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Article:  Ten Steps to Prepare for Global Business Interactions

Let me break the bad news first: that “magic formula to conduct­ing business anywhere in the world” some people are looking for, it doesn’t exist.  Others argue that in inter­national business we should all “just be our­selves”, assuming that since everyone’s a human being, we all react in similar ways anyway.  Unfortu­nately, that argument falls flat on its face when put to the cross-cultural test.  Business cultures around the globe differ way too much to be easily addressed though any standard approach, and the best of intentions will get you nowhere if you cannot translate them into the sort of “cross-cultural language” the other side will understand.  If you want to success­fully expand your business abroad, be it through partnering with someone, out­sourcing, acquiring other companies, or building your own inter­national organization, you will need to spend time to indivi­dually prepare for each of the countries and cultures you plan to engage with.  Failure to do so before engaging often has huge penalties, from excessive start-up cost and reduced efficien­cies to complete rejection and project breakdown.

Not to despair, there’s good news, too: it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get it right.  Making inter­national engage­ments successful is easy if you follow a systema­tic approach.  Here’s a ten-step checklist that will help you get ready for any inter­national business inter­action:

#1 Realistically state your objectives

As with any business initia­tive, start with the end in mind.  Clearly define the goals and desired end state of your inter­national engage­ment.  This will help greatly when it comes to making some of the tough decisions you may face down the road.  If you are clear about what you want to achieve, it’ll be easy to decide whether it’s worth the price of admission, i.e., the effort required to make your cross-cultural business inter­action success­ful.

Be realistic about what you intend to achieve.  Reviewing your goals with some­one familiar with the target culture may help a lot.  For example, if your objective is to win a signi­ficant share of a market segment in Japan within five years, starting from scratch, that may or may not be realistic.  But if you’re shooting for the same goal within only two years, any expert will tell you you’re kidding yourself.  In Japan, fast changes in vendor bases rarely happen, and any successful business engage­ment requires a long-term commit­ment to the market.  As an American, used to working in one of the fastest-paced societies in the world, this may be diffi­cult to accept.  But you may still find the oppor­tunity to be valuable enough to make the commit­ment.

#2 Understand your own cultural values

This is the hardest part for many of us.  Analyzing our cultural biases is just not some­thing we normally do.  Although we embrace them and act in accor­dance with them in almost every­thing we do, our values and cultural preferences are mostly invi­sible and often remain sub­conscious.  Never­theless, they are exception­ally powerful, determi­ning the way we interact with others and how we make decisions.  They can become huge obstacles in cross-cultural inter­actions if we let them steer us without even noticing.

Not sure yet what this means?  Let’s explore it a bit further.  Everyone grows up with a set of cultural values that influ­ences behaviors and beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.  If you grew up in the United States of America and have not been exten­sively influenced by another culture, you may strongly support core values such as these:

  • the autonomy of each indi­vidual to make his/her own choices, as opposed to sub­mitting to group authority and decision making,

  • an expecta­tion that everyone should have similar chances in life, inde­pendent of one’s family back­ground and status,

  • a commit­ment to the freedom of speech, allowing anyone to freely speak their mind even if they don’t agree with what the majo­rity of people thinks,

  • the belief that action speaks louder than words, and that it is better to get going and correct the course along the way than to profoundly analyze a problem, allowing a long time before taking any corres­ponding action.

Obviously, this is not a compre­hensive list.  Also, not all of these values will be shared by every American to the same degree – after all, we’re all different.  But, all of them are prefer­ences shared by the vast majority of people who grew up within American culture.  Any of these values may meet with much weaker support when polling a sample of people in a foreign culture.  For instance, many Asians respect group autho­rity over indi­vidual auto­nomy in certain aspects, most Latin Americans think that one’s family back­ground right­fully has a huge influence on where one can go in life, people in some Asian cultures may view speaking one’s mind freely a sign of imma­turity, and few Japanese will ever launch into action before they and their group have care­fully analyzed the challenge and planned their approach.

Being clear about your core values and prefer­ences before inter­acting with other cultures is impor­tant.  It is only when you know what really matters to you that you’ll be able to decide when to stand firm and when to compro­mise if the (some­times inevi­table) culture clash happens.

#3 Understand the values of the target culture

Once you mastered Step 2, this one will be easier.  It will take inputs from others, though.  Either find a good coach whose insight into the funda­mentals of the target culture is exten­sive, or take the time to read a good book or two about it.  You will need to under­stand people’s orien­tation towards indivi­duals and groups, their orien­tation towards time (past/­present/­future), achieve­ment and power, what defines autho­rity, and so on.  All of this will help you greatly in defining your strategy, bridging the communi­cation gap, and building trust across cultures.

In most countries, it is also advis­able to learn a few facts about their history and cultural tradi­tions.  Not only will people appre­ciate the effort you made, which strengthens the rela­tion­ship, but it will also help you better under­stand their values and beliefs.

