Bending my mind to intercultural leadership and political astuteness Reply

Guest blogger: Dr. Elaine Monkhouse, Open University MBA tutor, and freelance coach and consultant.

The Business Perspectives masterclass took place on 23 June, if you would like to watch video highlights you can register for our webinar on 15 July 2015.

The recent Business Perspectives seminar on intercultural leadership, cross-cultural coaching and political astuteness really left me thinking.  On the face of it, here were three topics with which I have experience in practice, and I thought that I understood the relevance of each to the others as different but related areas of management. And yet the fundamental pertinence, indeed the crucial link between them, only struck me fully while sitting in the seminar and talking with fellow participants.

As Dr. Bjorn Claes pointed out so clearly, today’s business culture norm is multi-cultural. We can assume nothing about someone’s cultural identity, whether through origin, upbringing or socialisation. And yet as a manager, as an executive coach, and as someone often finding my way through organisational political mazes, aren’t I making assumptions all the time? I may encounter colleagues and team members in a conventional British or European setting, much as I did 20-30 years ago, but all the cultural constituents to building those relationships with any of those three hats on has potentially changed out of recognition.

There are of course instances where I am consciously operating in a different cultural context, such as a coaching contract I carried out in Dubai. That very obviously different setting, the way every gesture and custom is distinctive, immediately puts one’s cultural ‘antennae’ up and we are perhaps automatically more sensitive and less liable to make assumptions as a result.

But the presentations and discussion pulled me up short on how much I am in danger of assuming about someone that I encounter in my ‘home’ setting. Very useful, and I must thank Phil Hayes, who spoke about cross-cultural coaching. But add to this the fascinating insights that Professor Jean Hartley brought to us in her presentation on leadership with political astuteness, and I was humbled. Can I really advise a Director of Strategy of a very high profile Dubai corporation on how to secure the sponsorship and buy-in of the shareholders? I realised that I understand so little of ‘how business is done’ in that setting, despite being alert to it diverging from my ‘norms’.

Thankfully, I was left feeling that ‘yes! I can still be useful as a coach and an advisor’, if I continue to develop my skills and cultural sensitivity by embracing some of the very useful and practical, and what’s more generically valid, principles that both Jean Hartley, and Phil Hayes proposed. My three big ‘take-aways’ from Phil, which I aim to adopt in my own practice, would be (1) don’t assume that feedback is always seen as good or appropriate, (2) recognise that not all cultures are goal and change focused, and (3) helping someone reach their individual potential (as is usually the point of coaching) may not be the point at all in a culture where collective performance is the primary goal.

Jean’s explanation of the key components of political skill really struck a chord with me. I am a strategy consultant by trade, but so much of successful strategy is about managing politics, and so the penny dropped with quite a thud at about 4pm that afternoon in the seminar! The alignment between personal skills, interpersonal skills, reading people and situations, building alignment and alliances, and strategic direction and scanning really brought it all together for me.

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