In the Midst of Cultural Differences – Leadership in Europe and in Asia

Juuso HämäläinenOver the past 18 months, I have had a great opportunity in being given the responsibility for a mix of teams from Europe and Asia and I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned in the process of effecting change.

One of the first things you often run into are people being dismissive or skeptical about how things can be applied to different cultures. People who lack cultural awareness and don’t see employees as human beings tend to categorize others based on stereotypes, whereas people leaders just see human beings with different social values but with the same basic feelings and needs underneath.

To explain some of the skepticism I’ll explain briefly my usual leadership style:

  • Be human. Openly talk about emotions, and expect others to do so too.
  • Extend a high level of trust and offer autonomy.
  • Focus on the bigger picture and alignment.
  • Caring and demanding – take people and their feelings and needs into account but keep raising the bar. Treat people as if they had already realized their near term potential and keep them out of their comfort zone.
  • Show appreciation frequently and remember to be thankful for successes.

Many people were telling me this approach is bound to fail in Asia, because:

  • people are afraid of failure and will be too petrified to even try
  • the manager needs to have all the answers
  • the employees will not speak up about their concerns to a person in a position of authority

However, following just a few basic principles of leadership and team dynamics it was possible to achieve great results also in Asia with the same approach. Briefly covering the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni:

  • Absence of trust leads to invulnerability. Address by going first and being human by showing vulnerability.
  • Avoidance of conflict leads to false harmony where people will not disagree out of fear of losing face. The leader needs to mine for conflict to ensure disagreements are aired.
  • Lack of commitment leads to ambiguity. The leaders should force clarity and closure on matters and areas of responsibility.
  • Avoidance of accountability leads to low standards. The leader needs to confront difficult issues and demand accountability for both behavior and results.
  • Inattention to results leads to being ego driven. It’s important to drive for collective goals where the team’s success helps the individuals succeed.

All these dysfunctions seem to be exactly the same in Asia as they are in Europe. Also the approach to addressing these is similar – as a leader you need to go first, show initiative and ensure that you’re being seen as a human being. The most difficult thing and difference in leading people in Asia was establishing a deep enough trust with the whole team that the people feel comfortable bringing up their concerns and disagreements or uncertainty in a group setting.

Some things worth trying in a situation like that are:

  • Personal stories to get to know each other (leader goes first) outside the work – how people have ended up being shaped into the person they are today
  • Feedback sessions – both good and improvement areas, can be anonymous at first but the deeper you go the more it should be face to face
  • Appreciations and feelings covered at the end of a meeting as a topic in itself to draw attention to things that are not directly related to results

Applying similar leadership principles with Asian cultures as with European cultures proved very effective and the outcome has been a major increase in engagement and significant improvement in results.  As in my experience, the key to good leadership is to remember the people and their feelings underneath the culture façade.

The writer works as the Senior Manager of IT-services at F-Secure and is based both in Finland and Malaysia. He helps executives to develop their leadership skills and competencies by coaching, listening and challenging. You can connect with Juuso on LinkedIn.

Leader Plays a Big Role in Meaningful Volunteer Work

Anna CajanusFour years ago I was studying in Santiago, Chile. During my studies, I got to know a few really great people also from El Salvador, which is a small, beautiful developing country in Central America. A year later, when back in Finland, I invited them to join my birthday party. Of course they couldn’t travel across the world, but this invitation led to something bigger.

I found out that one of my friends was starting a Teach for All initiative in El Salvador called Enseña por El Salvador. Due to Finland’s good reputation in education, I asked if he wanted some help. In the beginning of 2012 I gathered up a team of Finnish teachers and teachers-to-become and later some Salvadoran living in Finland joined us as well. This has been a truly meaningful project but as the beginning of the Enseña por El Salvador training has been postponed several times, it has at times been challenging to remember the meaningfulness.

Further on, even when the work is meaningful it sometimes requires some tasks that you don’t enjoy that much and – especially in voluntary work – sometimes you might have something more urgent to do. Here, the role of the leader plays a big role.