#4 Decide whether to accept what you may not appre­ciate

By far the biggest threat to the success­ful out­come of any cross-cultural en­counter is the unresolved clash of conflict­ing cultural values.  All too often, such clashes result in low mutual trust and the adoption of win-lose atti­tudes between the parties.  You, however, having already com­pleted Steps 2 and 3, now have the know­ledge required to identify potential areas of culture clash, so you’ll be able to make conscious deci­sions rather than “letting it happen to you”.  The impor­tance of this step cannot be over­emphasized.  It is pivotal to the success of your future cross-cultural business inter­actions.

Once you have identi­fied areas of potential culture clash, you get to choose how to deal with any conflict.  There are three options at this juncture:

  • Don’t engage.  This may sound harsh, but at times it could be the right con­clusion.  Gaps between cultures can some­times be too deep to be crossed, so if they are deemed critical and if an alter­native exists, it may be best to not engage.  If, for example, you value action orienta­tion and “go-getter” menta­lity very highly, and you are looking to hire hard-charging emplo­yees for a new subsi­diary in Asia, you may not want to engage in countries like Laos and Cambo­dia, where most people believe that one has little in­fluence over what will happen in the future.  While workers there can be highly moti­vated, their atti­tudes towards achieve­ment could none­theless become a conti­nuous source of frustra­tion for you, likely causing ongoing cultural confron­tations that hamper productivity.  You may want to consider alter­native loca­tions for your subsi­diary.

  • Identify ways to bridge gaps.  Being able to manage cultural differ­ences gives you a distinct advan­tage when conducting inter­national business.  Through proper communi­cation and trust building (see also Step 7), you will be able to keep many poten­tial culture clashes from impact­ing your engage­ment.  Openly bringing up the differ­ences may some­times be the best strategy.  However, it is advisable to take that route only if the other side had previous cross-cultural experi­ences of their own.  In many other cases, the key to success will be to show respect and under­standing for the other’s values while explain­ing how your own ones are differ­ent.  You will likely find the other party willing to reci­procate, demon­strating their respect for your own values.  Both will help tremen­dously in building a trusting relation­ship that won’t elimi­nate any differ­ences but will make them seem smaller.

  • Decide to accept what you may not appre­ciate.  Any great leader will agree that what ultima­tely matters in business is the end result, not how you got there.  This way of looking at things helps in the inter­cultural expe­rience.

Let’s pick the example of a German work team.  When starting a new engi­neering project in Germany, a local team may spend consi­derable time on upfront planning.  When they finally start exe­cuting after might have seemed like forever, they’ll usually move rapidly with high effi­ciency.  An American team, on the other hand, may spend limited time in the planning phase of the project, so the implemen­tation work will start much sooner. Correc­tions to the plan will be made as neces­sary, which every now and then intro­duces a need for rework loops, now slowing the progress.  Which approach is faster overall is often hard to decide – they both have their pro’s and con’s.  If you choose to focus on the end result, it may be much easier for you to appre­ciate the German approach in spite of its initial slow­ness, which some­what con­flicts with the strong action orien­tation found in American culture.

Mind you, the point is not at all for you to give up any of your values when enga­ging in inter­national business.  But by being fully aware of your prefer­ences and making conscious deci­sions about how to deal with con­flicts with the other side’s beliefs, you can now influence and control the outcome of your cross-cultural inter­action.

#5 Learn about the other side’s objec­tives, strate­gies, and common business prac­tices

As a good busi­ness leader, you wouldn’t interact with any other party without proper prepa­ration.  If that other party belongs to a differ­ent culture, you will need to spend more time prepa­ring, but the approach won’t be funda­mentally differ­ent.  The fact that you now work across cultures intro­duces another layer, so in addition to finding infor­mation that is specific to the other party, you now also need to obtain compre­hensive infor­mation about the country and culture.  Try to learn as much as you can about objec­tives, strate­gies, and prac­tices you are likely to encounter, such as how people in the foreign country deal with risk and uncer­tainty, their preferred negotia­tion tactics, their ways to make decisions, and more.  As before, seek the help of an expe­rienced coach or read exten­sively to get the required infor­mation.  The know­ledge you acquire in this step will give you a deci­sive edge in your foreign business inter­actions.

#6 Familia­rize yourself with local customs and manners

“When in Rome, do what the Romans do” is sound advice when it comes to customs and manners abroad.  Not knowing what is deemed proper beha­vior in a foreign country can be dama­ging.  Inevitably, your credi­bility and perceived trust­worthi­ness will suffer if you commit cardinal cul­tural sins.  It is amazing to observe how seeming­ly little things, like pub­licly blowing your nose in Japan, taking notes on another person’s busi­ness card in Korea, eating with your fork in your right hand in France, or quickly calling a busi­ness partner by their first name in Spain or Argen­tina, can hurt your repu­tation.  It doesn’t matter much whether the inter­action takes place abroad or at home.  Since few people ever manage to over­look what they have been taught to be impro­per behavior, you will still want to avoid cross-cultural hooplas even on your home turf.  Fortu­nately, count­less books and inter­cultural training courses are available to assist you with your prepa­ration.  Make sure you know every­thing you’ll need to know.

