Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

To truly embrace cultural differences in business, you need a new pair of shoes every day

Lindsay Shelton, manager, strategic partnerships, A Million Ads

These articles have been written by the second cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

“Diversity of Thought” has become a cliché. What does it even mean to have people thinking ‘diversely’ in your business? 

The case has been made many times for diversity when it comes to gender and race. In fact, research states that when companies invest in diversity schemes, revenue increases. Specifically, companies are “15% more likely to experience above-average financial returns” (McKinsey & Company). Any leader failing to recognise how diversity will make their company a better one should probably stop leading. 

When you work for a global organisation, managing multi-market campaigns, the diversity is already there, but too often I’ve seen the same process:  top-down global head office hierarchies that fail to account for cultural nuances. In this context, that means different ways of thinking based on history, environment, education systems, the economy, the weather, even what’s popular on tv in each market! A set of ‘global’ assets or templates made in one dominant region is too old-school and ignorant a way to function. 

You know that phrase “walk a mile in someone’s shoes”? Well, holding a global role and doing it justice is like wearing a new pair of shoes every single day. An ongoing dedication to empathy and understanding. For ‘diversity of thought’ best practice, what is needed is a platform that allows individuals to access insights from as many different sources as possible, ongoing.

What does this platform look like? 

When companies launch into new markets, it’s common to have a clear go-to-market strategy that considers market analysis, marketing selection, marketing mix, customer acquisition and so on. Strategy is key, but we are disregarding the most important element point: People. Broad stroke strategy doesn’t work for daily interactions. Open-mindedness, respect and learning must be core values of any global team, and here are four ways you can make sure that sticks. 

  1. Study

How can you start to wear a new pair of shoes every day? It’s essential to have someone on your team monitoring the basic social, legal, economic and technological status of each market, on a monthly basis. 

Let me give you a bad example. I  was once part of a pitch team that advocated the power of personalised advertising using location to a French client.  No one on the team had checked that data privacy and GDPR was a very controversial topic at the time. We didn’t win the pitch. 

This is a mistake we’ll never make again… for every pitch and every client, we ensure the whole team (not just legal experts!) are fluent in the practical and privacy considerations of each market. Research isn’t a one-and-done task, but an ongoing accumulation of data and information.

  1. Listen

Do you actually know how to listen? The University of Nebraska (1997) found that when a salesperson applies three key elements of listening; sensing, evaluation and responding, the results will be a “more positive association between the customers perception of a sales person’s listening behaviour and their trust in the salesperson.”  

In short, if you demonstrate that you’re listening to a person, that person will trust you.

Sensing is reading the room and hearing what your client is saying (not just waiting to speak!) Evaluating is applying meaning, opportunities and blockers that you picked up from the conversation and body language. Finally, responding is to communicate back, whether it is to ‘inform, control, share feelings or ritualize.” The best thing about this study is how much importance they put on the unsaid conversation. Use your people-sensing magic and make a connection (virtually or in real life)! Don’t just broadcast to the room, immerse yourself in it. 

  1. Be Self-Aware

This is arguably the hardest thing to manage in business. When you work in a global role, letting people give you feedback on your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots can only allow for more productive interactions. 

My personal experience of moving to the UK in my early twenties was a big ‘bubble bursting’ moment. There were so many learning experiences, but one, in particular, shifted my way of communicating and perception of myself. I was told to be less direct in my emails and in how I spoke to clients. This was a surprise because in the US I was pushed to be more direct. 

I second-guessed myself; was I coming across as rude? What other preconceptions do my clients have about me that I had no idea about? This began the journey of becoming more culturally sensitive and introspection of myself and how I fit into these different cultures. I won’t always act on the feedback, but I’m now truly self-aware enough to consider it.

Working with individuals from other countries and cultures is a gift. It allows you to capitalise on your knowledge gaps and find opportunities. Be thoughtful and conscientious in your interactions to expand your understanding of your client and what motivates them. Always be true to yourself, but also be mindful of cultural norms, religious norms, personalities and situational circumstances and what the client’s preconceptions will be of you and your company. 

  1. Care

In a very anti-corporate approach: You. Should. Care. The power of empathy is hard to measure and hard to train, but the impact is awesome. When you ask questions about people’s experiences and understanding, when you repeat back to a client what they’ve previously expressed; if you show people that you care, they notice.  

Tell your international colleagues that you understand the challenges and opportunities, and it makes for happier, more respectful relationships. As Paulo Nutini sang “I said, hey I put some new shoes on, and everybody’s smiling, it’s so inviting”! 

That commonly-used cliche ‘diversity of thought’ is a red herring. What we need isn’t diversity of thought… it’s open-mindedness. That’s it! An ability that everyone should hold to think differently and never stop learning. Stretch yourself, listen more, and at the very least, get your feet primped and ready for all the shoes you need to try on.