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Coaching in the Cross-Cultural Context


In many organizations, leadership coaching has become the method of choice for enhancing executive job performance.  Executive coaching has become a commonly accepted leadership practice in part because companies experience the its magnitude of return on investment (ROI) is large.

Coaching is no longer used just for remediation, as a solution for a problem executive who is in danger of derailment.   Rather, it is more often used now to enhance the performance of high-potential individuals to help groom them in specific areas.  Some of these areas include leadership competency development, transitioning from a command-and-control style to manager-as-coach, adapting to a merger, adjusting to an increase in scope, just to name a few.  One of the most common situations in which coaching can be useful, is in a cross-cultural context, that is, when the person must learn new behaviors in order to adapt to a new culture.  

What is coaching in a cross-cultural context? 

As globalization and the speed of change increases, companies require that their executives be constantly prepared to run a large enterprise.  Executives must learn the requirements of the new job so quickly so that they can make correct decisions early in their new assignments, minimizing risk for the corporation.  In normal everyday situations requiring coaching, there is often a gap between the competencies the executive brings to the job and those that are required for successful performance.  In the situation in which there is a cultural difference of some sort, the gap can be enormous.  

Examples of situations in which the cross-cultural context is salient may be when a person is transferred from one country to another, makes a job move to a foreign-owned company, or even just comes from a different sub-culture within a country.  The overall situation may initially feel very overwhelming as the executive is suddenly faced with learning a new language, learning different ways of behaving and expectations, and understanding and interpreting others behavior in a new light. Nevertheless, companies often demand that the executives thrust in the roles still function at a very high level, while leading large teams of people. Compounding the task is the very public environment in which every move made by the executive is often under scrutiny.  Coaches can increase an executives chance of success in these situations by helping him or her learn the new information and skills to be most effective.  

How do you prepare expatriates for cultural transitions? 

In general, expatriates (those who are relocated to live and work in a country outside their own) who are effective in the new culture have several things in common.  They communicate well. They interact socially with local people.  They also accept the local culture as being valid for the local people, even if they disagree with some aspects of it.    They have learned about the history, politics, religion and many other aspects of the local culture.   

There are a number of competencies which enable a smoother cross-cultural adjustment and which may serve as the focus for a coaching engagement.  They are:

  • Cultural sensitivitysensitivity and respect for differences in cultural and business norms and behaviors.

  • Interpersonal Skillsunderstanding and dealing effectively with people from different cultures, positions and levels; interpersonally perceptive in a multi-cultural environment.

  • Resilience/Copinghandling frustration well; dealing effectively with disappointments or rudeness.

  • Family Support/Adaptabilityspouse and family members are knowledgeable and supportive of an international assignment and who are interested in experiencing new opportunities in a different culture.

Coaching in the cross-cultural context often deals with some aspect of these competencies.  Coaching can help executives reflect on new situations encountered, become comfortable operating in the new environment, and exceed expectations in the fulfillment of the job.  

How do you find the right coach for a cross-cultural context? 

Finding the right match between an executive and a coach is a subjective process.  In addition to the commonly asked questions used to select competent, credible coaches, some questions that are especially appropriate in the cross-cultural context are: 

  • Describe a coaching case in which cross-cultural issues were in the forefront.  How did you handle it from beginning to end?  What types of problems were addressed and how did you approach them?  What was the outcome?

  • What do you consider to be the most important competencies for an executives successful adjustment to a new culture?  Give examples of how you coach to those competencies.

  • What types of people relate best to you?  What types of people do you prefer not to coach?

In sum, business is becoming more global. As such, we are likely to see the need for more talented individuals to work across geographic boundaries.  As they do so, sensitivity to diversity becomes an important competitive advantage.  Executive coaches, like Industrial and Organizational Psychologists, who are trained and experienced in cross-cultural work issues can produce a high return on investment because they help improve an executives performance in another culture and can help to achieve business results.  

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