Embracing Data and Inter-cultural Experiences – Part 2
In Part 1, I wrote about the influence my education (around three early bugs) had on me in the context of growing up in what was almost a closed society. I became a geographer in a country where maps were not available and one where people could not travel abroad, a place where the study of psychology was restricted to pedagogists and the security service, and a warm environment where my muse was more than a teacher of a foreign language.
Before digging deeper into my post-1989 bugs, I must point out that geography will always encompass a worthy business endeavour for anybody interested in cross-and inter-cultural behaviour. Technology added tools to visualise, analyse, predict, and manage cultural change and its impact.
The Data Bug
By far, the most inevitable and necessary bugs became data and technology; this grew from doodling on paper, mapping and intersecting, and figuring out patterns and models. Venn-diagramming sweet spots between personality and cultural traits, dissecting, overlaying and interpreting trends. While statistics are irreplaceable for evidence and objectivity, what I love most is drawing stories from the data (bug alert!).
So, as pioneers in a market (dramatically!) not ready for the knowledge economy, we made it our mission (and developed products to that effect) to democratise the ability to play ‘what ifs’, to work out the ‘next-best’ location, network, behaviour, communication style, etc. To those decision makers we worked with, the objectivity of data-driven information was more valuable than what their HQs were telling them. For some, this was threatening, but for some, it was a triumph!
Back to today, it’s not surprising to see how more and more leaders are embracing the ability to experiment, predict, measure, and optimise decisions. They embrace technology rather than be intimidated by it and ensure they have additional sound (human) judgement when applying it.
The inter-cultural bug
This is, by far, the most significant bug that has enriched my transferrable skillset. It is the most dynamic and feeds on all the previous bugs – and the ones ahead!
Living in the United Kingdom, I witness it, I see it, and I live it every day of my life and work. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it reminds me of my first (Romanian) English teacher’s wise words: ‘Master your auxiliary verbs, and you’ll get anywhere’. So, when it is about inter-cultural skills, one must start by understanding what ‘to be’, ‘to do’ and ‘to have’ mean for those around you . . . as it varies from one culture to another.
Building and managing teams, companies, communities, and countries depends on cultural wisdom and relevant transferrable skills.
In an attempt to decipher and impart my cultural learnings for inspiration in life and at work, I am reflecting (below) on the diversity of my intercultural stories and what I have learned from them.
This is not a standard operating manual for everybody’s mannerisms when they go to another country. It is a very brief logbook of a lived experience.
I was born and raised in Transylvania, the central part of Romania. The country is a Latin island in a Slavic sea. Elsewhere in my writings, I have rambled about the caring and aesthetically reassuring environment I was fortunate to live in. With a solid Germanic influence, the city where I was born has a robust multicultural legacy, making it one of the most desirable destinations for people interested in good taste.
Imagine growing and building happy aspirational families in an environment with respect for education and a love for dancing parties.
Like any other parent in the city, my father wanted me to speak German, so at the age of six, I met with other kids Chez Tante, just the next street from us. The language did not stick: Tante was nice, but the younger kids around were more interested in their potties than learning the language, so I defected. My parents were disappointed but accepted. However, I played and sledged with the Germans kids from my street for years.
Later on, I valued my German partners’ tidiness, symmetry and single-mindedness in business. Having lived with that touch of order, it has been easy for me to adapt to other problem-solving and decision-making styles. The German style appeals to my bug for facts, figures, law, and integrity. I have always found my German partners to be good friends.
My deskmate in secondary school was a lovely Hungarian boy: Tibi. I was put in charge of making him more dynamic or, more specifically, more engaged in learning.
In business, I have met dedicated and generous Hungarian colleagues. Reliable and there when I needed them for mission-critical project deliveries – some including unrivalled goulash!
I could write a few books on this! Having lived, married, and worked with the English for nearly three decades, it is challenging not to be biased.
