One of the great joys of my life is the amount of traveling I’ve been able to do as a result of my work as an HR leader. I’ve visited 61 different countries, interacted with leaders from dozens more and lived abroad on multiple expat assignments. For someone who’s spent most of her career working in the United States, it’s been an eye opening and educational experience that showed how other countries approach leadership and the workplace.
Living and working outside the U.S. provided me with very tangible examples of how it feels to be an outsider in a way that just visiting a place doesn’t. The lifelong lessons I took away from these experiences are things I still use every day.
Being an American overseas is challenging. There’s a perception that one has to overcome about Americans being brash, demanding and pushy, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, being too nice, too inauthentic and too positive.
When you enter a new work situation with that kind of baggage, you feel aware, sometimes acutely, that you’re treated differently. This can impact your ability to get things done and it can impact your sense of connection to the organization you’re there to support.
Although I’ve experienced being “different” in many ways throughout my life, I remember the first time I realized that what I was experiencing overseas was EXACTLY what I try to combat as an HR professional – being made to feel like an outsider for just being who you are, but defined by someone else’s expectations.
I was having lunch in the cafeteria in the UK with European colleagues. It was the anniversary of September 11. The TVs were showing coverage of the 9/11 observances in New York and Washington and I was watching quietly. Having worked in DC and knowing a ton of NYC people (including my husband’s uncle who was in the World Trade Center that day), it felt heavy.
Out of the blue, someone looked at me and announced to the entire table, loudly, that they didn’t feel sorry for me or any American about 9/11, that, because Europeans had been dealing with similar situations for centuries, it was a non-event. Americans were being so dramatic about it and any emotions I had were unacceptable. The coworker then went on a rant about Americans in a way that was very personal toward me.
Instead of feeling like a part of the HR leadership team for the region (which I was) in a company we all worked for, I was separate, different, an outsider. It was a very shocking emotional experience and a tangible lightbulb moment about being an outsider. I literally had the thought, “Oh, this is what it feels like to be stereotyped, judged, diminished, disrespected and dehumanized.”
Through that exchange, I came away with a very concrete understanding of the concept of diversity and the value of inclusion – from a perspective that I may never have been exposed to otherwise.
There are less glaring examples of behavior that made me feel like an outsider that I was able to mostly navigate with a little more insight and experience. There were overt things, such as constant comments and comparisons between American traits and the traits of whatever country/culture I was in, or people routinely pointing out things I either said and did or didn’t say and didn’t do. Even small things could make me feel like an outsider, like using an exclamation point to indicate enthusiasm only to be asked if I was expressing anger.
There were also more subtle instances of being made to feel like an outsider – like being told something over and again when it was unclear what was truth, what was fiction and what was an inside joke I didn’t begin to understand.
Larger challenges arose from my outsider status, challenges that required me to help others learn about the importance of all of us working together. Occasionally I’d be left out of conversations requiring my input because my colleagues chose to speak in their native language. These incidents went beyond treating me differently, they impacted our ability to achieve our larger goals.
Ultimately, recognizing and understanding that feeling of being an outsider – and developing skills to overcome it – made me a better human resources leader. I experienced firsthand the frustration that alienated employees feel when all they want is to contribute, be included and be valued.
Beyond a healthy dose of perspective, working overseas taught me a lot about working with new teams and leading diverse groups. I’ve collected a few of the most valuable lessons for you to incorporate on your next trip overseas (or your next weekly meeting).
Everyone Has The Same Needs
The one overwhelming truth that I discovered while working overseas was that, fundamentally, all workers and leaders have the same desires and motivations – no matter where they’re from. People everywhere have a deep need to be seen, heard, valued, and to bring value. As always, the more I expanded the way I thought about people as a collective, the better I understood that true leadership is about connecting with individuals.
Find a way to see, hear, value and acknowledge the contributions (bringing of value) of those you work with in ways that resonate with them.
Curiosity Is The Key to Bridge Building
Establishing credibility with an overseas team (or any team) requires a definite warming up period. It can be counter-productive to come in and immediately question everything they’re doing without seeking to understand why or gain any valuable context they have to share. Instead, approach new situations from a place of curiosity without judgment.
To be deeply curious without judgment serves you incredibly well in building trust and in seeing the unique gifts in other cultures. People can sense when you are holding space for them despite whatever differences you may have.
Respect Cultural Differences
When you are educated on cultural differences, pay attention and respect them. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to overcome them or you’re absolutely guaranteed to experience them, but respect the wisdom. Once you understand and better appreciate different leadership styles, you can integrate more easily into the leadership structure and have a stronger influence and impact. You’ll also be able to navigate cultural idiosyncrasies better.
In the U.S., a simple conversation may set people running at full speed on an initiative that leaders from other cultures consider to still be in discussion. In certain cultures, disagreement may be communicated in very subtle ways that can only be gleaned if you listen and watch closely.
To cite a real-world example, I once had a highly respected colleague in France. He told me he was in strong support of an effort I was leading and was in complete agreement. I received a call later that day from our mutual boss telling me my colleague disapproved of what I was doing, despite the previous conversation where it seemed like we were on the exact same page! Strong understanding of others’ approaches to business keep you from getting blindsided.
Closer Teams Work Better
One of the biggest differences between leaders overseas and leaders in the U.S. is the investment they make in team interactions beyond the workday. Multi-day off sites and team dinners are the norm to bring people together across cultures.
With team members typically geographically dispersed with many unique differences, a greater emphasis on learning more about each other and the places that you live and work can help unite you in your similarities and differences. This commitment to teambuilding doesn’t just benefit overseas organizations; it can also pay dividends in any of your leadership efforts.
Working overseas as much as I have has been immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally. I think that every leader could benefit from the chance to experience life as an “outsider.” But if you’ve got no plans to get on an international flight anytime soon, you can still apply these lessons to your career. The most important takeaway is that leadership is about connecting with people. To really be impactful in the workplace you must empathize with, value and communicate value to the people you rely on to do great work.