I find that it is important to clearly define what our goal is and what concrete actions each of us needs to take to achieve this goal. This helps us to define our roles and responsibilities. When defining the roles and responsibilities, the (voluntary) workers should be encountered as individuals: what kind of ambitions and wishes they have, and what do they want to learn and gain.

We track the desired actions, which helps us to clarify what we are doing and connects also the not-that-inspiring tasks to the meaningful goal we want to achieve together. As the goal might seem distant – and as in our case, it is moving further all the time –, it is essential to celebrate the little advancements. We have, for example, made traditional Salvadoran pupusas together to thank ourselves for the good work so far. This last sentence actually includes two more important tools for motivating: good food and saying “thank you, great job” for the tasks well performed. (Ok, maybe good food is not that important in working life, but who wouldn’t prefer a meeting with healthy snacks to one without.)

I feel that I haven’t always performed as well as I could have, partly because of lack of established processes. Luckily our team members are such great professionals with a big heart that they continue working with the project nevertheless.

Even though this project is run by volunteers, the same management principles apply to working life: we need to set clear goals and concrete actions to achieve the goals as well as define clear roles and responsibilities. And you should never forget to celebrate the achievements and say thank you – and provide good food.

The writer is Cloudriven’s expert in organizational development and holds a Master’s degree in Technology. Whenever she’s not working, she volunteers to provide education for kids in El Salvador, and to create a better world through scouting.

Bean Bags and Circus Tricks Won’t Change the Corporate Culture for Better

Panu LuukkaI was taking Peppi, my 7-year-old daughter to her grandparents, when she made an announcement from the back seat of our car: “Dad, I’ve started to like cheese”. This liking of cheese was a big thing for our family, as Peppi, still a growing child, wasn’t very fond of any dairy products besides ice cream. To secure the necessary amount of calcium for growth, we had had to be somewhat imaginative with the food choices; hence the introduction of cheese to the diet was excellent news for us. When I asked Peppi, how she had learned to like cheese, our back seat philosopher gave me an exhaustive answer: “Dad, that’s just how life sometimes is.

She couldn’t have been more right, and right at that moment all the big pieces fell into place. Last week I had heard Sir Ken Robinson say the exact same thing almost as elegantly: Life is never linear, it’s always organic. We can’t explain and manage everything with 100 % certainty. What we can do, is try to design the environment so that the probability for the desired things to happen will increase. In business, the best way to manage probability in organic entities made out of people, also known as organizations and companies, is to affect the corporate culture.

”Corporate culture is all that happens when nobody’s looking.” This is how William Wolfram, the founder of DealDash, defined corporate culture to me. I haven’t yet found a better definition for corporate culture anywhere and believe me, I’ve tried. William’s definition captures the meaningfulness of corporate culture very well; culture affects everything and on all levels of the organization. For your organization, corporate culture can either be a strength or your biggest obstacle to success.

When it comes to corporate culture, it’s crucial to remember that there are no universal rights or wrongs. The corporate cultures of Google, Futurice or SuperCell are universally no better than the cultures of VR Group or Alko. The “rightness” of the culture is always defined in relation to what the company has decided to be and what the company’s goals are.

Every company has its own culture, whether it’s being intentionally managed or not. Corporate culture should always be managed, as it is very unusual for something good or excellent to happen by accident. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but in this case exceptions are as rare as ham on the Jewish Christmas table. I’ve come across many early stage startups that have intuitively made all the right choices from the culture’s point of view. What has become a challenge for many organizations, is growth and maintaining the corporate culture in the growth phase. In order to sustain the right and desired culture during rapid growth, you need to stop and become aware of the presumptions and building blocks that have lead your corporate culture so far. These elements have to be intentionally attached to the culture of the growing company; in spite of the well-paid, ex-Nokian HR Manager, who would like to build this startup into a new Little Nokia.

