Leading Across Borders: Challenges and Considerations

Picture of Anna Letitia Cook
Anna Letitia Cook

Energising International Executives for more successful, productive, fulfilling leadership
International Executive and Holistic Success Coach | Author | Podcast Presenter | 30+ years working internationally

In today’s fast-paced global business landscape, stepping into the role of leading international teams can be both exhilarating and daunting. I know that from personal experience having worked internationally most of my life both living/working in other countries (7 to date – and loved it), as well as working with even more. 

Much as I loved it, I didn’t exactly prepare myself beforehand which led to some interesting situations and rapid rethinks!

As leaders in C-suite positions or similar roles, we understand the exhilaration of expanding our horizons and tapping into new markets. However, with this excitement comes a host of challenges and unexpected differences that demand our attention and adaptability.

Cultural Sensitivity: Understanding and embracing cultural differences is essential. Each country and culture has its own unique values, norms, and communication styles. 

What may work for us in our home country might not resonate with our team members abroad. It’s crucial that we invest time and effort into understanding the cultural nuances of our team members and adjust our leadership approach accordingly. 

One very important point to keep in mind is that other ways of thinking, other visions of goals and priorities can be a totally new concept without ‘lived’ experience, and unexpectedly difficult to take on (as I learnt from the sharp end – very good for bringing me down to earth with a thump ;)).

Effective Communication: Communication lies at the heart of successful leadership, and team management especially when international. We must be attuned to the diverse styles that exist across different cultures. 

A simple example – some cultures may prefer direct and assertive communication, while others may value indirect and diplomatic approaches. Understanding these cultural nuances is crucial for ensuring that our messages are received and interpreted correctly by our team members, not only to avoid giving offence but also to get the right focus and vision moving forward. 

By adapting our communication style, and taking into account any different visions of priorities, to align with the cultural preferences of our team members, we can foster better understanding and goal-oriented action across borders. 

Building Trust and Relationships: Trust is the bedrock of any successful team, but building trust across borders requires extra effort, particularly when there are different concepts and beliefs involved between our countries. It undoubtedly takes longer to establish rapport and credibility with our international team members due to different values and ways of thinking. 

We must proactively work to build these by demonstrating transparency, integrity, and reliability in all our interactions. When we invest time getting to know our team members on a personal level and fostering a culture of openness and respect, we can lay the foundation for strong and enduring relationships. 

And hey, a happy hour or two doesn’t hurt either – just make sure the time zones align for everyone if it is ‘virtual’!

Adapting Leadership Style: Flexibility and adaptability is key (as well as versatility in dealing with the groups’ board of directors who might not be quite so open-minded…) 

What works for us in one cultural context may not necessarily work in another! Much better to be aware, and on the look out for this, rather than falling flat on our face 😉

We must be willing to tailor our approach to meet the different customs and preferences of our team members. This might mean being more directive in some cultures while encouraging autonomy and empowerment in others. 

By adapting our leadership style to fit the cultural context, we can effectively engage and motivate our team members to achieve their full potential. After all, a little cultural finesse can go a long way – just don’t forget to pack some humility and your sense of humour!

Appreciating Cultural Differences: It’s essential to recognise that different cultures operate with unique sets of values, beliefs, and goals, often viewing and approaching challenges and solutions in distinct ways. 

If we want to succeed, we must see and accept these differences, and adapt accordingly, to foster successful collaboration and integration. This is not only between ourselves and our new team, but also so we can create openness and cooperation between the different countries’ teams within our organisation who may have to work together on various projects. By appreciating cultural differences, we not only encourage creativity and innovation but also cultivate a sense of loyalty and respect within our teams. 

Building bridges between cultures requires empathy, flexibility, and a willingness to learn from one another. When we acknowledge this within our teams, we create an environment where everyone feels valued and encouraged to contribute their unique perspectives and talents which leads to a willingness to work together (instead of resistance), improved performance and increased productivity as well as better relationships all round.

In short: Leading international teams presents a unique set of challenges and considerations that demand a thoughtful and nuanced approach. As leaders, our first step is to fully open our own minds!

We must take on board the different concepts that may exist, embrace cultural sensitivity, prioritise effective communication, build trust and relationships, adapt our leadership style, and even manage conflict constructively in order to overcome the obstacles inherent in leading across borders. 

With the right mindset and strategies in place, we can harness the diversity and talent of our international teams to drive innovation, collaboration, and success on a global scale. 

So, remember to lead with confidence, sprinkle in a bit of humour, and navigate the journey together, embracing the different perspectives along the way!


First published in ‘WIN’ Magazine

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