#7 Define your strategy

You have defined your goals and objec­tives, you ana­lyzed your own and the other party’s values and beliefs, you familia­rized your­self with the target culture.  Now, you’re ready to formu­late a strategy for your cross-cultural business inter­action.  At a minimum, it should include these phases:

  • Initial contact.  How are you going to make the right contacts and get the rele­vant people to inter­act with you?  In many cultures, for instance in several Arab and Asian countries, using a inter­mediary is a good idea.  In Step 5, you learned how to best estab­lish credi­bility in the target culture.  This is often criti­cal for the ultimate success of your inter­action.  Be prepared for the chal­lenge to be greater than in the U.S., where people are more recep­tive to dealing with rela­tive strangers once they see a bene­fit in doing so.

  • Trust building.  How are you going to move from the ini­tial contact to the point where the other party trusts you enough to consider a serious busi­ness engag­ement?  Again, this may prove more diffi­cult abroad than at home.  In many socie­ties, business­men may not be willing to engage in any negotia­tions before they have gained suffi­cient trust in you.

  • Negotia­tion.  How are you going to reach satis­factory business agree­ments while maintaining and deepening the other side’s trust?  What tactics are you going to employ, and how are you going to deal with negotia­tion techni­ques the other side is likely to use?  These vary widely bet­ween cultures, so make sure you’ve done your home­work.

          ( For more on this subject, see  Interna­tional Nego­tiation: How Do I Get Ready? )

  • Engagement.  How are you going to convert the ini­tial inter­action into a lasting busi­ness relation­ship, assuming that is your objec­tive?  In some countries, this can take a very long time, maybe even several years.  The rewards of estab­lishing a strong busi­ness relation­ship can be huge, though.  At the end, your business partner may be as commit­ted to your success as they are to their own.

#8 Prepare your team

Leader­ship is a team sport.  Nowhere is that more true than in the cross-cultural field.  Every member of your team will need to be suffi­ciently prepared for foreign inter­actions, going through a prepa­ration process similar to your own one.  It is espe­cially important to estab­lish a coope­rative culture within your organi­zation, with people under­standing the strengths and weak­nesses of all parties involved well.  It is also critical to estab­lish your team’s trust that all parties involved share the same set of objec­tives.

Other­wise, you are likely to find that a busi­ness relation­ship with a foreign partner can be seve­rely dama­ged by someone on your own team acting in a cultu­rally clumsy way.  Nume­rous com­panies have experi­enced situa­tions such as emplo­yees sending e-mails that foreign busi­ness partners inter­pret as hostile.  As iso­lated events within your own culture, most such inci­dents can be quickly resolved.  In inter­national busi­ness, however, they may have a deep and lasting impact, requir­ing exten­sive efforts to repair the relation­ship.  Properly prepa­ring every­one involved helps avoid this and is very impor­tant for the success of any interna­tional busi­ness inter­action.

#9 Time your approach right

Timing includes two compo­nents here: when to start, and how much time to budget.  A deci­sion about the former needs to con­sider local work / off-work cycles.  Trying to arrange contacts around Lunar New Year in China, Golden Week in Japan, the July / August summer vaca­tion period in Western and Southern Europe, and the like, will be read as a sign of cultural insen­siti­vity and may hamper or even stall your progress.  Trying to rush through the phases outlined in Step 7 is risky and, at least in some cultures, can be out­right lethal for the relation­ship.  Always keep in mind that the U.S. is one of the fastest-paced socie­ties in the world and that most people you deal with abroad will prefer a more leisu­rely approach.  In inter­national busi­ness, it pays to be both patient and per­sistent.

#10 Engage

Once you have com­pleted the above steps, it should be mostly smooth sailing from there.  You are well-prepared for the cross-cultural engage­ment, and you will be able to control many ele­ments that determine its success.  A final caveat is that it is wise to conti­nuously monitor your progress and the status of the relation­ships you are trying to build.  Success­ful engage­ments will be charact­erized by both sides feeling throug­hout their inter­actions that the other is “different, but coope­rative and trust­worthy”.  If anything happens that might adver­sely affect that feeling, you’ll need to take action right away.


Prepa­ring for a global business inter­action by taking the above ten steps requires time and effort.  Cross-cultural business success just doesn’t come for free.  But the oppor­tunity usually more than warrants paying the price of admis­sion.  To meet your business objec­tives, you’ll want to control your own destiny.

One question that is brought up fre­quently remains unanswered:  “Why me?  In my cross-cultural encounters, can’t I simply expect the other side to do the prepa­ration work, so they’ll under­stand what matters to me and act accor­dingly?”

The answer is obvious:  Yes, you can do that.  It just won’t work well.  The ideal scena­rio is that both sides go through the proper prepa­ration process to maximize the effi­ciency of the cross-cultural inter­action.  However, consider that if one side is prepared and the other is not, the former will always keep the upper hand.  They will be better posi­tioned to control the inter­action to their advan­tage, they will know how to influence the relation­ship between you, and they will be in a much stronger negotia­tion posi­tion.

In other words, they will be in control of the inter­action.  Don’t you always want your side to be that party?

Printable PDF version written by  Lothar Katz

( Copyright 2004-2015, Leadership CrossroadsTM )

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