You don’t have to work for a multinational corporation to benefit from a lesson in how to engage with people from other cultures or in other countries. Whether your business deals with companies abroad or you have local colleagues or customers from other cultures, being able to connect is critical. Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, has often stressed the need for a global perspective.
“More than ever, we’re looking for future leaders who possess a world view," he said. "We need people who can move seamlessly across borders and across cultures and who feel as comfortable working in Nanchang and Novosibirsk as they do in New York… True innovation, we have found, comes from this beautiful fusion of cultures, ideas, beliefs and experiences.”
To learn more about becoming skilled at intercultural communication and business, we tapped our own experts: Coca-Cola executives from around the globe. We asked them to share their advice on successfully navigating the marketplace in their own countries and worldwide.
Here are some of their thoughts:
Q: You’ve worked around the world. Could you share what approach has been successful for you personally? What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in Canada or with Canadians?
A: I’ve been living and working internationally for 27 years, so I have a good perspective of what's worked for me and what hasn't. The first point is to respect the culture. Understand what the culture is, why it is different and why it is important. This gives you insights into the country and to the people. I was always aware that I didn’t want to be the ‘ugly American’ that was going to come in and fix things. Instead, come in with your ears open; listen, understand and ask a lot of questions — then take action. I also think it’s important to be able to speak at least enough of the language to show that you have respect for the culture. And no matter which country I’ve worked in, I’ve found that recognizing people for what they are doing is appreciated universally in the world.
In dealing with Canada, it is important to realize it is the country with the second largest landmass in the world. It has two official languages and is made up of 10 provinces that are all very unique with each having its own cultural differences. Many people don’t realize how diverse and multicultural the country is. Today 20 percent are visible minorities and by 2020, one in four people in Canada will be a visible minority. Within Toronto alone, there are 200 distinct ethnic groups. So if you come in and treat the country as one big group of people — or think that it’s the same as working in the United States — you may alienate some people.
To work in Canada, it’s beneficial to understand diversity and how to manage it in the workplace or in the market. You have to be aware of it day-to-day and be able to create something better through understanding the diverse culture.
Lastly, recognition is universal. Recognizing people for a good job may be a small thing but it is very important in dealing with people around the world.
Q: You’ve worked in many countries, what approach has been successful for you? Also what would you tell someone about doing business in India?
A: I think it’s important to enjoy learning about other cultures and to always understand there will be challenges when working with a culture that is new to you. I think about what Coca-Cola stands for — being honest and transparent in our dealings. That is the basis for everything. No matter where I am, I know that creating partnerships and making sure that everyone working together understands what really needs to get done is critical. But the path to that understanding can vary in different cultures.
For example, sometimes people coming from a Western country want to get down to business very quickly, but in India, personal and professional relationships are important. So we would first meet over a Coke or a cup of coffee or tea, and learn about each other before moving on to business. It’s also important to understand that in India, everything is negotiated. I admit when I returned to India after working in other countries, even I found that a challenge. Timelines, resources and goals are all up for discussion and negotiation. And it can take a while to understand the true objections or issues so you have to probe to get to the bottom of it all. In India, don’t expect quick decisions or actions because everything is a journey. And finally, don’t be irreverent about our religion and cultural traditions as they are very important to us. When we warm up to you, we will be more open to discussing these things but at first just be respectful.
Q: If someone has never worked in Germany or with someone from that country, what is the most important thing for him or her to understand about the business culture to be successful in Germany, as well as internationally?
A: There is a tremendous shift going on within German business culture — a huge move from traditional German hierarchy to international players with lean structures and very open business cultures. In addition, start-up companies are increasing in Germany. In order to stay competitive, fast-moving companies need to move towards a mindset that is open for change, has an anticipating, pro-active approach towards the market and is driven by entrepreneurship as well as innovation. In order to be successful you need to understand and live according to this.
Ideal international employees bring curiosity for what they are doing. They have relentless energy and the courage to push things to the next level, and to drive new thinking — which is linked to seeing the bigger picture, building on trends and assessing opportunities. In addition they are flexible, adaptable to different team setups, and able to engage and win over people.
It is as important to be aware of your own characteristics and be able to adjust accordingly as it is to understand what is relevant for other cultures. For instance, Germans tend to be very straight forward whilst being consensus-oriented. Therefore, it is useful to go into a dialogue, listen to your counterpart and include them into the conversation. We are a relationship-based company, which means the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what.’
Q: What advice would you give someone who is new to working in Japan? Also, in general, what has worked for you when dealing with people in other cultures?
A: I believe the shortcut to success is to listen to various opinions before deciding yes or no. Asserting oneself too bluntly may drive other people away by making them think you do not understand their viewpoint. But you need to make your point known. In a meeting with the Atlanta team when I was still in my 20s, I was overly conscious of not making mistakes and straining myself to speak correctly. Because of this, I rarely spoke up, and, quite naturally, hardly anyone paid any attention to me. Because of this experience, I do my best to state my opinion and ideas clearly. Communicating what I am thinking may also lead to discussion. And I believe that it helps to build bonds of trust with others.
When working in Japan, it is important to understand that Japanese people are not inclined to actively speak to other people. However, this reluctance does not mean you are disliked. If you approach people with friendliness and show respect to that person, you will receive respect in return. Ultimately, if you can passionately and respectfully express what you want to do and why, you will be able to create good work relationships.
Q: If someone has never worked in Latin America or with someone from the area, what is the most important thing for them to understand about the current business culture? And what skills have worked for you abroad?
A: Mexico — and really most of Latin America — has experienced significant advancement over the last generation. Positive demographic, economic and social trends have had a substantive impact on our psychology. We are evolving from a ‘traditional / collective / undemanding / accustomed to crisis’ culture toward a ‘modern / more individualistic / empowered / visionary’ nation. In our business community you will find highly intelligent men and women: creative thinkers with a challenging point of view on par with anywhere else in the world. Anyone working here should be keenly aware of the quality of our local professionals.
While we are highly collaborative and team-oriented, employees are expected to demonstrate leadership, set direction and mobilize the organization. We are a much more dynamic work culture than we were some years ago, and thus expect all to be very energetic, enthusiastic and focused on people development. You will find that we have a zeal for our work that you should always respect. Also, you should recognize that this passion extends beyond work to our families and our country.
Personally, I’ve found that while one has to be aware of the differences in cultures when dealing with others. In business worldwide I have always been successful when I understand the big picture, treat people fairly and get things done.
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