Professional Development

Top tips for communicating internationally: part one

Bob Dignen

The business world of today is populated by global organisations looking to globalise yet still further. Professionals inside these organisations commonly experience international communication as challenging and frustratingly inefficient. A major German client of mine calculated that poor international email communication alone was costing the company in the region of €11m annually. Very often everyone knows the problems but takes little time to think about solutions. I’ll be offering top ten tips to help you think about how to become a better international communicator: here are tips one to five.

#1 Learn English

I’m talking here to the native speakers, firstly. Non-native speakers should simply cut this paragraph out and hand to native English speaking colleagues. Why?

The natives speak a poor international English. Colleagues may not tell them – they do tell me – but the speed and complexity with which the native speaker uses English regularly confuses, irritates and leads to perceptions of game-playing among non-native speakers. One client who regularly travelled in and out of the City was certain – native speakers use their language as a weapon. So, what’s the answer? They need to slow down. They need to speak less. They need to cut out the humour. They need to ask more simple questions which drive the conversation. Non-native speakers need to give regular and detailed feedback to colleagues – American, Australian, British etc. – who are causing problems for others.

#2 Discuss culture

The curious thing about cultural differences is that people know that they’re there but nobody does much about them. As a result, unnecessary misperceptions and frustrations occur. I mentioned this to one of my clients recently and he found the simple observation so interesting that he initiated regular briefing spots within his international team’s monthly conference calls. Country teams were given the job to provide relevant input to their international colleagues about culture, customer mentality, and business challenges at a local level. They’re still doing this… with around fifty more countries yet to go.

#3 Manage the local-central gap

Working globally is not just a ‘problem’ of culture. Globalisation also generates a host of issues for organisations around balancing local and central interests. Those local feel overly driven by central. Those central regularly report frustration with local for not following standard procedure or process. For things to work, both sides need to take time to clarify the rationale for internationalisation, recognising its challenges, and feeding back to their own central and local organisations how best to manage cooperation. It’s not part of many job descriptions but it should be.

#4 Use a flexible leadership style

Leadership means different things in different places. I don’t have to remind many of my Swedish clients struggling to apply their Scandinavian bottom-up approach across the Baltic States. They’re finding that their rather slow, consensus-based decision making style is ineffective in cultures which value a fast top-down exercise of authority. Effective international communicators combine the ability to remain authentic but deliver leadership in ways which makes sense in different places.

#5 Find time to build a network (no fly-by meetings)

One American travelling in and out of Europe from Chicago once stated his principle to me of no ‘fly-by meetings’. For him, network building was a critical part of his international leadership role, especially in modern institutions whose matrix-style organisations represent something akin to spaghetti. He would regularly take time during visits aside of the official business to connect to different decision makers, and keep his ear close to the ground on new developments which might impact on him and his team.

Take a look through tips 6 to 10 from Bob or read below for other related posts.


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