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Make Cultural Intelligence your Competitive Advantage - Intercultural Successes Part 2

Mars - Bringing a Smile to Every Journey

Mars Inc. is one of the world’s leading global confectionery and pet food manufacturers and behind popular brands like M&Ms, Snickers and Wrigley’s Extra. Its 125,000 Associates (the term the company uses to denote their employees) operate in 80 countries around the world.

Mars’ International Travel Retail division brings the brand’s products to 1.8 billion travellers at 800 international airports across 5000 stores worldwide. Its mission is to "bring a smile to every journey".

The missing factor: Culture

Despite carefully accounting for local factors such as legal requirements or supply chain risks in their global expansion, the business’ international performance had remained mixed. The company achieved breakthrough performance once they considered what, according to them, turned out to be “the most important factor at play – the Culture Factor”.

In order to make cultural diversity their competitive advantage, the firm partnered with Hofstede Insights in 2017, a cultural training provider and consultancy. (Disclosure: Joanna Smit is an Associate Partner of Hofstede Insights.)

Bas Breedenord, HR Director at Mars International Travel Retail, explains the steps they took to develop their cultural in a speech filmed at the Hofstede Insights 2019 conference. (see the video on the right)

Below are some key points of his presentation.

Know your own Culture

Before you can adapt your style to local cultures, you first need to know what your own style is. Mars' corporate culture places the Five Principles described here at the core of everything they do.

While its employees can definitely feel and experience these principles at work, the organisation needed something measurable and tangible to know where to begin.

The business therefore measured their own culture using Hofstede’s Organisational Culture Scan, a set of online surveys and interviews with senior management and general staff.

Map how you do things in relation to others

Mars' organisational culture was then compared with where their stakeholders (e.g. customers, suppliers and new joiners) sit using national culture scores. In that way, the organisation could quickly pinpoint areas of synergy and areas of improvement to meet their global business objectives.

One finding for example was that Mars’ corporate culture was relatively open & loose. Open & loose organisations see themselves as easy-going and agile. Communication tends to be informal and information is shared easily across hierarchical layers and with external groups. People come together quickly to address immediate problems and disband just as fast once a speedy solution has been found.

In his talk, Bas recounts how this approach led to a bad customer experience in Germany. The Dutch team of the Mars office visited their German client to jointly brainstorm a solution through a workshop. To their surprise, the client refused to engage in discussions. In the client’s opinion, Mars’ attitude of “let’s discuss the problem and see what we come up with with the people in this room” was nonsense. To really address the problem, their senior technical experts needed to be involved and get a chance to thoroughly analyse the issue before they could seek a solution. As a consequence, the client refused to continue and actually cancelled the meeting with Mars.

This example illustrates how Mars’ strong corporate culture might work well in countries that tend to take a more task-based and application-first approach, such as the Netherlands or the United States. But it can present issues in places that approach problems with a stronger sense of formality or structure, such as Germany or Japan. The series on effective communication across cultures explores these different styles in more detail.

Bridge the cultural gap from all sides

After conducting introductory 2-hour cultural training with senior management and all staff members across their 8 locations worldwide, the company identified various cultural gaps or “pain points” as they called them, that they experienced when conducting business around the world.

To bridge these gaps, a select number of senior managers (like Bas) and employees received more advanced cultural training through Hofstede Insights. These 10 Cultural Ambassadors taken from their 8 business locations then produced custom, internal training for the rest of the staff to address questions such as:

  • How do we run effective meetings?

  • How do we give and receive feedback?

  • How can we become more effective with our top 20 customers?

The answers to these questions are not straightforward when you serve clients in 80 different countries with employees from 25 different nations.

In fact, the group found that 6 distinct cultural viewpoints needed to be taken for every single topic to effectively cater to the diverse set of internal and external stakeholders.

In addition to cultural considerations, many other factors also come into play of course, like the overarching business objectives, role-specific priorities, P&L pressures, geographical distance, logistical challenges, technology constraints, etc. The Cultural Ambassadors’ knowledge of both cultural theory and the business’ operational environment enabled them to recommend practical changes to their colleagues and managers.

To paraphrase, they advised others on "here’s where you can do it the 'Mars way' and here’s where you’ll need to make the following changes for this particular culture."

Integrate flexibility into day-to-day operations

The success of the Cultural Ambassadors programme led to numerous internal consulting projects. These projects drove cultural adaptation for its external and internal stakeholders, such as negotiations with customers and management of its supply network.

There is only so much you can learn in a classroom based, educational setting. Through these consulting projects, the company truly started to reap benefits. “The moment we started to apply our new knowledge and skills to prepare customer interactions, the penny dropped”, explained a sales manager.

Bas recounts a particular example where Nicola, a Cultural Ambassador, helped management prepare for a senior client visit:

The Mars team was made up of an Indian category director, a French sales director, an Australian general manager and a Dutch CFO. They were meeting with the client’s Brazilian CEO, a Chinese category director and a Dutch CFO.

Given the diversity of business functions and cultural styles present, there was no simple template to meet their business objectives with the client over a single meeting. But Nicola identified the 1 common trait across all meeting participants.

That commonality was the foundation for designing a meeting that would work. Together, management and Nicole developed a series of steps to take during the meeting and in follow-up interactions to deal with the challenges that would likely arise from the first exchange.

Support on your Intercultural Journey

The company has invested in several tools and programmes to assist its Associates in developing their cultural intelligence :

  • Employee Onboarding - newcomers take Hofstede's e-learning course

  • Personal Profiling - employees assess their own personal style through Hofstede's Culture Compass tool

  • Refreshers - staff take regular refreshers in cultural training

  • Unconscious Bias Training - to reinforce cultural diversity & inclusion

  • Custom Training - tailor-made courses on feedback and effective meetings across cultures

The benefits - with external and internal stakeholders alike

The company attributes its success with external customers and suppliers to their culturally diverse approach. According to a sales manager, the business’ cultural intelligence has given him a clear competitive edge against his competitors in the market.

With hindsight, Bas wishes they had applied this approach with external stakeholders even earlier in their intercultural journey. Instead the firm focussed on getting cultural flexibility right internally first. A senior manager advises to “focus on early customer wins” to speed up the commitment to cultural adaptation from the business.

Internally, business leaders have also adapted how they communicate with employees at townhall events for example to better match their audience's preferences. See Communication Part 3 for an example on how to adapt your presentation as a CEO.

The company’s intercultural success has also raised their profile inside the wider Mars universe. The business unit’s cultural intelligence now attracts talent from other units at Mars Inc , as they see the Mars International Retail Travel division as the place to join to “learn how to lead and run a global business”.

Cultural Intelligence is an Applied Skill - not a Theory

As Mars experienced, classroom-based training can only take one so far in learning a new skill. Developing Cultural Intelligence in business takes 2 steps:

First, you or others within the organisation need to build cultural knowledge of different cultural styles. This can help determine whether a particular business challenge is culturally influenced or not, as many other factors also play a role.

Next, the knowledge needs to be applied to your business context to be truly effective. Mars only reaped the benefits once they integrated cultural intelligence into their day-to-day operations.

This skill requires practise over time, or as Bas puts it, "your cultural muscle needs exercising regularly". He sums up Mars' continuous process to deal with cross-cultural challenges:

  1. Decide for yourself whether there are cultural factors at play

  2. Hold your judgement

  3. Go into the (cultural) science, use the tools and develop a technical strategy

  4. Implement it, enjoy it, have a laugh, and try again.

Up next

One person's or organisation's business context will be different to that of others. To be effective, cultural flexibility must be adjusted to your particular role, project or organisation.

In Successes 3, we explore how an organisation adjusted step by step for a specific business project.


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