In today’s digitally empowered business climate, commerce doesn’t stop at countries’ borders. Complex, multinational arrangements are the “new normal,” which means that international best practices are more essential than ever before. From comprehending complex webs of international laws and their intersections to mastering the ins and outs of etiquette across cultures, there are ways to build up global acumen and become a more valuable member of any management team.
International business optimism is at a high water mark, according to Wells Fargo’s latest annual survey. Despite the rise of protectionist policies in some countries and the possible impact of the U.K.’s departure from the European union, companies are bullish on increasing their cross-border activity.
A separate OFX study found 96 percent of small and medium-sized companies confident in trading overseas. If so many companies are crossing borders, in spite of the challenges and uncertainties it presents, the direction of business is clear.
To fit into this environment, executives should become aware of the skills they’ll need to reach overseas markets. Here are 6 tips for conducting international business:
1. Think outside your norm
There’s no such thing as a single model of how to run a business meeting. Executives making connections with overseas counterparts may find their gatherings running very differently based on the local norms. In a guest post for Forbes, UPS President of Global Freight Forwarding Stephen Flowers started things off with a few relevant examples of different priorities around the globe:
- In Canada, events tend to start on time and have solid agendas. Businesspeople who don’t make a point of punctuality may end up behind the curve when dealing with Canadian teams or partner organizations.
- Meetings in Brazil tend to run past their scheduled time according to Flowers. Despite this extra time spent, Flowers urged business travelers not to depart before the proceedings have been brought to a close. Quick exits are a major faux pas.
Flowers added that in Japan, meeting etiquette involves representatives of teams doing all or most of the talking. While junior officials may be there for support, it’s normal for the leader of each group to head up the discussion.
2. Find common ground
When companies put together working groups from around their international networks, it’s normal for people from very different cultural backgrounds to serve very closely. Global business expert Erin Meyer, speaking with the Society for Human Resource Management, explained that leaders of international teams should look for a middle ground rather than running the group in line with any one region’s norms.
Knowing what every individual wants and expects out of the teamwork process isn’t automatic. Leaders have to ask about expectations and set out their own priorities clearly. Meyer suggested setting aside a little time on the schedule just for this action, getting everyone on the same page.
She added that sometimes a leader’s best move in international team settings is to step back and let employees meet without the boss’s presence. Workers who have come up through cultural systems that stigmatize disagreeing with leaders may feel freer to make their voices heard if the authority figure is out of the room.
3. Communicate with proper online and in-person etiquette
Considering the impressive level of communication technology present in today’s companies, it’s not so strange for international meetings to be carried out entirely through the web. This could lull businesspeople into a false sense of security. After all, they’re still sitting in their offices, on home soil. It’s tougher to think about overseas rules of conduct when ensconced in company HQ.
That said, these leaders’ international counterparts may still be offended by a lack of cultural know-how. Forbes contributor Drew Hendricks urged aspiring global executives to learn the conversational styles and mores of the nations they deal with on a regular basis, whether they actually make an overseas trip or only communicate over the web.
While practices such as exchanging a gift or using a specific type of handshake don’t apply online, rules about who should speak in conversations and for how long, as well as whether meetings should be structured or free-flowing, still apply. A little effort can go a long way when it comes to learning and adopting relevant communication styles.
4. Pay attention to cultural detail
When adopting overseas business practices, learning quickly and ignoring the details may result in breaches of decorum.
For one very relevant example, consider the gift-giving culture that surrounds deal-making in China. Flowers, writing for Forbes, specified that the gift should be from the giver’s home city, or at least country. That said, even if someone comes from Switzerland, a clock is the wrong present – the author added that clocks connote death.
Once businesspeople have picked a present, they should be ready to have it refused – at first. Business News Daily pointed out that recipients tend to turn down gifts, potentially as many as three times. Flowers added that if and when international executives are offered presents in return, they should observe this custom, too. The three refusals are a point of decorum, to show that the individuals in question aren’t being greedy when they accept a present.
Even the color of wrapping paper has meaning, and Flowers urged executives to stay away from white, blue or black wrapping paper. Being meticulous about learning international practices can separate a cross-cultural moment from a faux pas.
This specific example shows the dangers of half-learning a new custom. Making assumptions and going ahead without complete knowledge can land executives in avoidable awkward situations. Even when a businessperson has encountered a fairly similar practice elsewhere in the world, it may pay to study up on a particular region’s version of a custom.
5. Overcome personal barriers
Sometimes, the toughest cultural hurdles to jump are internal. Businesspeople impose their own expectations on themselves and have a hard time fully committing to their newly modified business practices. Speaking with the Harvard Business Review, industry author Andy Molinsky noted that there tends to be a little hesitation around committing to new ideas – when trying to adopt new practices, individuals think about their colleagues back home, assuming they would be judged for changing their style of business and not being authentic.
Other mental hurdles include a feeling of inadequacy when facing a playing field very different from the environments where an executive has thrived in the past, as well as the stress that comes with trying something new. The process of changing work style isn’t a simple on-off switch, and it’s unfair for people to expect themselves – or their co-workers – to change 100 percent overnight.
Once people acknowledge that they’re having a hard time shifting their perspective, and that this is normal, they may find they’re able to break through the mental barriers that have been holding them down and thrive in a new culture. Giving up based on a rocky initial performance isn’t a good approach, especially when finding a comfort zone with overseas business is so important to companies’ progress today.
6. Be mindful of potential misunderstandings
Taking any international etiquette rules as gospel is likely a step too far. Trying to obey cultural norms and reach out to global colleagues with practices they’ll recognize and acknowledge is a show of politeness that can get business relationships off to a great start. That said, misunderstandings may occur and can be resolved through open communication. In many instances, an international counterpart will realize they’re reaching across a cultural divide, and probably acknowledge that fact.
Molinsky noted that appropriate boardroom expression exists on a spectrum, rather than simply being a matter of correct or incorrect behavior. He gave the example of enthusiasm levels. While U.S. businesspeople are known for being more visibly excitable than German team members, there is no need for a German pro in America to lean into the dominant culture and express loud affirmation for every proposal. The American team will expect and tolerate a range of responses.
The author suggested that the quest for acceptable business behavior begins with a person’s own comfort level. Each individual will have varied responses to different situations and a variety of natural preferences. Starting with what feels natural and adjusting behavior enough to fit in with the dominant local paradigm is a solid way to reach a happy medium that will please colleagues and oneself.
Becoming an international business expert
When a company expands into a new territory, it’s best not to blunder in. Adapting to local ways of doing business can show that the organization is ready to become a part of the region’s industry instead of acting as an invader. There are opportunities to be had for firms that can gracefully move their operations from one place to another, and it’s individuals who will lead the way rather than the faceless companies themselves.
The six suggestions above are just the beginning when it comes to taking an organization into new territory or shoring up relations between branches of a business. Once people are at the negotiating table, it’s time to let strong business skills come into play, with deep industry knowledge and problem-solving soft skills combining to make for successful interactions.
Ambitious companies aren’t held back by national borders. Professionals hoping to take the lead in today’s opportunity-rich climate should have specific knowledge of leadership and management, as well as a strong grasp of their own industries’ unique practices.
Leaders interested in seeking out an education based in concrete business practices rather than theory can study for their Master of Business Administration degree. From human resources practices to finance, marketing and thoroughly modern competencies such as cybersecurity, such programs are designed to cover the relevant skills needed by today’s executives.