Anders, can you please briefly describe your work at your former position at Sony Ericsson?
– As part of a major reorganization of Sony Ericsson back in 2006, I was involved in creating a global organization focussing on what we called “launch support and management”. In very simple terms: We tested, customized, profiled, packaged, and sales-supported the whole portfolio towards our Sales and Marketing teams. Vice versa, we funnelled and aligned the feedback from the markets towards our R&D teams. Previously this had been carried out both by each product business unit and by teams in Lund, Sweden, who had been doing it since the dawn of time. In other words, we undertook a major defragmentation operation.
In this context I built and managed a project/expert office responsible for customization, packaging and documentation, customer launch quality management and launch schedule alignment between markets and product development. When the big bad recession hit we were approx. 120 people in China, Sweden, Taiwan, USA and Japan.
I was able to take away a lot of extremely valuable experience and learning from this, not only from successes but also from biting the multi-cultural dust at times.
What in your mind were the greatest challenges in managing people from different cultures?
– I must be frank and say that I might not have seen the greatest challenges there could be. One reason for this is of course that the industry we work in is quite young, and thus it’s not extremely different culture-wise between countries. Also, having different cultures working together in one room, in one country, is not that difficult in our industry. But if I am allowed to base my answer on my recent environment, i.e. working with telecom professionals with similar education, in a multi cultural AND multi-site environment – I’d like to mention a few challenges that we faced:
One obvious challenge was to throw the stereotypes overboard and realize that the Japanese CAN say no, and that the US folks are not ALL Cowboys. A very real challenge was also the differences in attitude towards authority, accountability and lines of command communication. These differences are known to most and would normally not create any major problems. But when conflicting or tough decisions were called for, such as cost savings, increased workload, reprioritizations, negative feedback etc, these issues pop up as hot bread from a toaster.
Can you give us an example?
– Sure. This is a good one. I spent a week in Beijing with my trusted manager (Chinese). We had a very good relationship and no issues between us. After I left Beijing, the very next day a local executive manager stepped into his office and contradicted the decisions we made together. I can tell you that it’s VERY hard for my guy to say ‘nope – you are not my boss’, especially since my guy was locally employed and could even risk being suspended from promotion evaluation.
For similar reasons it could at times be hard for my local manager to act as a representative (there) of our management team (here) and enforce decisions that met opposition. If there would be a disagreement he risked escalation locally, not to me though, which would have been the right way. And once issues escalated locally – the chance that my guy’s local executive would call me up and asks for advice were slim.
I need to be clear here that although I choose a ‘neutralized’ Chinese example, the problems existed everywhere but in different forms. Sometimes the problem could even be the other way around. Let me give you a funny example. Once, a local executive with a conflicting directive approached my site manager in the US. My guy simply said ‘Piss off, my boss is in Sweden. Call him if you have a problem.’ Although in this particular example he had good reason to react like that, it illustrates the potential problems with global chains of command vs. local culture.
This sounds like problems originating in geographical distance, rather than culture?
– True, but it’s hard to clearly separate the two. But obviously, differences in how people think about stuff like gender, age, education and position of course add to the cocktail. Sending a female Swedish manager to Japan to manage a team of Japanese, in an environment where a majority of managers are male, and they have all worked at least ten years in the company and plan to retire there, is NOT easy. But it can be overcome and it can be really beneficial for everyone involved.
Can you give us an example of a time when there was a clash between cultures?
– There are of course quite a few. One could be that the attitude towards what is acceptable when it comes to jokes that can be perceived as sexist, or that make fun of religion.
Another is the tolerance towards being late for meetings because of a hangover; this differs a lot between southern/eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Another example could be the definition of what an assistant can be expected to carry out. My assistant was once asked by an Asian Gentleman to bring some fresh milk for his coffee. He didn’t exactly score any points with her, to say the least. But back at his office he had a lady that ONLY makes coffee and makes sure there are fresh lemon slices in the water pitchers.
On the other hand, our Asian and US colleagues sometimes marvel at the fact that Swedish managers spend a huge chunk of their time with travel planning, expense reports, invoicing, accounting etc ‘administrating instead of managing’. And a Swedish manager in Asia making his own copies and whom act ignorant to the local hierarchies is soon going to loose all respect. What is right and what is wrong? Hard to tell!
An important lesson for me has been to stop thinking that Swedes always know best, and – even more important – not to give the IMPRESSION that you think so. A strong and well thought through corporate/team policy to regulate what you feel is important is always more efficient than individual do-gooder managers running their own schemes. I’d say trying to treat women and men equal is the only thing I will never compromise with.
Interesting. And what about the language barrier?
