Issue 24: In This Issue

  • Riding the Waves of Culture
  • True North

Riding the Waves of Culture 
Understanding Diversity in Global Business

By Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hampden-Turner 

Whether you are leading a business focused on global markets, or a local business dependent on employees from different regions of the globe (and these days who isn’t?), Riding the Waves of Culture is a must read.

This book does three things:

  1. dispels the notion that there is “one best way” of managing and organizing;
  2. gives readers a better understanding of their own culture and cultural differences in general, by learning how to recognize and cope with these in a business context; and
  3. provides some cultural insights into the “global” versus “local” dilemma facing international organizations.

And to dispel any notion that this is just another paper theory, it is worth noting that the book is based upon 15 years of academic and field research including 1000 cross-cultural training programs in over 20 countries as well as the results of research involving 30,000 participants from 30 companies in 50 countries.

If you want to gain an understanding of, and allegiance to, your corporate goals, policies, products or services wherever you are doing business, you must understand what those and other aspects of management mean in different cultures.

Solving Problems

The authors suggest that a useful way of thinking about where culture comes from is the following: “culture is the way in which a group of people solves problems and reconciles dilemmas.”

Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner look at these problems under three headings:

  • those which arise from our relationships with other people
  • those which come from the passage of time
  • those which relate to the environment

And from the solutions that different cultures have chosen to these universal problems, they have further defined seven fundamental dimensions of culture, five of them coming from the first category.

There are five orientations covering ways in which human beings deal with each other  and they have taken Parson’s five relational orientations as a starting point.

Relationships with People - Universalism versus Particularism

The authors define the universalist approach roughly as: “What is good and right can be defined and always applies.” However, in particularist cultures, far greater attention is given to the obligations of relationships and unique circumstances.

For example, instead of assuming that the one good way must always be followed, the particularist reasoning is that friendship has special obligations and hence may come first. Less attention is given to abstract societal codes.

Universalist, or rule based behaviour, tends to be abstract and has a tendency to resist exceptions that might weaken the rule.

Particularist judgments focus on the exceptional nature of the present circumstances. This person is not a “citizen” as stated in the rule but my friend, brother, husband, child or person of unique importance to me, with special claims on my love or hatred. I must therefore sustain, protect or discount this person no matter what the rules say.

Business people from both societies will tend to think each other corrupt. A universalist will say of particularists, “they cannot be trusted because they will always help their friends” and a particularist, conversely, will say of universalists, “you cannot trust them; they would not even help a friend.”

The authors take care to point out that it is too simplistic to simply judge one approach wrong and the other right. And they note that countries with strong universalist cultures try to use the courts to mediate conflicts - the influence of which can be seen in the fact that the universalist USA has considerably more lawyers per head of population than the relatively particularist Japan. Makes one willing to consider the advantages of the particularist approach.

Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner do an excellent job of showing the impact that failing to account for a particularist culture can have on the acquisition and execution of a contract, the success or failure of a business sales trip, the effectiveness of management systems flowed down from head office and the feasibility of job evaluation and rewards systems.

Relationships with People - Individualism versus Communitarianism

Do people regard themselves primarily as individuals or primarily as part of a group? Furthermore, is it more important to focus on individuals so that they can contribute to the community as and if they wish, or is it more important to consider the community first since that is shared by many individuals?

Being able to grasp the implications of this orientation is critical for international business, especially in the arena of negotiations and sales calls. Communitarion cultures such as Japan, Singapore, and Brazil, to name just three, prefer plural representation. Show up to a communitarian meeting alone and it will be assumed that you lack status and your position and authority will be seriously underestimated.

It is also important to note that in a communitarion culture, the translator is often an interpreter, even the top negotiator, with the responsibility of serving the group, engaging in lengthy side discussions, mediating misunderstandings and developing consensus. Consequently, decision making in this arena typically takes much longer.

Relationships with People - Neutral versus Emotional

Should the nature of our interactions be objective and detached, or is expressing emotion acceptable? In North America and northwest Europe, business relationships are typically instrumental and all about achieving objectives. The brain checks emotions because these are believed to confuse the issues. The assumption is that we should resemble our machines in order to operate them more efficiently.

But further south and in many other cultures, business is a human affair and the whole gamut of emotions is deemed appropriate. Loud laughter, banging your fist on the table or leaving a conference room in anger during negotiation is all part of business.

