2014.09.11 Leadership across culture gaps

Most immigrants have to relate to the local population in either a managerial role or as a peer or employee. In either role, their success builds in part on how good they are at building and maintaining personal relationships.

For those in a leadership role this is even more important. In this Linkedin blog by the Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, he talks about studies that link social skills to career success - and to failures because lack of these skills are among the top reasons C-level leaders are let go.

For those coming from "somewhere else" it can be difficult to gain these social skills fast enough. A lot of what social skills is about is understanding the unspoken rules, reading the body language of managers, peers, and employees, understanding tone and context in conversations, listening. In short: mastering the local communication culture.

Yet many immigrants are quite successful with startups in the San Francisco Bay area.

Agreed, in many immigrant startups the mix of employees seems to favor the culture from which the founder originates. It can hardly be surprising that in this sea of diversity, it can be easier to build rapport with somebody whose cues one can read.

But there seems to be more to it than that.

Could it be that the experience of having been an outsider imbues these immigrants with a little more empathy; make them try a little harder to read the situation because they have read it wrong before and paid the price?

But what about all the people who are relocated by their company in international mergers or through establishing offices in foreign countries? So many of these activities turn out disastrous for the company and/or the expatriates involved. Aren't they outsiders, too?

My guess is that there is a big difference in how humble some of these people (and organizations) are. If one goes out expecting to impose some corporate values on a foreign labor force, that is coming from a very different position than somebody fully aware that there are boatloads of unknown factors and survival depends on how adaptive one is.

Being adaptive is a survival skill of start up entrepreneurs, regardless whether they start up in their own country or abroad. Perhaps they are also more willing to adapt to a different culture and its social demands? Perhaps starting out with no social network whatsoever makes one more appreciative of these important personal relationships?

Or perhaps only the adaptive entrepreneurs stay in business long enough for us to hear about them?