The question for executive coaches is the following: how shall we adapt to the changing environment? Do we, for example, continue on using our current coaching rules and tools, possibly adapting some of them, or do we need to invent new concepts to cope with cultural differences and the new global marketplace? Are the precepts behind much of coaching theory culturally neutral or even applicable in a multicultural environment? How do I coach someone whose background is very different from my own? While cultural differences in management and business have been addressed by such authors as Hofstede, Trompenaars, Lewis, Marx, and Brake & Walker, the domain of intercultural coaching remains largely unexplored. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, most multinational companies until very recently have continued on in the “country-specific” mode of operations. They have been slow to incorporate the lessons learned by the GloCos and are now scrambling to catch up. Secondly, although the number of managers capable of dealing with multiple cultures is increasing rapidly, the coaches actually able to provide quality services oriented to the multicultural business environment are still very uncommon. This is not because of a lack of coaching expertise, but due to the fact that relatively few professional coaches have had concrete experience themselves in international operations. It is only now, with the arrival on the coaching scene of a certain number of former global executives, who acquired their years of international experience by having worked themselves in differing multicultural settings, that this need will start to be addressed.
In regards to coaching techniques, we can identify a number of challenges. Firstly, tools developed and appropriate for one culture, especially psychometric tests, might need to be reconsidered for another culture. Additionally, a significant number of the tools currently used in coaching were developed based on management techniques which are dated or inappropriate, and therefore unhelpful in a specific or multicultural environment. With the sudden arrival of "Chindia" (Contraction of China and India) and the increasing economic role of emerging countries, it appears that most of the collective coaching tools are analogies (for instance simulation games used in team coaching) and it exposes the asian coachees to "loosing face". With these tools, the participants are invited to make an analogy between the dysfunction in the game and the dysfunctions in the real life. Consequently, and this is a very occidental view, the more we fail, the more we learn. The problem is that orientals and asians hate to fail in presence of their peers...
Secondly, if we assume the coachee is in an executive position in a modern global corporation, the notion of hierarchy may be significantly changed. The global executive now relates to a cloud of superiors, subordinates, peers, customers, and service providers, some of whom may not even be employees of the same company. Written procedures may exist and everyone’s role may be described in a job definition, but a significant part of decision-making processes rely upon individual relationships and mutual trust. The new companies are made up of a fine-tuned camaraderie, where everyone has an area of expertise but serves a common vision. Cohesion is more important than discipline and action is the primary source of job satisfaction. Expectations are also key in the interactions between the coach and the coachee. In addition to the emotions generated by the interaction between two personalities in coaching, there is another emotional interaction which is caused by the coming together of two cultures. Most coaches have a good understanding of the psychological theories that attempt to explain human behaviour. But relatively few coaches are aware that the meeting of two cultures triggers something else which we can describe as an encounter between two different visions of life. Our response to these differences is not normally one we are conscious of, it is not at the level of emotions, but rather is expressed through cognitive processes such as prototyping, categorising and, ultimately idealising or pejorating. Our brain has a tendency to consider only the first hypothesis coming to the mind and an even stronger tendency to confirm it. For a french refusing a promotion is a sin, so a french coach is at risk to miss the point with a swedish coachee. Towards a Global Coach The average modern global executive is usually much more familiar with cultural differences than today’s average coach: he spends his whole life in international meetings and has no problem flying on the same day from Kuwait to Bolivia to mediate a business squall. Travelling is easier for the international manager than for the coach, and conference calls with peers, subordinates and bosses who are physically located in different countries have become the accepted method of communication in the international workplace. Dealing with cultural differences becomes a normal aspect of day-to-day business interactions. However, although most coaches have a limited familiarity with cultural differences at this time - many may have a better understanding soon. Becoming well-versed in cultural differences via training and self-education is quite possible, and is analogous to the therapist who has no personal experience of divorce but is trained well enough to be able to help his patient who is recently separated. In addition to her knowledge of human nature, acquired training and personal self-exploration, today’s coach should consider cross-cultural training. A special responsibility also rests with coaching supervisors who may misinterpret the actions of a global coach based on limited knowledge about cross-cultural differences and a lack of experience in multicultural business settings. As mentioned above, cultural differences have been studied in depth for many decades now. A vast array of multicultural learning tools and resources has subsequently been developed, and can be lead the interested coach from a general awareness of culture to the acquisition of a deeply integrated knowledge of cultural differences. It is now clear that a combination of didactic and experiential training methods provide the best path towards understanding and eventual cultural competency. Training on virtual teaming is less common. Current management classes usually focus on directing a team or facilitating projects. The problems of business at a distance are just now coming to the forefront together with other concerns regarding the use of modern technology. Specialists agree that maintaining human relationships has become increasingly important, not less so, with the use of technology. Despite breakthroughs in terms of usability and reliability, technology cannot replace the need for person-to-person contact and that most subtle and rich information source, non-verbal communication - that is lost over a long-distance phone line. Conclusion “If you don’t know where you’re going, it is difficult to say if you are lost.” This old Chinese proverb tells us that what we do should be tied to a deeper understanding of what we intend to accomplish. It does not mean that there is only one understanding or one truth, but rather like having a good map in hand when we arrive to a new city; it helps to know which way to turn next. The global coach has to understand that interactions between people are also interactions between cultures.
Hofstede G., Software of the mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1991.
Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner – See note 5.
Lewis, R, When cultures collide: managing successfully across cultures, Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, 1999.
Marx, E., Breaking Through the Culture Shock, Brealey Publishing, London, 2001.
Brake, T., Walker D., and Walker T., Doing Business Internationally: The Guide to Cross-Cultural Success, McGraw-Hill, 1995.
The only solid reference currently available is the text Coaching Across Cultures by Philippe Rosinski (2003).
A comprehensive starting point: Fowler S. & Mumford M., Intercultural sourcebook: Cross-cultural training methods, Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, 1995.