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A recount of how global cultural intelligence training has helped me mitigate risks - Leena Pishe Thomas - Founder and Managing Director, Global Business Inroads (GBI), India

In the last 17 years, I have had the incredible opportunity to work with US and European organizations to provide management consultancy services in the area of program development, technology transfer into India and management of their business development in-country. In this process, we all focused on the important topics of technology, climate change, markets, finance, policy, stakeholders. We spent copious amount of time trying to convince people globally on the aforementioned. In all this, about 6 years ago, I began to realize that a lot depends as much on relationship management - getting to know people within the organizations and helping them prioritize and understand the objectives we were trying to promote. It worked better and results were also proportionate. While it gave me a level of satisfaction and little more success, I still continued to have failures and dialogue breakdowns every now and then. As any business or consultancy would do, I continued thinking about how we can improve the process of working with people across borders.

When I was managing an international technology or innovation or process transfer project, it dawned on me that the many times we failed was not because of the technology or the market. It was because of PEOPLE and PERCEPTION. It is people who make all of this work and people who are ingrained in their DNAs to carry out a business or activity in a certain way. Their cultural DNA was playing a role in driving their actions and reactions. We are often so focused on our products and our businesses that we lose sight of human interpretations and the differences it can create in the decisions we are making. This realization came to the fore after I underwent a thorough cultural intelligence training by the Founder and Managing Director of Professional Passport, USA, Valerie Berset-Price, earlier this year. Valerie and her team have trained several engineering teams in technology companies around the world - that is well explained by one of their many clients – HP.

“As the leader of an R&D organization at HP, our global engineering team faces many challenges that include work across time zones, the rapid speed of changing priorities, and, most of all, cultural differences. Cultural differences, above all, became a priority for me as I felt they were the biggest obstacle I had to create a culture of 'One Team.' We needed expert help and that is where Professional Passport came in. Their approach was quite refreshing as they did not bring a one-size-fits-all approach to our challenge. Instead, they created a custom solution that was based on their direct interviews with my sponsoring Directors followed by interaction with key engineers around the globe to get different perspectives. This helped them generate an independent view of the problem we needed to solve and develop the custom training material that was tailored to HP and our specific team.  Finally, the Professional Passport team traveled to all the key sites in India and the US to conduct two-day workshops that were eye-openers for our team.  The universal feedback from everyone was “I wish I had done this training before we started working with global teams!” In my own assessment, this training was an excellent investment for HP as it helped engineers across the globe interact better, appreciate each other more and above all, work together as “One Team”.  What impresses me most about Professional Passport is that it is made up of experts in the field of cultural intelligence and has great insights into the cross-cultural challenges of 21st century business. Valerie and her team are highly professional, extremely thorough in their communication and very approachable and courteous. They are highly recommended.” By Subu Iyer, Director R&D Center, Hewlett Packard, Bangalore, India.

Val trainingVAl train 2Training session by Valerie Berset-Price Founder and Managing Director of Professional Passport, USA at Hewlett Packard, Bangalore, India: March 30th - April 2nd 2015. 

At GBI, we have begun to analyze and apply this in relation to the current work we are doing as well with our clients - international governments, developmental and technology organizations.

Business will go where the value is. There are world class technologies and solutions to be leveraged and India is a great market to deploy and leverage. While we manage the risks of doing business in India we are now also bringing cultural intelligence requirements into perspective. GBI analyses and presents the opportunities and risks to international clients that are transferring technology to the Indian market. We know that this is the right technology (international source) for the right market (India). Both parties are enthusiastic about the possibilities. However, one of the risks is about being culturally aware, to have the skills to lead with the global mindset and engage with cultural intelligence so team members can work with each other in a collaborative fashion. The devil truly lies in the details. The other risks are cost economics, legal/IP, policy, finance. GBI manages these risks and coaches both sides through the various steps.

Cultural Intelligence also plays a very important role for organizations already operating globally; not being able to communicate and interact effectively across geographies is one of the main reasons for the derailment of multicultural teams. Misunderstandings caused due to the inability to understand each other, reflects directly on the efficiencies with respect to time, operations and finally the bottom lines of many multinational organizations.    

