International Leadership – Lessons Learned
by Mark C. Christenson
Recently, a group of Md7 management team members from our European and US offices descended on BrookLodge in County Wicklow, Ireland for a 3-day, intensive leadership event. County Wicklow is also known as the Garden of Ireland, and the lush green surroundings were a constant reminder of that apt moniker. The county is also home to the only organic restaurant in all of Ireland, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Md7 CEO Michael Gianni and I also took a few minutes to enjoy a brief exploration of the Irish countryside by climbing one of the hills up into a rain cloud, which resulted in being soaked to the bone and nearly getting lost. Thankfully only Michael was wearing brand new shoes at the time.
Attending this event was a group of Md7 leaders that included team members who are Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, Croatian, and even a few Americans. We gathered to engage in 2 ½ days of intensive team building under the guidance of Herlaar Coaching (led by René and Lucy Herlaar, the former being Md7’s first client in the Netherlands while he was the Head of Network at Vodafone).
Although “touchy-feely” or “fuzzy” team building events are variously in and out of style, we put this together specifically to acknowledge that we have many different cultures represented both inside the walls of our European offices as well as outside those walls with our customers. Our goal was to identify areas of opportunity to improve how we work together as a common team, while continuing to acknowledge that each customer in each country has a unique set of circumstances that require consideration.
Although it would take pages to address all that happened, here are a few of the high level lessons we learned.
- Stereotypes reign in every culture, they are simply different between cultures. Without airing what might be considered private grievances in a public setting, suffice it to say that we had a newfound respect for one another. We explicitly addressed the fact that we all bring our own perspectives, based on a lifetime of experiences, into every situation. This acknowledgment helped us to consider that whomever we are talking to— whether a customer, a vendor, or a colleague—has their own perspective and lifetime of experiences as well. We believe that this awareness will allow us to build more bridges of understanding.
- Thinking about others based on their cultural background is critical for relationship building. We did an exercise where we were given three lists of personality descriptors. Each person selected which list was most like him- or herself. We then were shown the Lewis Model of Culture Types. This model shows, by country, how individuals are most likely to act and behave. True to the underlying data, most people ended up very close to if not directly aligned with the country of their heritage. Shortly after this event, two of our European colleagues had a meeting with a potential customer who hails from outside of Europe. Using the Lewis Model of Culture Types as a guide, they changed the presentation to adapt themselves to their counterpart rather than taking the approach of presenting the information entirely from an Md7 perspective. The feedback they received from this person was very positive and confirmed the importance of being culturally aware to the point of being willing to change to a different approach.
- Quality time together had a noticeable improvement on both inter-office and intra-office relationships. These people already spend 5 days each week in the same physical office. However, it is easy to get caught up in what is in front of you and not notice what is happening around you. As a result of this intensive and intentional time together, relationships were strengthened so that there is more awareness of what is happening around us. For example, we have one employee in Maastricht who is managed by a person in Dublin. We also have one employee in Dublin who is managed by a person in Maastricht. These two managers had little interaction prior to this event, but quickly built trust to a level that they can now rely on each other to help mentor the local employees. Even more importantly, the employees with the remote manager will no longer feel as though they are on an island.
- Our company’s core values were much more embodied by each employee than we expected. We developed our core values over the course of the first six years that we operated and then rolled them out in 2009. For close to four years we did not actively work to ensure that we moved closer to exemplifying them. In the last 18 months the US office has tried to be intentional about teaching them and embodying them. I assumed that the employees in our European offices, without having received any of the intentional training, would require more time to get up-to-speed on what the values are, why they are important and how to live them out. Turns out I was wrong. The European team, despite the diverse cultural mix and the lack of intentional training, seemed to have more ownership in trying to exemplify our core values.
- Chickens can fly high enough to eat dessert. I typically do not think of chickens as flying, but apparently if there is organic, home-made tiramisu on the table they can muster enough energy to temporarily defeat the laws of physics. In our business we are constantly trying to introduce new ways of doing things, and we often need to overcome some resistance if we are to change the course of how business is executed. The chicken eating dessert on the dinner table was a reminder that we can stretch our wings and fly even if it isn’t at first desired or expected.
Hopefully no Md7 team member will ever have to encounter another flying chicken eating their dessert. And in addition to the fuzzy, touchy-feely aspects of the training, the lessons learned not only brought our team closer together, but they also gave us knowledge that we can and already are applying to our interactions, both inside and outside of Md7.