On the other hand, if you don’t – or don’t want to – understand the basic laws of the human mind, there’s always the chance to manage and build corporate cultures actively wrong. Here’s a concrete and easy example: if there is a strong belief in the organization that collaboration brings better results than individual achievements, the reward and recognition system should be built to support collaboration, not individual performance.

People often ask me, what is the ”easiest” way to build sustainable corporate culture. You can’t change corporate culture with bean bags, ball pits or any other circus tricks for that matter. The best and the most sustainable way to build corporate culture is to start with the basics, and ask ourselves, what is our purpose of being and where do we want to go. However, the following questions are the most essential regarding corporate culture: what kind of team do we need and how should we work in order to reach our goals? The answers to these questions will define the company’s authentic and meaningful values, which should be made real in the daily working life.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it is easy, but it takes a heck of a lot of effort, and you have to be systematic and persistent. It’s much like what my friend Kimmo Kedonpää has said about golf: “Golf is all about luck. The more you practice, the better luck you will have.” There are no shortcuts to success, so get back to work!

The writer is the founder and CEO of Naqu Oy, Finland’s first and only consulting company specialized solely on designing corporate cultures. This consultant, coach and inspirer has worked more than ten years with HR, leadership and management.

P.s. If you don’t believe that values and value-based leadership will bring competitive advantage to your company, you shouldn’t waste your time and money for trivial matters. (in Finnish) will create stockmarket-credible values for your company in just 30 seconds.

Successful Marketing is Human-to-Human – Serve, Listen and Meet Your Clients as People

Riina Jokinen”Irresistable freshness, unbelievable value” states a bottle of Fairy detergent. Ridiculously over the top statement, but even this tacky value proposition doesn’t shake my loyalty off. Brand interaction goes on every single time the foam starts to rise in my sink. It won’t be easy to convince me to try some other product.

As an entrepreneur, I’m a very satisfied customer of Tommi Kivistö. He sells me the phones I need and takes care of the cell phone plans. He makes sure I’m satisfied and explains all the bureaucracy in a way I can understand. The new logo of the Finnish operator Elisa decorates his workspace. Sometimes I wonder, how that money could’ve been spent to train other people to be more like Tommi.

Because that’s what marketing and selling to human beings is all about: encounters and experience. For there is no more B-to-C or B-to-B; there’s only Human-to-Human (H2H). There are people even behind that plastic bottle of Fairy detergent.

Indeed, It Was So Much Easier Before

I look back at the good old times somewhat amused. In consumer marketing, it used to suffice that the brand focused on 25–40-year-old women, whereas in B-to-B, dozens of product press releases were written and hundreds of cold calls made. Brand promises were sharpened, but few thought about how the promises should be redeemed. Corporate logos were used as references, past years and projects were supposed to be a guarantee of competence, and innovation was demonstrated with the company Flash site administrated by IT department.

One after another, leading companies’ offered their cost-effective value-added services. Presentations were filled with stock photo handshakes and graphs. But did they cut off the fat and improve the service?

More Listening and Service, Less Spam

The most typical way of listening to the customers has been using forms once a year. In H2H business, listening happens all the time in all the channels. Knowledge can be collected, analyzed and reacted to easily and inexpensively if you know how and what you want to measure. When you’re well aware of what makes your customers happy, you can use the knowledge to choose the right direction and the right actions.

Customer service should not be separated from sales. A service ticket or in-store customer service is just a grain of sand in Sahara. You’ve got to recognize the customer paths and moments of truth both online and offline, and offer a great customer experience in all of these. This can only happen by salesperson, who is 100 % present and professional, or by perfectly functioning service machine. Even a solution salesperson will get better results by following, liking and listening. When these experiences are shared through the CRM system, it’s much easier for the salespeople to make use of the information and materials provided by marketing, and other colleagues.

You need to optimize your communication far more than search engine rankings. You need to sharpen, focus and distribute the message in many channels. You need to try new things and fail fast. You need to produce content that develops the customer’s skills, and customer stories and examples that increase desired actions. You need to communicate to potential and current customers – even those that are about to leave you. Marketing automation can help you, but it won’t produce the content for you.

