18 January 2018

Creating a global identity: How multinational organisations instil unity 

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

When dealing with people from different cultures, it is vital that a leader is able to bridge the cultural divide when delivering his or her message. Whether it is the CEO of a multinational company or a football manager in charge of a multinational team, the same basic principles apply. 

 When uniting people from different cultures, a leader must have many balls in the air at one time.

When uniting people from different cultures, a leader must have many balls in the air at one time.

We all know that the world is becoming more interconnected by the day. The term ‘global village’ is not just a marketing buzzword intended to convey the fluidity of ideas, as well as business between nations and cultures. In 2018, it is perhaps the best way to encapsulate the ease with which information, people and products are whizzed around the planet at a breakneck speed.

For organisations with the ambition of leaving footprints all around the globe, this can create its own set of challenges. Sure, there are more opportunities than ever before to tap in to foreign markets, but keeping true to one’s identity and vision (while adapting to the cultural nuances of a new territory) is a difficult balance to achieve.

For CEO of Unisure, Dr. Graham Woolford, who gained his doctorate in Actuarial Science from Edinburgh Business School, remaining true to the company’s ethos and value system presents the greatest challenge in running their multinational life and health insurance company that spans Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.

“It is extremely difficult trying to homogenise your business across territories with a consistent set of values and a consistent approach to your customer base, but it has to be done,” Dr. Woolford says. “The clarity of the vision is the most fundamental part of the business. Without a solid foundation constructed out of strong beliefs, you’re going to struggle to get buy-in from your staff, and to get your message across effectively.”

That message has to start with the leader of the organisation. When dealing with people who have been groomed in a culture that is different to your own, having conviction in your message is crucial if you are going to get the necessary buy-in. In order to convince others of your message, you have to be convinced of it yourself.

“The vision statement for the company cannot be designed by a committee trying to choose a catchy phrase with the right words. If the leader doesn’t stick to his vision and doesn’t project his persona, passion and everything he lives for in his message, then that value statement can become very shallow and people simply won’t follow it.” Dr. Woolford explains

Dr. Woolford draws inspiration from iconic leaders like Winston Churchill, who remained steadfast even in the face of the abject adversity. And while Dr. Woolford acknowledges that the cut and thrust of the business world is a far cry from the horrors of warfare, he has drawn parallels in an effort to shape his understanding of what it takes to be a resolute leader.

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Dr. Woolford says: “Churchill was able to unite a global audience and had to rally different peoples across different cultures, sure, he was able to use the fate of the world as a rallying cry but the fact remains that he needed to find a common thread that could transcend cultural differences.”

Churchill’s used unifying ‘V’ for victory signal as a cohesive symbol, and similarly an inspirational logo can serve as a modern parallel for unifying people around a common cause.  

Once a clear, understandable goal for the business has been outlined it is then easier to venture in to new cultures with this clear understanding of the organisation’s vision and ethos. Then comes the hard part; reaching out across the cultural divide and adapting to the unique carrots and sticks found in different regions.

Understanding cultural nuances is the first important step to building bridges between divisions operating across borders. Key elements are include respect, fairness and laying out up-front the non-negotiables.   

The role of central management is to foster mutual respect and trust and constantly work towards eliminating the ‘’them and us’’ across boundaries. Dr Woolford explains that getting staff to interact at various levels within the organisation is a useful way of building a team culture between different divisions spread across the globe. We try and increase the number of touch points between our divisions explains Dr Woolford. 

There are some fundamental issues around respect such as the way people are spoken to which are vital in preserving the goodwill and co-operation across the global divide. Everyone wants to be treated with respect – it is a fundamental human condition.  

For example, Dr Woolford explains that raising one’s voice to reprimand a member of staff is generally found to be highly offensive amongst most peoples, particularly in certain Eastern cultures.

In a country that values assertiveness and confidence, it is easy to understand how this style of management may have taken hold. There seems to be less acceptance of this approach in the modern world.

Too often head office sets the performance targets and introduces job descriptions across the organisation which can often appear to be cold and unfriendly, with little in the way of what constitutes a benefit to the individual.  While this may seem to be quite normal in some countries, in others the lack of sensitivity to different spiritual and psychological needs can create an underlying sense of unease and distrust.

Those of us who grew up in an English speaking home says Dr Woolford clearly understand the subtle nuances of our language, but those brought up with a different mother tongue may not accurately interpret one’s meaning. We are so accustomed to understanding exactly the tone and intonation of what we express and forget that others may hear it differently.   

So it’s often more as a leader about your actions than the words, especially where there are deep-seated cultural differences across the various divisions of your business. We may have different ways of communicating but we all want to be respected and valued. It is this philosophy that should dictate how leaders adapt their behaviour when conducting business on foreign soil.

It goes without saying that that leaders must set the example and remain true to the vision of the organisation. As Dr. Woolford says, “You have to set the standard. Leadership is a tough balancing act to achieve. The leader must have conviction and confidence in the vision and direction of the company. A leader needs to be a galvanising force that sweeps up followers along the path”.

When crossing borders, a leader must be flexible, adaptable and sensitive to bridge the divide between different cultures. Failure to do so could see that leader cast out of the global village.

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