Here are some points on the cultural intelligence front worth taking note of for those of us who are working with international teams:

  • Some of the challenges and barriers of managing cross-border teams or business include: time zones, accent, and language and more importantly and perhaps more invisibly, cultural differences.
  • Face to face communication is important. People have to talk face to face – email is not enough.
  • We also have to learn how to acclimatize ourselves for different circumstances – As Valerie Berset Price, Founder and MD of Professional Passport opines – “It is important to learn how to become a chameleon” and really adapt to the new environment.
  • As a company looking to internationalize you are really trying to create one team for your organization / multinational. Therefore, we will need to take care of each other.
  • Companies sometimes ask why it is tough to work with companies from other countries. Why do people not do what they commit to do and let each other down? Why do companies from some cultures become silent when confronted with some direct questions?
  • We all want the teams/partners to work/deliver on their inputs and get the project done.
  •  We all like it when our counterpart teams deliver on what they commit to deliver. Also, it is better to under-commit and over deliver, than over commit and under-deliver. It is desired that teams should take initiative, because they are very capable to do the same, and organize themselves with clear actions and deliverables and timelines.

What companies across borders need to do to meet each other mid-way?

  • Globally we all tend to play the blame game a lot. It is important to highlight the problems, discuss them and ask for time to solve them. One should not hide the problems. People will check you for delays and wrong actions.
  • We sometimes don’t check our assumptions. We just keep assuming certain things without thinking deeply or because as Professional Passport says, we are just not aware. The point is that we need to be enlightened, we need to be aware.
  • For example: We are judged through their inactions. Note that proactive delivery in welcome.
  • Whenever we say something and make a point, we should give it a clear context.
  • We need to be straight forward and comfortable. We like to show “green” and keep things pleasant. However, it is important to flag problems when they happen.
  • Some people are too vague in their instructions. It does not help, because when you work internationally you need clarity and detailed instructions to feel empowered.
  • Some people are transactional, while some are more relationship oriented. Therefore, while working with some cultures, one needs to build trust and respect and then people will move mountains for you.
  • We don’t need to accept what is not acceptable. We need to stand up for what we want, then we will gain more respect. Sometimes, it is best to pick up the phone and talk.
  • We should not think less of people from the countries we are working with. Respect is key.  It is important not be mistake hospitality as naivety (don’t mistake kindness for weakness)
  • Competent teams from some cultures and countries sometimes lack in communication skills, time management, ownership and transparency – all linear concepts. Do not doubt their competency but understand that their culture looks at these things in a different way.
  • Conference call etiquette – We sometimes have a tendency to either not speak, or to ramble away for too long. It is important to learn to make your point in a clear succinct manner. Using plain direct English without complicated acronyms and local slang works better as all people are not native English speakers 
  • Ask direct clear questions and spell out expectations clearly for inputs on a call.
  • Saying NO - We need to learn to say no. We sometimes say yes, because of the fear of losing face in front of peers and managers, which results in masking of the issues and then say no in the last minute. This can drive counterpart teams crazy.
  • If we are unsure, we need to clearly say that we would like to take some time to think and revert. This is better than saying yes, wasting people’s time and then saying no.
  • Dealing with Failure: We should see Failure as “you have found a way that does not work”. “Blame is not for failure, but for failing to ask for help or failing to help”. Asking for help is not a weakness. It is important to be at ease with change and failure. When you make cross-border plans – make room for failure. Track failure and learn from it. There is a way to talk to your international colleagues about failure. To say that we have come this far and let us work towards solving our problems. A person who feels appreciated will do more than what is expected.

"There is so much potential for Indian businesses to do business with the world and for the world to do business in and with India. This being said, the cultural differences that are embedded in each of us at our molecular level must be identified, accepted and bridged to effectively and seamlessly work together as one team. Understanding the cultural perspective and context that have shaped each individual is the equivalent of providing a road map to each contributor so trust and respect can be fostered, thus creating an auspicious environment for collaboration and innovation.” ~Valerie Berset-Price, Founder and Managing Director, Professional Passport, Portland, OR, USA.

These are important to take note and utilize. This has changed the way I have been approaching business and relationships, widened the perspective and perimeter of action. Such change is priceless, especially when trained by the most experienced hands. Sometimes, I feel that understanding cultures and being globally aware can also solve so many geo-political problems confronting the world today. While we try to protect our own cultures and our own way of doing things, are we making sense to other cultures? Can we meet mid-way and find solutions? Let’s learn how to do this to start with……

Author Leena Pishe Thomas is the Founder and Managing Director, Global Business Inroads (GBI), India.

GBI is an international business and project management consultancy based in Bangalore, India, that assists international organizations in doing business in India in the field of energy, environment, lifesciences and information technology. Promoting cultural intelligence training and awareness for improved international business operations is being done in India in collaboration with Professional Passport, USA and can be accessed by emailing