Elevating the leadership of all the managers in a global company that operates in 120+ countries, across different continents and cultures, is a tricky endeavor and might be condemned to failure in the egg. For example, try to impose certain leadership behaviors described in one global, common cultural reference, and see how it works. Let’s say: “leaders in our company shall talk straight.” The Dutch managers will say, “Cool, we have got this one, we are leaders!” The Thai managers might say: “Thank you very much, this is not for us. They are not sensitive to our culture.” How do you avoid falling into such a trap?

Explain the intention behind each expected leadership behavior

Whatever the leadership model you choose, whatever the set of behaviors this model describes, it will not stick as long as you do not give the context or the purpose of having such and such leadership behaviors being promoted in the culture. Why do you want people to talk straight in the first place? Is it because you saw it work for you and your colleagues in your country? Where did you see that talking straight produced increased performance? What happened? What was the underlying intention of the person talking straight that made the act of talking straight effective? You may come up with an answer like: “Talking straight really works when it is done by someone who is authentically committed to making a difference for the person they are talking straight to.” The underlying intention—making a difference for another—has the taste of a fundamental principle that is common to all human cultures. With answers at this level, you are on the right track to defining a leadership culture model that transcends cultural differences and speaks to everyone in your organization.

Let them translate in a practical and local way

Trust the culture of each country in which you want to deploy the leadership model, to have its own resources to translate the intention behind each leadership behavior. These cultures did not wait for globalization and the western corporate culture to invent leadership. It may not look as you expected but as long as the intention of the model is delivered, do you really care? Your Thai managers will understand what you want them to look at when you explain to them that  “talking straight” is about making a difference for the other person and has nothing to do with dumping your feelings and opinions onto someone else. Trust that there is a Thai way to talk to another in such a way that the person hears something that might appear difficult to hear, and it might well be very different from what you saw work in Amsterdam.

Register the results and help them link them back to the new culture

Transforming a culture is hard to measure, especially if you try to gauge the transformation on the soft side. People gradually change their behaviors and forget very quickly what their experience was before the change. Coming back to your initial objective when you launched the cultural transformation—i.e. to elevate performance—simple questions to measure the transformation are:

  • What are you able to do, or achieve, in the organization that you could not 6 months ago?
  • How does it relate to the work we did on leadership?

This gives you access to measuring the return on investment of the cultural transformation endeavor. On the contrary, if you attempt to evaluate people on their change in behaviors, you will be trapped again and trigger resistance, well-deserved resistance.

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