As the world becomes a smaller place and business is increasingly carried out across geographic, linguistic and ethnic boundaries, the successful 21st Century leader often needs to embrace a variety of cultures, rather than simply imposing his own values on those he or she works with.

But our preconceptions of the definition of “culture” also need re-evaluating, as success often depends on harmony of business ideologies as well as racial or linguistic understanding.

I recently worked on a project which encapsulated this idea perfectly.

The situation

Not so long ago I began coaching a senior figure within one of the UK”s leading construction companies. He had been asked to move over 3,000 miles away with his family to take a lead on the company”s largest international project to date: it was going badly wrong!

This individual wanted coaching to help him think through a list of cross-cultural issues that he felt he had identified through email correspondence and phone calls. Because of where the project is located there are many different nationalities employed on the project, so he also wanted help to think through leading and motivating teams with a diversity of ethnicities within them. Great, I thought! Having worked abroad myself for many years and now travelling all over the world, this is just the type of coaching that I really love to do.

However as I listened, it became clear to both of us that the real issue was routed in his frustrations of being in a battle of professional cultures locally.

My coachee identified his key value as the pursuit for quality; in the same breath he identified the key value of those above him as a pursuit for profit! The project that he was about to take over was steeped in a profit driven mentality and this was the essence of a cultural divide.

Subcultures within the business – not necessarily at loggerheads

What had been exposed here were two subcultures.

We went on to have a conversation where we explored afresh how both subcultures were genuinely important for the success of the business. This resulted in conversations between my coachee and his superiors about what could be done to limit this cultural divide and find ways that the company can further express both values in a way that brings harmony within its global operations.

I refer to this as a great example of how countries have cultures, but so do corporations, organisations, industries and so on.

Defining ‘culture’

Culture has been described as many things, one helpful definition is this:

Culture is the set of unique characteristics that distinguishes its members from another group.

I like this definition because it clearly communicates that culture is not bound by nationality, but encompasses many things likes values, language and assumptions. This is enlightening because it opens up the possibility that you and I are actually functioning within multiple cultures!

Something many people fail to grasp is the opportunity to understand and benefit from alternative worldviews or cultures.

The result of my coaching conversation was two subcultures understanding and beginning to appreciate each other’s worldview. Then, when both cultures understood each other, a whole organisation began to benefit.

“Culture” and leadership in the 21st Century

With the world becoming smaller and smaller as migration continues to increase and technology continues to connect every corner of the globe at faster speeds, achievement increasingly is about engaging with people that seem different to us.

Therefore it is logical to think that the most successful people will be those who grasp what some people describe as cross cultural divide as an opportunity to better oneself!

For today’s leaders especially, the opportunity to profit from every chance to learn from another culture is important as cultural differences between individuals increase the complexity of any leadership role, and so the leader that can say “I am of many cultures” will always be more effective than the leader of one!


What is your experience of business cultures in the 21st Century? Please share them with us.

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