– Well, indeed. That’s an obvious one. Sitting in a room, or even worse in a conference call, with people from six countries, with varying patience, language abilities, humour, and communication skills can be a circus at times. And then you need to make sure that everybody leaves the meeting with the same view of what needs to be done, and with an understanding of the urgency level of it all. That is truly a challenge, and if nothing else, very time consuming.
I have been surprised at times by the lax attitude towards enforcing ONE corporate language. Swedes emailing in Swedish because ‘there are only Swedes on the distribution list’ and Japanese executives corresponding with Japanese engineers in Japanese are only two examples of ignoring the potential of ONE common language.
You could of course argue that you need to respect the fact the people have different skill levels when it comes to English. But should that excuse falling back to a language that leaves a majority of the employees in the dark? Should you even be hired as a senior manager/expert without decent command of English? Training and/or stricter screening of new employees combined with enforcing a one-language culture is the key I think.
Do you feel that people from different culture respond differently to leadership?
– Yes, very much so. It’s however hard for me to talk about it without falling into the stereotyping trap. Let me just say that culture-originating difference in attitude towards management can only be overcome by clarity and earning your respect through living your mission and ensuring that everybody under your wings can see the goal and their own role in reaching it.
I also want to kill a common prejudice here by stressing that a very hierarchal, traditional and hard to penetrate leadership culture by no means causes more difficulties for a global enterprise than does a lax, accountability-shy and consensus-ridden ditto from another part of the world.
What in your mind are the benefits of combining the efforts of people with different cultural backgrounds?
– A given but boring fact is that my American direct report has a greater chance of implementing our decisions back in North Carolina than a Swede would have. The same goes for the fact that a Chinese ear to the ground in China picks up more than a Japanese would.
I would also say that the fact that different people that can contribute to the creative process from different angles really adds to the benefit, not different cultures per se. But the likelihood that the spectrum of different angles increase with the spectrum of culture is a given.
The easiest way to go management-wise would of course be to run a single language, single culture, and single country team with the exact right composition of competencies. But what you loose then are the social benefits. You enjoy time together, you learn new ways of thinking, and basically have fun together. All of this most definitely add to the quality of the output. Also, we mustn’t forget the stay-awake effect of a collective effort to keep it together over the borders.
When you first started working with internationally with people and projects in this way, did anything about these operations and this line of work surprise you – for good or bad?
– A positive surprise, and later something I was able to proactively use, was the enormous additional potential and productivity you could unleash by ensuring that every single individual in a global team agree on why, where and how to go about the work to reach the common goals, and also buy into what is expected from the individual in terms of contribution. Over the years I have learnt (of course also from mistakes) that this can not be achieved with emails, PowerPoints and the odd business trip, but have to be massaged into a multi-cultural organisation with a lot of time and face2face meetings invested.
I assume that leading operations of this nature requires a lot of travelling – how important is face-to-face contact with your crew?
– Recognising that business travel as we used to know it is soon a thing of the past, I’d still say face2face to some extent is crucial. Far too many companies, collaborations and projects have failed because people do not know the guy making the decisions and – even worse – maybe haven’t even seen him/her live in the flesh. OF COURSE it’s equally important the other way around. I mean, how can you make the right decisions if you do not know the guy at the receiving end? Then, when the personal connection is made, it’s easier to work remotely, do phone conferences etc.
What skills or traits do you think a leader of cross-cultural teams and operations need to have in order to be successful?
– Make sure you are well read up on the big picture but leave the details to the specialists. Ask questions to learn and to show that you appreciate expertise. Be yourself! Do NOT pretend to be someone else! The team will see right through you and it will be hard to gain back lost respect. Another important trait is to be humble, and arm your self with a lot of patience. Be prepared to explain over and over why the team needs to do what they’re doing, what the other teams are doing (and why) and what benefit it brings to the company. Motivation and agreements are so much more effective than orders and directives (that are oh-so-easy to fall back into sometimes if you are not on your toes)
Being a bit of a social chameleon helps too when you need to feel as home in a stiff boardroom-style meeting in Asia as you must by the cowboy coffee machine run-in in North Carolina. And last but not least you need to listen, enjoy learning, and show that you might not always know best just because you do not eat chicken feet.
Last but not least. You must never forget that it is as hard for a multi-cultural team to be managed by a single-culture manager, as it is for the manager to manage the team. Understanding this and working with it, rather than only marking your emails ‘important’ and bold your title, will help the team a lot.
If you want to get in touch with Anders you can reach him here
As always, I try to add a few notes for you to consider when it comes to press ethics and how a journalist works. But there’s really just one thing that’s fishy here, which is that Anders is my cousin. But that just makes him cooler.