Reading people’s body language is an important facet of effective communication. If a person is nodding his head, does it mean no? It depends on whom you’re talking to. Further, if you’re speaking with someone of Indian descent, the answer depends on which province that person comes from. In this case, you may have to ask and get verbal confirmation. When management accounting and finance leaders communicate with people, whether they’re clients, direct reports, or peers, you need to factor in the context, including their cultural background, to know the meaning of their body language.
This insight comes from my experience living and working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country with residents of more than 200 nationalities. In the UAE, 89% of the population are expats, of which 51% are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka (IPBS). Only 2% are from my home country, China. In the financial department I’m working in, around 80% are from IPBS.
Although I’ve worked with people from different countries and relocated a few times in Asia during the past 20 years, there was still a period of culture shock for me after moving to the UAE in early 2021 in terms of adjusting to residents’ religions, ways of communication, dress code in public, and so forth. I worked with different teams in my employer’s corporate group and led a few process-improvement projects, including the accounting and finance modules in enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation.
How can you successfully play a leadership role in a multinational workplace environment? The following are some tips from my firsthand experience working abroad.
In the Middle East, for most Muslims, five prayer time slots per day are mandatory, even during working hours. Prayer rooms are in shopping malls, airports, and offices—basically everywhere. People often request a prayer break during meetings, especially ones that end up being longer than planned or that overlap with a designated prayer time. It’s natural for UAE locals to take prayer breaks, and they’re considered essential to have a refreshed mind and come back to work full of energy. After I was notified of this need, I tried to avoid prayer times when scheduling meetings with some buffer time built in.
Respect, coupled with open-mindedness, is so important. I usually associate different behaviors that are normal in other cultures with my own lifestyle, which consists of personal choices based on a different cultural background. People could feel this respect clearly and in turn gave me their respect by accepting my own culture.
BE A LEADER, NOT A BOSS
A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be a stereotypical boss to get the best joint team achievement. A leader’s role is to make the team work well together toward achieving common objectives while making good use of team members’ talents and benefiting from their diversity.
In a multinational corporate environment, several projects are being executed simultaneously at any given time. I had the opportunity to lead projects, for example, an ERP implementation involved in almost all business functions across all the company’s subsidiaries.
I’m now working in the corporate finance function and leading the group reporting module in the ERP implementation, which is the financial consolidation model for the company. In this model, the balance between the need of the group, clusters, and subsidiaries are quite important due to the different levels of consolidation required and the reporting needed from the various entities. The key users for the group reporting module are the finance teams.
After discussion with a management consultant, we defined the overall project-execution approach: Corporate executives lead the structure design of the group reporting process, and the subsidiaries get involved in detailed content design to balance the hierarchy requirement from the three levels: corporate, clusters, and subsidiaries. Regular communication channels were planned during the project execution timeline to make sure the key points could be captured and evaluated properly. This project is running well and on schedule.
CULTURAL VALUE-ADD VS. VALUE ADAPTOR
When new people from a different culture join the team, it’s better to embrace diversity as a cultural value-add instead of expecting them to adapt themselves to fit the existing culture without accommodation. Newcomers usually try to adapt to the new workplace environment. At the same time, we may make use of this diversity to consider different perspectives and become a more innovative team.
Rocío Lorenzo, a partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, conducted a research project with her team for 1,600 companies in eight countries around the world in 2017. They asked how innovative and diverse the companies are. To measure the first one, Lorenzo used innovation revenue, the share of revenues made from new products and services in the last three years, meaning creative ideas that have translated into products and services that have made the company more successful.
To measure diversity, six different factors, including country of origin, age, and gender, were used. The result of the data analysis was clear: More diverse companies are more innovative. A diverse and inclusive environment allows people to speak up and be their authentic selves, which boosts the potential of each employee and makes the company more creative and profitable.
My team contains people from more than 10 countries and with different education and work backgrounds. We regard everyone as a contributor to the team and achieved an excellent performance evaluation for the past year. Embracing diversity adds value in my personal life and career journey as I grow into my leadership roles managing the workflow of our team in a multinational environment.