Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to work in an international role. In this role, I get to work with people abroad, and also represent them when working with our American colleagues. It has been a journey of joy and of learning. I have learned that not everyone is willing to be an international person; some people prefer to stay with the familiarity rather than facing the unknown, and some are so used to their ways of doing things that they are not prepared to approach new situations with a learning mindset. I have also learned that not everyone can be successful in working across cultures; those who are successful in an international role have three characteristics:
First, successful international people are patient. When working with international counterparts, you may hear different terminologies. Although it may mean the same things, the words/terminologies used may be different. You may hear different accents, and therefore, it can become much harder to understand a conversation. In addition, crossing cultures, you may find that the ways people arrive at conclusions are different, the ways they share ideas, make decisions and express interests are different. Some cultures are more direct, low context, and more confrontational than others. A good resource to learn about the differences in how different cultures communicate, evaluate, decide, etc. is the book the “Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. Because of the differences in how people work and communicate around the world, being patient and taking the time to really listen and understand is the most important characteristic.
Second, successful international people are open-minded and have an international mindset. What I consider as having an international mindset is the ability to recognize, understand and accept that there are differences around the world; these differences stem from historical backgrounds, cultural influences, social, political and economic environments. The person who has an international mindset recognizes the differences and embrace them. By default, they think differences are good. They approach things with an inquisitive mind and appreciative inquiries – what are done well, what are good, what have sustained the organization or the society and why things work well the way they are – rather than approaching everything with a “problem” mindset – what’s wrong, shouldn’t they do things the same ways we do, let’s fix the problems. A good resource to learn about appreciative inquiries is the book “Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change” by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney. When working with people from all over the world, you will definitely run into many differences, from artistic views to cultural behaviors. When things are different, it’s important to be open minded, and don’t immediately conclude that things are bad. For example: you may follow a work process that works really well in the United States, then discover that your international colleagues follow a different process. Instead of immediately jumping to conclusion that the other process is not good and needs to change, you can approach it with curiosity – why are they using that process? – would that process work better for them than if they have used the same process as you do? – do they have the same tools and resources that you have here in the United States? Be open to the idea that when things are different to what you are used to, it could be a positive thing. Put yourself into their shoes to understand their viewpoints and perspectives.
Third, successful international people are learners. Because of their desires to learn, they are willing to travel and to pick up the phone off-hours to talk to their international colleagues. As I travel outside of the United States, I discover that there are many things I just cannot learn from a book. I have to be there to see, to hear, and to learn. In addition, even though working outside the normal work schedule may be difficult, especially if you are used to the eight a.m. to five p.m. workday or have other family obligations such as kid’s soccer practices after work, it is important that you are willing to adjust your work hours in order to talk to the other person across the world. Emails are sufficient in some situations; however, for most situations, a phone call and face-to-face discussion is the best approach. In a communications course I took while traveling to India, the instructor said that 60% of communications is done via body language, 23% is done via tone of voices, and only 17% is in the actual words. Using emails, you are probably only able to communicate 17% of the message. Picking up the phone, you may be able to get 40% across if the phone connection is good and you can hear the tone of voices. Therefore, if you have the opportunity to travel onsite, do it. It is your best chance to have a face to face conversation with your international colleagues, learn about their culture and build rapport.
Working in an international role is one of the best jobs I have held. I learn daily about the differences, and I learn daily about myself. In today global economy, in order to grow, it’s essential that one must reach out and work across the globe. In working with other cultures, you will definitely encounter differences. By being patient, having an open mind, and willing to learn through traveling and communicating, you will have an exhilarating experience. What often breaks my heart is to see people get worked up when they face differences, refuse to look deeper to understand why differences can be good, and insist on doing things one way.
If you are in an international role or consider to become international, I hope this article helps you. I have been in this role for only a short time; therefore, I still have lots to learn. I welcome your opinion and feedback as you read this article.
With loving heart,