For some time, I’ve been looking for one “source” that curates modern takes on HR Tech, perspectives from the people who build it, and its impact on enterprise — something that’s tailor-made by professionals for decision-makers.
I never found it — so I decided to build it.
Every week, I’ll be sharing fresh insights on tech platforms, design, data, and the future of work — straight to your inbox.
This week, we have a guest author: senior business consultant Anuja Agnihotri.
Hello! My name is Anuja Agnihotri. Not only am I a consultant at SEI Cincinnati, but I’m also one of the main contributors to the SEI blog. So when Patrick approached me about guest authoring an edition of Exit Interview, I was thrilled! 😄
My time at SEI has been the most challenging and exciting I’ve experienced in my career to date. Currently, I’m working as a project manager for a Fortune 50 company, coordinating their global product launches and a handful of internal digital transformation initiatives. Not a day goes by where I don’t find myself coordinating teams from Melbourne to California, and, besides navigating different time zones, I absolutely love it.
This week’s Exit Interview was inspired by a quote I’ve seen several times in my career: Business is business the whole world over. 🌍 It’s attributed to the Dexis Consulting Group CEO Mihir Desai. I love this quote — it’s simple and unifies organizational efforts towards the common goal. At the same time, though, it forgoes all nuances required for business in international markets. In reality, business is business the world over, but your approach to navigating cross-cultural markets and teams is what truly determines your success.
The Role of Cross-Culture Differences in Business Strategy
Research from thought leaders like Geert Hofstede forms the well-known understanding that beliefs and practices differ across cultures. If you search online for tips about international business management, most articles cover very surface-level topics: always be conscientious of language barriers, understand which regions take midday work breaks, have a firm handshake, etc. 🤝 It’s important to know these things and to demonstrate respect for other cultures, but it offers very little advice for day-to-day communication.
One of the most important parts of successful international business is standardized processes. 🔀 In large organizations, standardization promotes streamlined workflows and brand integrity, which is closely tied to customer experience. But leaning on standard processes for communicating certain information can undermine efforts to streamline and synthesize information if you aren’t aware of the nuances within each region’s workplace expectations.
In a study by the Harvard Business Review, organizations from around the world were surveyed to understand how culture translates to workplace expectations and values and the implication it has on effective leadership. Through their work, HBR researchers found key regional differences in seven of the eight attributes that define cultural styles. The eighth, caring, was the most highly valued across all eight regions named in the study. 😊
Every global business leader needs a strong understanding of how different cultures interpret and react to common organizational operations. Here are just a few examples based on data presented in the study and situations I’ve experienced as a consultant:
- Predicting agility: Africa ranked learning, exploration, creativity, and purpose higher than any other region. By contrast, Eastern Europe and Asia identified those attributes as the least important, instead placing a strong emphasis on safety, preparedness, and planning. In a situation that required unexpected company-wide change, the latter regions would likely require additional support and resources to adapt to rapidly-shifting business needs comfortably. At the same time, teams in Africa may be a great place to source innovative solutions or new ideas.
- Recognizing employees: Regional organizational culture also exists on a spectrum of independent and interdependent work styles. In Asia, order and cooperation are ranked among its top attributes, and it has a highly interdependent culture. North America, on the other hand, is an infamously independent and individualistic culture, inside the workplace and out. Both, however, place a high value on achievement and public recognition. But because the vast majority of Asian workers possess a strong sense of collaboration, it’s common for companies to recognize whole teams for accomplishments (in the US, we might interpret a team award as diluting the importance of the recognition or an act of “stealing our thunder”). Additionally, contextualizing the recognition is much more important in Chinese culture, as the meaning of the award is tied to the employees’ contribution to organizational goals.
- Disseminating key information: In regions with low emphasis on authority-driven cultures like Australia/New Zealand and North America, leadership is more likely to struggle with communicating important information. I know that some will argue this undermines the authority of regional managers. In my personal experience, though, I’ve worked with several skilled managers who have relied on global leadership’s influence when they have important information their teams must absorb.
One Problem, A World of Perspectives
There are a lot of companies, both domestic and international, who have the wrong mindset about cross-cultural teams. Organizations can make the mistake of framing diverse cultures as something only relevant to HR and people operations initiatives. Some companies approach it purely as a pain point that needs to be navigated as issues arise. There are still a few companies I’ve heard of that simply don’t address cross-cultural issues — and they pay heavily for it.
All of these approaches are wrong 🙅 and they limit growth strategies. There’s plenty of research demonstrating that diversity at the leadership level increases profits, improves employee engagement, and fuels innovation. If that’s the case, I would argue that diversity at every organizational level does all those things and more, ten times over.
In this way, I believe global businesses have a true advantage over domestic ones, but you don’t have to be worldwide to adopt cross-cultural problem-solving skills. 💡 In my day-to-day tasks, I love to ask myself: how are different people dealing with the same problem? The most prominent example of how reactions to a common problem differ by culture is, of course, protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are also different responses to housing crises occurring around the world. In the US, for example, there is a large exodus of Americans leaving the US and purchasing houses in Europe. But Canadians, who are facing an equally demoralizing disparity in income and home prices, are staying put.
The recent economic downturn has stirred up worries and waves of layoffs. In the US, the main reason workers are so fearful of being let go from their company is due to America’s layoff culture: from the stigma associated with dismissal and the lack of social safety nets to the very term we use to describe it: getting fired. 🔥 Even if a company isn’t anticipating large staff cuts, the concern alone is enough to rock company culture. It’s an issue that’s posing a serious risk to organizations of all sizes in the US right now, but does it need to be? In my opinion, we have so much to learn from other countries when it comes to laying off employees — including returning them to the workforce.
I’m going to end this week’s edition with the three most important things to know for people and companies stepping into the world of international business. Thank you all so much for reading and I hope to be connecting with you all again soon!
- Standardize — to a point: As I mentioned, there are lots of reasons global businesses need to have standardized operations. For my current global client, we’ve created a workflow for disseminating reporting data to every region. However, I never expect every region to use every part of the data, nor do I expect them to use it in the exact same way. I have a personal 80-20 rule: 📏 for all the resources I provide, I expect 80% of it to be used for standard ops. The remaining 20% is left to the specific region because it’s important that teams have the flexibility and autonomy to make the best choices for their local market. I didn’t invent this concept, unfortunately. It’s a personal adaptation of the concept of glocalization, a theory for being successful in international markets by adapting elements of strategy to serve specific local communities.
- Show instead of tell: As a project manager, my job includes helping teams and countries around the world achieve success together. Sometimes the best way to do this is to showcase how other teams are solving problems or leveraging data insights during all-hands calls. More often than not, you’ll find that other teams will start to adopt their practices, in part or entirely.
- Experience culture yourself: My lifelong love of travel was probably an indicator of my future career in international business. To the extent that you can, I encourage you to visit any region you plan to do business in. ✈️ Experience the local markets as a consumer and engage with your future customers. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve gained any insight, you’ll have some great memories.