Relationships with People - Specific versus Diffuse

When the whole person is involved in a business relationship there is a real and personal contact, instead of the specific relationship prescribed by a contract. In many countries a diffuse relationship is not only preferred, but necessary before business can proceed.

Diffuse cultures also bring with them the concept of ‘loss of face’ – meaning something being made public that the person considers private. And don’t think that the concept applies only to Japan or China. Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner point out that failing to comprehend this orientation is what enables an American to inadvertently and unknowingly insult an Italian.

Negotiations with those from a diffuse culture tend to feel very time consuming due to seemingly unrelated issues and small talk. However, from the diffuse perspective, people want to really get to know the people they are about to do business with – the whole person -  that way deception becomes significantly more difficult.

Relationships with People - Achievement versus Ascription

Achievement means you are judged on what you have recently accomplished and on your record. Ascription means that status is attributed to you by birth, kinship, gender or age, but also by your connections (who you know) or your educational record (ie where you went to school).

In an achievement culture, the first question is likely to be ‘What did you study?” while in a more ascriptive culture the question will more likely be “Where did you study?” Only if it was a lousy university or one they do not recognize will ascriptive people ask what you studied and that will be to enable you to save face.

It is easy to see that addressing the issue of status would be critical in dealing with an ascriptive culture and Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner do a great job of laying out the terrain and providing some guideposts through it.

Attitudes to Time

The way in which societies look at time also differs. In some societies what somebody has achieved in the past is not that important. It is more important to know what plan they have developed for the future. In other societies you can make more of an impression with your past accomplishments than those of today. These are cultural differences that greatly affect corporate activities.

With respect to time, the American Dream is the French Nightmare. Americans generally start from zero and what matters is their present performance and their plan to “make it” in the future. Conversely the French have an enormous sense of the past and relatively less focus on the present and future than the Americans.

The linear, sequential approach of North America where you define a set, tight time frame with a series of steps that lead logically to the desired conclusion will often be completely sidetracked by a ‘past’ oriented culture that will deviate from the set agenda at the drop of a hat. The North American approach is a focus on a planned sequence. The past-oriented approach is a focus on a planned convergence.

Attitudes to the Environment

An important cultural difference can also be found in the attitude to the environment. Some cultures see the major focus affecting their lives and the origins of vice and virtue as residing within the person – an inner-directed orientation. Here, motivations and values are derived from within. Other cultures see the world as more powerful than individuals. They see nature as something to be feared and emulated – an outward-directed orientation.

There are many facets to this dimension of culture which are beyond the scope of this review but it is worth recounting one of the examples used to show the impact this dimension can have.

A French oil company laid out a change management program to its Gabon office staff. The Gabonese accepted the mission statement, the need for the change, as well as the operational steps needed to accomplish the change. But when the plan had to be put into action nothing happened; the employees behaved exactly as before. Upon careful examination, it was discovered that the Gabonese did not believe that it was for them as individuals to direct the implementation. The signal had to come from their French supporters, who alone had the ‘natural’ authority to command action.

Putting It All Together

Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner dedicate the final 5 chapters of the book to discussing:

how general cultural assumptions about mankind, time and the environment affect the culture of an organization;
how managers can prepare the organization for the process of internationalization through specific points of intervention;
the different steps which people need to take to reconcile cultural dilemmas; &
the diversity we find within cultures.
One Final Example

We’ end with one final example that North American readers should be able to relate to. Pay-for-performance is a standard concept readily understood in any North American business. However, if you try to implement a North American pay-for-performance system in a communitarion or ascriptive culture, it will likely fail as demonstrated by the examples in the book.

In a communitarian culture, the individual will feel embarrassed for being singled out from the group and in an ascriptive culture, individuals will not allow themselves to be more highly paid than their ‘seniors’. In both cases they will ensure their performances do not put them into a negative position and performance may actually end up declining.

An Outstanding Reference Work

This is an outstanding reference work for any leader dealing with global issues. It is filled with examples and case studies that demonstrate the pitfalls you face and how to get around them.

You need to read this book and then keep it handy as a ready reference to help you lay out your strategy for dealing with whatever specific culture you are facing at a particular time.

Tom Peters said it best “… a masterpiece”.

To purchase 'Riding The Waves Of Culture' click this link to get it from: 

True North

By Bill George 

True North is the second book by Bill George who was the chief executive of Medtronic, the world’s leading medical technology company, from 1991 until 2001.

His first book, Authentic Leadership, was reviewed in an earlier issue of this newsletter and True North takes the concept of authentic leadership another step further.

