How to pack for a Successful Cross-Cultural Leadership Business Trip


So, you are setting off on a cross-cultural leadership business trip to establish solid teams and forge a successful future for a company overseas. You’ve packed your clothes, your favorite toothbrush and a bit of the country’s culture, so you are all set, right? Not so fast. As with anything, there is more that you need to include.  Maybe you think it has something to do with understanding the ethnic, social and personal diversity within the country’s culture. Well, that is good, but to ensure a successful trip, you must pack items that have less to do with culture(s) and everything to do with the people within them. Don’t worry, here is our short list of a few highly important items that you simply must pack:

First, know thyself. Don’t pack everything you own. Only take the essentials.  Look inside and see what you can and must leave behind. Anytime leaders enter a new culture, they bring all their experiences. Your suitcase is just not big enough for all of that.  There inevitably will be areas of uncertainty, feelings of doubt, and possibly some preset notions you have. These are markers that can lead to culture shock. Leave these behind.

Knowing what triggers you, what ideas you are bringing to each interaction, new project, and new place, will help in the process more than any vague concept of culture. Take with you what you know about your personality and thought processes. This will be invaluable in your quest to guide a successful team.

Only then find space in your suitcase for culture. You know that little mesh pocket in your suitcase? This is where you stuff the tidbits of culture. This can include the native language. Get a bit more comfortable by memorizing some key phrases.  Do you know a few greetings? Can you find the bathroom? Have you learned a few cultural taboos? Do you know how to the words for enter and exit? Good.  It will make a world of difference. A colleague of mine went to Germany not knowing the word for exit is ausgang. After leaving the airport in Germany, she remarked “Ausgang must be such a large town! Every exit is for that town!”

Next, Pack some verbs. We suggest “adapt” and “overcome.” As important as your favorite toothbrush and your newly discovered self-awareness and language skills, find room in your luggage for focus, patience and calmness.  Now, these will predictably get lost in your carry-on underneath stress, worry, overthinking and your desire to avoid mistakes at all costs. But you can find them and you will. If the culture shock is overwhelming, grab a book or talk to other expats. They can help you fill in the missing pieces you seek.

Then concentrate less on culture and more on business and your team. It is infinitely more rewarding to concentrate on the kaleidoscope of personalities before you than it is to label cultures. Individual stories, habits, ambitions, and thought processes are key to forging a successful team and future for an organization. Focus on people’s traits, such as dominance, and introversion versus extroversion. See who asks questions and listen to the types of questions they ask. Who speaks most? Who challenges you? Who needs more information? Who is passive? What are their strengths as individuals and within the group?

Notice where they sit and how they interact. Who sits together? Who works well together already? Use this initial assessment process to help you delegate tasks. Then remember to always reach for the focus, calmness and patience as it comes together in time.

Lastly, make room for respect and the results will come. There are many leaders who have impressive cultural understanding, but they lack the ability to empower others. While knowing local cultures will help you build trust, respecting each team member’s individual character will enable you to get results. By concentrating on their strengths, you can set concrete goals, make solid recommendations and delegate proper tasks. Concentrating on culture is more subjective and murky. You can define the culture, but you need to create a team or a business community where people can be themselves and – when placed in the right spot—can thrive. Keep in mind too a team that is in an environment which allows it to focus on personal strengths will be one that is more trustful and able to discuss cultural differences constructively.

These types of teams are unstoppable. These are the teams that achieve positive results faster than teams that focus only on cultural differences. Having culture in the bottom of your suitcase is good, but you needn’t pull it out to create a team that will be able to thrive as a cohesive unit once you are no longer there as overseer.

By Ilona Knudson

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