Unsurprisingly, if you have read this far(!), when I was a post-grad at the University of Cambridge, my subject of choice was ‘The impact of culture on the business’, especially as I was already developing entrepreneurial businesses both in the East and West fed by the bugs described above. I was fortunate to be guided by the top minds in global cross-cultural studies – and those learnings (which I was simultaneously applying in multiple cultures) have proven themselves in spades ever since.
Back to English: my top lessons in business?
The subtleties of the language, the absolute dedication to consensus building, and the use of humour. The sense of proportion (which Latins need!) and the ability to segment anything. You will now understand why my data bug is so strong and healthy.
The theoretical and rational approach in any argument with French colleagues has always been like a dance – and I love to dance, apart from those times when a most exquisite Parisian dinner experience was designed to soften one up for a win-lose negotiation style. Beware!
When chairing meetings, I enjoyed the challenge of allowing people to sell themselves and their convictions – and accept that meetings were highly likely to run over because of the Southern European time orientation where the value was in the context and the art of conversation. Anyway, my experience is that it has always been an asset to be non-English(!) when working with French colleagues.
I have yet to find anybody who has bad things to say about the Canadians.
Trustworthy, classless, making you feel valued and helping you succeed. I learned much about risk, collaboration and respect when working with Canadians. And the few leaders I met left a mark on me with their constructive, innovative, and caring leadership styles, both within their realms of power and with their business partners.
Beautiful yet spartan lunches (to a Latin host like me!), friendliness and peace-making, this is what I learned from Dutch friends.
In business, they are astute networkers and make arriving at consensus a form of art.
If I had to design a new team for what I do now, one of my colleagues would be a Dane. They have hygge in their blood, and they communicate to make you feel safe and respected.
I value their work ethic and sophisticated yet uncomplicated charm in business. Working with confident people grows us exponentially.
By design, the other colleague in my team would be a Finn. They work and know how to play hard, although I struggled a bit with the lack of smiling – at least initially. Once, we were on an island above the Arctic Circle, and things improved! Innate innovators don’t make a fuss and put their heads down and get on with what needs doing.
I have had the most rewarding lateral thinking projects enriched by the Finns in a way that only they can do. And that includes, in moderation, the Pear cider in Helsinki.
These have been limited to date, but it suffices that talking about outdoor lifestyle and relating to a Norwegian joke helped me rescue a significant business discussion a few years back.
Having 24 types of mackerel in the Nobel-prize hotel in Stockholm is one of those memories I’ll never forget. Courteous, engaged yet not easily side-track from a purpose-led business discussion, my Swedish colleagues had been playing hard but fair. They stayed consistent in their manners in both personal and business interactions with my team for well over a decade.
Helping a big Swedish retail brand set up in a new market relied on our shared values and the bugs I mentioned above. We often reminisce about the power of counting meatballs as a KPI!
Now this is what I am happy to call a healthy feminine culture which is why I would love a Swede in my team.
Australian get up and go
I co-chaired a group of high-performing professionals from Europe and beyond a few years back with an Australian colleague. As a group, we knew our stuff: with some experts more verbose than others, precisely what one would expect in a cross-cultural team.
Decision makers at national and international levels listened, and we influenced transformative policy for decades ahead. While we tactfully navigated the ultimate mix of behaviours and perspectives, with preparation and action orientation, as chairs, we aligned our energies with a ‘no-messing, get-it-done approach’. This worked to such an extent that the customer wondered how on earth we had achieved it.
People looking and living in the mountains, democratically arriving at decisions, is comparable to what some of my ancestors did before WWI. So, there is an affinity there which I have always detected and valued when meeting Swiss friends. Indeed, the commonality includes smoked meats and cheeses and a love of mountain hiking. Then there is the sense of unbeatable quality and calm – which trumps any other European colleagues!
In business, my Swiss friends can be reliable monitor evaluators. And they are brilliant at fondue.
Come back for more intercultural insights in the 3rd part of this write-up
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