Inner Qualities

In the foreword to True North, David Gergen, highlights a central theme of Bill George’s two books.

“… what ultimately distinguishes the great leaders from the mediocre are the personal, inner qualities – qualities that are hard to define but are essential for success, qualities that each of us must develop for ourselves.”

He goes on to quote historian David McCullough, who wrote in assessing the leadership of Harry Truman,

“Character is the single most important asset of a president”

to which  Gergen adds

“character without capacity usually means weakness in a leader but capacity without character means danger”.

An Internal Compass

True North is the internal compass that guides you successfully through life. It represents who you are as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader. True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership.

It is also important to note that in George’s model, True North and Authentic Leadership mean leadership based upon what we can only call model/ideal/ good character.

For example, with regard to the many powerful business leaders who bowed to stock market pressure in return for personal gain, George states that they lost sight of their True North. He points out that boards of directors frequently chose leaders for their charisma instead of their character, their style rather than their substance and their image instead of their integrity.

His implication being that everyone including the leaders often suffered as a result.

Finding Your Own Path

During the past fifty years, leadership scholars have conducted more than one thousand studies in the attempt to determine the definitive leadership styles, characteristics or personality traits of great leaders.

George points out that none of these studies has produced a clear profile of the ideal leader. Which he believes to be a good thing, because (and this is one of his fundamental principles) no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else; you can learn from their experiences but you cannot be successful trying to be like them.

Leadership from Life Stories

With co-author Peter Sims, George interviewed 125 leaders considered to be authentic to learn the secrets of their development as leaders. The leaders ranged in age from twenty three to ninety three with no fewer than 15 per decade.

In reviewing the results of their interviews, George and Sims could not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills or styles that led to their success. Their leadership emerged from their life stories. By constantly testing themselves through real world experiences and by reframing their life stories to understand who they are, these leaders unleashed their passions and discovered the purpose of their leadership.

The authors concluded that:

“Successful leadership takes conscious development and requires being true to your life story.”

New Definition of Leadership

George and Sims then offer this new definition of leadership:

“The authentic leader brings people together around a shared purpose and empowers them to step up and lead authentically in order to create value for all stakeholders.”

The Five Dimensions

In Authentic Leadership, George defined the five dimensions of an authentic leader:

Pursuing Purpose With Passion

  • In order to find their purpose, authentic leaders must first understand themselves and their passions. Without a real sense of purpose, leaders are at the mercy of their egos and narcissistic vulnerabilities.

Practicing Solid Values

  • Leaders are defined by their values and the one value required of every authentic leader is integrity. The test of authentic leaders is not what they say but the values they practice under pressure.

Leading With Heart

  • Leading with heart means having passion for your work, compassion for the people you serve, empathy for the people you work with and the courage to make difficult decisions.

Establishing Enduring Relationships

  • This is an important dimension because in return for a personal relationship with their leader, people will demonstrate great commitment to their work and loyalty to the company.

Demonstrating Self-Discipline

  • Authentic leaders set high standards for themselves and expect the same from others. They accept full responsibility for outcomes and hold others and themselves accountable for their performance.
The Journey to Authentic Leadership

In True North, George provides the guidance he sees necessary to help you excel in each of these dimensions. Part one of True North examines the journey to authentic leadership, beginning with the leaders’ life stories and then dissecting the three phases of the leader’s journey (preparing to lead, leading and giving back).

During their journeys, many leaders lose their way and end up derailed. To understand how this happens, five types of leaders who see themselves as heroes of their own journeys are described, along with their pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Using the Compass to Find True North

Part two provides the compass and development plan to stay true to who you are while you confront the challenges in the world around you. It includes the five key areas of your development as a leader:

  • self-awareness at the center of your compass; and
  • at the four points:
  • your values and principles,
  • your motivations,
  • your support team and
  • the integration of your life.
Discovering Your Purpose

Part Three describes how you can follow your passions to discover the purpose of your leadership. It illustrates how to empower other people to step up and lead by inspiring them around a shared purpose. Finally, it addresses how you can achieve superior results throughout your organization by optimizing your leadership effectiveness.

Calling All Authentic Leaders

There is no question that we need more leaders of the type that Bill George defines as authentic and that the world would be a better place if we had them.

If you are interested in becoming one of these, True North holds some sage wisdom, especially in the life stories that the book is filled with, and it will be worth the investment of your time.

To purchase 'True North' click this link to get it from: