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Building International Leadership Credibility

By Debbie Nicol (1293 words)
Posted in International Management on December 13, 2012

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By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion'

According to Kouzes and Posner, credibility is the currency of leadership.  Credibility is ‘smelt and felt’ by all around you, and is mirrored in self-confidence and following.


With the world changing, the context of leadership is most certainly changing, yet Kouzes and Posner’s research shows that content remains the same.  What content, actions or practices will influence your leadership credibility; the ability to face and work through struggles on overseas assignments?


Here are three areas of focus to develop the content that will make you a credible and influential international leader.

  1. A Modified Work – Life Balance

  2. A Relevant ‘Attitudinal’ Toolkit

  3. A Priority to Connectedness


1.     A Modified Work-Life Balance 

“Do as I say not do as I do” can be very dangerous in overseas locations. From the moment you arrive, all eyes and ears are upon you, deciding if you and your leadership are “good enough for them”.  Not observing existing practices initially may create disastrous first impressions.  Consider your own family support system back at the new house, with the children wanting to share their new school adventures over the dinner table, or a spouse who’s eager to share details of the people they met today.  What first impressions were left on them?


Take an example from the Indian culture, one whose citizens are accustomed to a 6-day workweek.  It is a well-engrained practice – what does it serve? What does it not serve?  Whilst it is a practice that undoubtedly exists, does anyone know why?  Would anyone take the opportunity to change that practice?  Should you come in and change that instantly?  One workplace that I know of brought in a new blanket rule of a 5-day work week for all senior managers, yet out of the diverse mix on the management team, many of the West-Asian folk maintained a 6 day work week purely because they had ‘nothing to do’ with 2 spare days!  Change takes time!


Some cultures may need a meeting before the meeting to discuss any proposed change. Other cultures may need a secret ballot, whilst others would prefer to talk it out to an open meeting. Just remember – what’s balance to you may not be balance to others! So if you are trying to create a work life balance within your new environment, how do you think this new culture would imagine it to look like?


2.     A Relevant ‘Attitudinal’ Toolkit

The unexpected is bound to hit when you least expect it on your first, second, third and even fourth overseas assignments. Being prepared and informed will not guarantee 100% smooth sailing.  It’s really about what you do and how you behave when these unexpected surprises actually happen.


How could a toolkit overflowing with an open mind, an adventurous mindset, and a Covey approach of “seeking first to understand before being understood” assist when the unexpected happens?  Here are some examples:


Do we know when to walk away?

The American ‘cut-to-the-chase’ business approach and the Middle-Eastern relationship-based approach came head to head in a partnership forum.  Both approaches need to give a little to blend for greater appreciation of differing behaviors.


However, how far is too far and when does adapting become compromise?  The attitudinal toolkit would allow the parties to maintain respectful parting of ways should things simply not gel.


Do we know when to admit that others may be more aligned?

The Australian and Japanese companies came head to head in search of the elusive contract.  Each offered the same products and services, yet the Australian did not contextualize the use of that product in the desired market. 


The desire to recognize when something is out of alignment indicates an attitudinal leadership quality – recognition of the space around you and what is happening in that space.  It demonstrates a priority to connectivity rather than a priority to “I’m right, you’re wrong”.   It tends to rely on a ‘space’ for questions and collaborative decision-making, resulting in a connected and respectful workplace.


Do we recognize that everyone is a product of his or her environment?

One English HR lady working in the UAE needed to teach her Emirati interviewees basics of interviewing, for example, turn up a few minutes early, ensure you turn up on the right day, have a CV that has enough detail to inform and not overload, etc.  This frustrated her, until a kindly gentleman reminded her that some of these people were still living off the land only 30 years prior, and hence may have missed the basics.


Difference is what it is, so it is important that you can show tolerance and appreciation in order to be perceived as objective help vs. a subjective opinion-holder.  With leadership needing followers to survive, the attitudinal toolkit must contain a passion for diversity.


3.  A Priority to Connectedness


People will only willingly follow you to and through struggles (which is at the base of all business challenges) if they feel a genuine connection with you and the vision. This is based on a basic human need of belonging, and spills over into the degree of alignment of others to your projects. Being both new, and from a different culture, can bring added pressure here.


Some cultures are naturally effervescent and connected in nature.  Take the Filipino workplace, full of vibrancy and willingness to meet new challenges and have fun whilst doing so. Take the Swiss workplace at the other end of the spectrum, which can be driven with focus on accuracy and precision.  And you come in perhaps in the mid-range, yet with the same desire to belong!


What can leaders do to forge belonging in the workplace?  In Singapore and Malaysia, I’ve seen many post-work social activities such as bowling and karaoke, in the Middle East; I’ve seen many coffees one-on-one with the boss to reinforce a state of importance, both in different ways reinforcing belonging.


One great example of leadership connectedness was demonstrated in 2012 on the UAE National Day, when each resident received a text message from the country’s leader to individual mobiles with a National Day greeting, and vote of thanks for contributing to unity and success of the country.   That brought instant recognition and a form of connectedness to each person in a ‘space’ that prioritizes importance and recognition.


In conclusion, the above examples are simple insights for reflection and further professional reading for your leadership journey on international assignments.  Let’s hope your leadership that is ‘smelt and felt’ has a true essence that attracts rather than repels – converting to a greater following and even more international assignments.


Please join the conversation in 'This Week's Discussion'


Written by Debbie Nicol,

International Management Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & Managing Director, 'business en motion'

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Comments (2)

Paul Mudd posted on: December 16, 2012

Establishing Credibility & the Authority to Act are two key tenants of Authentic & Effective Leadership, as well as being the bedrock of Professionalism. Take a look at this Article, it's worth your Tme!

solomon clark posted on: December 18, 2012

I couldn't agree more. And old friend once said that "what is in you, comes out of you'" One will always know who you are by listening carefully. If your Credibility is at the least questioned, what often follows is a great hesitation.

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