How national cultures affect your leadership

It's smart to adapt your style to different countries, but some things are true everywhere, says MullenLowe Group UK CEO Jeremy Hine.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2019

In a globalised economy, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find yourself running teams or businesses in foreign lands. In many respects Brits have some advantages when doing so – the international language of business is English, though the norms are American.

But just as good leadership depends on the context of corporate culture, so too does national culture have a significant bearing on what works. You’re unlikely to have much luck cutting and pasting from successes elsewhere.

Jeremy Hine is UK CEO of global marcomms agency MullenLowe Group, but from 2011 to 2013 he ran the company’s Thai business. Here’s what he learned.

"Wherever they are, leaders need to navigate different social norms to achieve common goals, helping their teams and organisations to be effective. In my own experience, specifically in Thailand and the UK, there are certainly different ways to steer the ship.

"In Thailand, the CEO’s office would be on the highest floor, right at the back, the furthest away from the office entrance. The office itself would be open plan, with staff all facing the front in deferential style. The importance of hierarchy and the need for respect is clear from the floor plan alone and with it, a cultural reluctance to challenge seniors, ‘Greng jai’. As a result, Thais can be very hesitant about asking questions and challenging management. 

"Thai leadership, therefore, was a strong presence from the back; like the bridge on a tanker, where the CEO or Captain looks out over the office to ensure all is working effectively and commands are carried out. 

"Working back in the UK - and perhaps more suited to my style as a CEO - I feel more comfortable as part of team on the bow located bridge of a passenger ship, leading from the front with a clear view of where we are going. Leadership from this part of the organisation means setting the direction knowing that your crew can see you, feel connected and ask questions. 

"But wherever your metaphorical bridge is located, some principles of leadership are the same. You must empower those around you and respect their core disciplines. You should be on the bridge but not always with your hand on the wheel. A good navigator (CSO), pilot (MD) and chief engineer (CFO) are essential and should be engaged and encouraged to combine all their capabilities to power the company. And because in all cultures leaders need to wear a smile, it's much more fun, or ‘Sanuk’ as the Thais would say, to get off the bridge and walk the decks with the crew. 

"And lastly, a good skipper will know that every organisation is unique. Yours might be a steamship, whose wheelhouses and engine were often midships, so never rule out leading from the middle if that's what right to help you reach new horizons."

Image credit: Mike/Pexels

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