A multi-national project at a standstill
A Finnish startup (let's call them FinnCo) was frustrated as its subsidiaries in the UK and Germany were producing little results. The local sales teams blamed their poor performance on the low quality of FinnCo's marketing materials from HQ.
Finnish senior management was reluctant to invest more time and resources to produce more content, when the existing documentation had been proven to work well (in Finland).
Nevertheless, HQ's management held several meetings with the sales teams from all 3 countries. But an agreement on a new marketing template was hard to find. The Brits wanted HQ's content to be more customer-centric while the Germans wanted a lengthier, more technically-oriented wording. See Communication Part 3 for cultural explanations on these issues.
Leveraging differences as strengths
After nearly two years, the breakthrough came when:
HQ agreed that the final content could be different for each market
HQ agreed to let the German team take the lead on the 1st project phase
Both the Finnish and British team agreed that their German colleagues had a strong knack for analysing the topic in great detail within a short time frame. The German team was therefore tasked with in-depth analysis of comparable marketing strategies.
In the past, they had done this with only German requirements in mind. This time, they also took the Finnish and British requirements into account and produced a new marketing template.
A 'pick and mix' approach
Previously, the Finns and the British had rejected the German team's detailed template as too wordy. This time, the Finns agreed to use it as an initial draft and edited it "down to size" for their market.
The Finns kept excerpts of the detailed original version and used those to support discussions with prospects at a later stage in the sales cycle.
The British team also summarised the German version by shortening texts and inserting compelling infographics about customer benefits early in the document.
The Germans liked the Brit's infographics and added it into their German version, but at the end of the document as a summary.
Diversity as a key differentiator
The UK and German staff strongly resonated with the "Finnish" employee-friendly and environmentally-minded values at FinnCo - something they hadn't experienced as strongly with their previous local employers.
So, rather than change this company feature in their marketing message, they actually embraced it as an opportunity. Their branding stressed these values as a key differentiator in the market and the various teams proudly rallied around their joint socially-responsible FinnCo identity.
HQ's marketing department then applied FinnCo's branding guidelines to all the produced pieces. Finally, the content aimed at the German market was professionally translated. The Finnish version remained in English as it enhanced the company's image as a global brand for this market.
Within a few months, international sales dramatically improved and FinnCo has since expanded into several other European countries. It continues the practice of letting different local teams lead on multi-national projects based on their strengths.
Does discussing differences not create divisions?
Before we can effectively bridge cultural gaps, we first need to acknowledge that some cultural differences exist. The key to making this work is through mutual respect.
An exclusive attitude would be "This is my way, your way is different. I know my way works, and therefore you're wrong."
Instead, an inclusive starting point is "This is my way, your way is different. And both can work (even if I don't have experience yet with your approach)."
This process needs to happen not only at ground level, but also at the very top of the organisation: FinnCo's breakthrough only happened once it accepted these differences and stopped imposing HQ's way.
Negotiate a new approach
Once you've mapped out the differences respectfully, you can make smart choices about how you can jointly turn these differences into strengths.
For example, FinnCo utilises each team's strong suit at different stages of the project in a complementary manner. Each office ends up with localised marketing that was enriched by the content from the other sales teams.
Sometimes, the the diverse group chooses one side's approach. For instance, the German and British staff embraced the novelty of the company's "Finnish" employee and environmental ethos.
In this case, respectfully discussing differences actually acted as a unifier by contributing to a common FinnCo identity with its German and British staff.
Unity within diversity
Using a flexible and inclusive approach for managing differences enables you to pick and mix what's best for the multi-national organisation. This new negotiated 'mix' then becomes the uniting factor.
Essentially, the conversation now becomes "This was my way, that was your way. And this now is our joint FinnCo way".
Sharing viewpoints constructively
Creating a platform for constructive dialogue around different viewpoints is crucial for multi-cultural organisations. By discussing their different approaches, FinnCo found a process that worked for everyone. In short, open discussions on difference led to unity.
However, this approach may be counterproductive in places with a less confrontational attitude. In this piece on Productive Disagreements in Global Teams, Erin Meyer (a Professor in intercultural management at INSEAD) explains different cultural approaches when sharing one's point of view.
In cultures like Germany or France — open disagreement is seen as a positive. They tend to separate opinions from the person expressing them. If they say, “I totally disagree,” they may mean to debate the opinions, not disapprove of the individual. To reach a common viewpoint or agreement, you'll want to focus on points of disagreements and debate those until you find middleground with your counterpart.
Other places like Indonesia or Saudi Arabia may prefer to emphasise harmony of viewpoints. Erin recounts comments from an Indonesian executive on the subject: "In the Indonesian cultural context, confrontation is considered rude, aggressive, and disrespectful. Open disagreement, particularly in a group forum, is strongly avoided. Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational in our culture.
We had a meeting with a group of French managers from headquarters, where they went around the table asking each of us: “What do you think about this? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?” At first we were just shocked that we would be put on the spot in a meeting with a lot of people. That is just an insult!"
In this case, it might be better to focus open discussions during the meeting on points of agreement. You can use various strategies to achieve this:
Conduct informal pre-meetings. Collate people's opinions through 1-on-1 conversations. From there you can identify common ground that you can present at the main meeting.
Anonymise people's input. Use anonymous online polls for collecting points of view during the meeting or beforehand. Alternatively, let people write their thoughts anonymously on a board first before debating them.
Group opinions of several people together. Ask each team to collect their group's overall viewpoint or appoint a neutral 3rd party to do so. That way, you don't single out the opinion of any individual person.
Give advance notice. Ask people to submit their ideas beforehand. This gives people time to check with each other and prepare their responses.
Once you've identified early points of agreement, you can reframe the conversation as "We are all united in this together. How can we best help each other?" In that way you can surface areas where teams are different yet complementary.
Best Practices for Leaders of Multicultural Organisations
In workshops, I often conclude the session with best practices for culturally diverse teams.
Successful leaders of multicultural teams implement these practices inside their organisation in a way that matches their specific business context and the cultures they interact with. Throughout this 3-part series on intercultural successes, we see that successful leaders actively build successful multicultural organisations that are:
Open to 'otherness' and tolerant of ambiguity Leaders accept that cultural differences can exist and support their consequences from the top. McDonald's does this directly by decentralising their organisational structure and letting locals take the final decision without consulting HQ. FinnCo achieves this in a more improvised manner when HQ appoints different local teams to spearhead ad-hoc multi-national projects.
Knowledgeable about cultural similarities and differences Leaders gain strong cultural knowledge themselves or foster it in their teams. Mars actively develops their managers' cultural intelligence through intercultural training programmes and consulting projects with their cultural ambassadors. At L'Oreal, intercultural knowledge comes from their multicultural employees who apply it in a spontaneous way in their work. These people are placed by management into strategic positions within the company.
Flexible in their communication and behaviours Leaders know where to seek consistency and where to adapt. McDonald's ensures its standards for food quality are maintained globally, but markets its brand differently with its customers and job seekers for every single country. Mars takes a less granular approach. The company developed 6 culturally different sets of internal best practices around various corporate activities like managing external customer relationships.
By applying these principles when leading across cultures, you can ensure that your organisation successfully marries the benefits of standardisation while catering to the cultural needs of your customers, suppliers and employees around the world.