Manage Encounters and Reward Satisfaction

A modern H2H company can witness on their dashboards, how good employee experience will result both in excellent customer experience and great profits in the long run. In order to achieve this, a change in leadership and management is needed. The grass-roots level needs knowledge, skills, tools and power to strive for excellent customer service. Continuous interaction should be allowed, and good achievements should be shared and rewarded instantly when they take place. Encouraging social sharing and liking will be a great start, but more complex social technologies are also available.

Fairy detergent could occasionally ask me in Facebook, what odors I prefer, or proactively offer me chances to try out their new dishwasher tablets. Tommi could call or mail me slightly more often or follow me on Twitter. On the other hand, everything is fine as it is at the moment. We’re having a dialogue.

Writer is the CEO and founding partner of Kram as well as a tech-savvy business thinker and a wannabe blogger, who loves easygoing and important knowledge work and plans to write a book titled “Culture Happens”.

Knowledge Doesn’t Change People’s Behavior – Great Leaders Do

To celebrate the Holiday Season, we will publish a blog post every weekday until the Christmas Eve. The December blog series will examine the changing landscape of leadership and management. Various guest writers will bring their expertise to the blog, and we will cover such topics as customer experience, sales, marketing, business intelligence, employee engagement and thought leadership from management point of view.

Knowledge Doesn’t Change People’s Behavior – Great Leaders DoDuring the last couple of years, I’ve taken part in the workforce survey conducted by the Statistics Finland. What this means is that they’ve asked me a few questions on the phone concerning the workforce in Finland. In return for my answers this year, I received an interesting and nifty booklet titled “Finland in Figures 2014”. The booklet contains a huge amount of figures and graphs that can be used to make fascinating observations.

Let’s assume that you work as a sales manager in a macaroni manufacturer in the food industry. In that case you might actually be interested, when your manager tells you that according to the index, the price of groceries and non-alcoholic beverages has increased 17.7 percent since 2010 (booklet p. 3). Your manager also lets you know that at the same time the average price of 400-gram macaroni package has increased 4.9 percent, from 0.41 euros to 0.43 euros (p. 4). Do you feel like you’re being managed here? Is this true leadership in action?

Of course not. The act of managing should have consequences. Either you should change your behavior or make a conscious decision to carry on your work in the same way as before. I argue that this hugely significant piece of information didn’t get you to strive for higher macaroni package prices in sales negotiations, and it most likely didn’t encourage you to actively seek new ideas to grow the sales volume of your key accounts. You shouldn’t feel bad for not taking action. You’re just acting like all of us. You’re human.

On average, people don’t change their behavior based on knowledge, because that is not the natural way for us to act. How many children will put away their toys immediately after playing with them, if you tell them that the room is messy? Not one of them.

Knowledge as such doesn’t affect our actions; the reason for behavior change lies elsewhere. C-level executives don’t change their actions just because they’ve heard the profits have decreased. The need to alter behavior is caused by the triggers related to the fact that there is a decrease in profits. For the executive, the decrease in profits could, for example, mean that:

  • the goal is running away,
  • he might lose his authority,
  • there are less resources to execute the business plan or
  • he won’t get his bonuses.

If the situation would be the other way around, the increase in profits would give the executive a feeling of gratification. The same triggers are now producing positive feelings. Few of us voluntarily seek situations, where you could hurt your own feelings.

You need knowledge to understand, which direction you should manage the behaviors. But don’t believe in the illusion that you could actually manage or lead with knowledge. You can only manage and lead people, not things. In order to influence people’s actions, you should first find out, what triggers them to change their behavior and what are the things that make them feel gratified.

We constantly work with client projects, in which we use knowledge to understand the current situation of the organization. After seeing the big picture, we advise our clients to manage and lead people by influencing their motivation factors. This can be done with or without technology.