next example concerns an American, Tim Shen. Tim has Chinese parents and was born in Dubuque, Iowa, where he spent his childhood before going to the University of Chicago. Tim looks Chinese and speaks Mandarin fluently. He’s had a terrific career as an executive so far in the US, so a lot of American companies would naturally turn to someone like Tim when they need a leader for their Chinese operations.

Tim also thinks this shouldn’t be much harder than leading Americans, because he thinks of himself as Chinese… Chinese and American, that is. But when Tim arrives in Wuhan, China, it doesn’t take long for him to learn that he is not a Chinese businessman. He thinks and leads and communicates like an American, albeit in perfect Mandarin. And he is not a cultural bridge, able to move back and forth between the Chinese way of working and the American way of working. How can he be when he has never worked in China?

This is very confusing to everyone, not least Tim’s Chinese staff, who don’t cut him a lot of slack: after all, he sounds Chinese and therefore should know better. They complain bitterly of his lack of leadership skills and inability to understand and address the implicit needs of the clients and workforce. Tim comes to realize this would probably be a lot easier if he did not look Chinese, and he wishes he had an American accent when speaking Mandarin. At least then people would understand why he doesn’t lead like a Chinese person. They would stop to explain the cultural norms to him and help him understand all the cultural nuances that are passing completely underneath his radar.

Cosimo and Tim very well may be the best people you can find to run your global operations. But don’t assume, just because they are multicultural, that they will have the know-how to coach your global teams on cultural differences, or that they will become cross-cultural mentors for your global organization. If your company needs a globetrotting executive who will be in Shanghai on Tuesday and Bogota on Thursday, a Cosimo or a Tim will probably be a good bet. But if you are selecting someone to run a global team or organization, look for successful experience in leading a multicultural group, rather than going straight for the most multicultural person you can find.

2 thoughts on “Leading Across Borders Takes More than A Multi-cultural Background”

  1. cecilia moudaber

    Coaching high potential ‘global cosmopolitans’ on cultural differences and on how to lead taking those into account, could help avoid the ‘cultural clash’ issue while taking advantage of their multi language skills that help communication and interaction with locals.

  2. Your stories are fascinating, I am a Costa Rican teacher working in Wisconsin, USA in a Dual language program and the conversations about cultural differences in the staff, the students and the parents are always in the table. It could be challenging to coach multicultural groups and your work has been bringing light to this important issue. Thanks!

Comments are closed.