International HR: Helping managers go global

Our Expert

Julian Clover is director of ­WorldWork, a consultancy that provides tools such as questionnaires, videos and coaching manuals to help managers and professionals build the skills and knowledge they need to work successfully in an international environment. For more information, e-mail julian.clover@worldwork.biz

One of the main challenges that globalisation brings to organisations is the task of equipping managers and professionals to work in unfamiliar settings and motivate teams from different cultures.

The challenge can be broken down into three parts:



  • Identifying the most important skills
  • Assessing employees’ strengths and weaknesses in those skills
  • Helping people develop their capabilities.

Key skills

International management consultancy WorldWork has drawn together 22 key skills to form an international set of competencies. They range from welcoming strangers – being keen to build relationships with people from different backgrounds – through to clarity of communication – communicating in ways that minimise the risk of misunderstanding.

The skills fall into two broad groups: ‘push’ qualities that enable people to drive their proposals forward, and ‘pull’ qualities that start with understanding others and seeing things from their perspective.

Those who have not yet worked abroad tend to be stronger in ‘push’ skills, while those with international experience have developed their ‘pull’ qualities. ‘Pull’ skills are essential for team-building in new cultures, but ‘push’ skills are also vital to achieve goals.

So what are some of the most valuable skills, and how can individuals be helped to develop them?

Tips for success

Be an ‘active’ listener. This means not only taking account of what people say, but making sure you have understood it. People can be encouraged to develop this skill by paraphrasing what others say and repeating it back to them: “So am I right that you’re saying XYZ?” This not only avoids misunderstanding, but shows the other person that you are genuinely interested in what they say.

Have a spirit of adventure. Those who work successfully abroad tend to have a well-developed spirit of adventure. They get a buzz out of entering the unknown and testing their own ability to adapt.

A spirit of adventure can be encouraged in obvious ways – not just through extreme sports like bungee jumping, but by spending time alone in an unfamiliar country. In the particular context of foreign assignments, people’s willingness to take risks at work can often be increased if they are confident that other risks, for example relating to their families’ health and security, are being well managed.

Create new alternatives. One source of frustration in international teams is that colleagues come to a project with different assumptions about decision-making, and this can derail progress. However, this diversity can be turned into a strength if leaders blend different ideas to create new alternatives. This can be encouraged by measures such as ensuring that international teams are balanced, and not dominated by one cultural group.

Leaders should also get to know individuals in their own context. Are they typical of their community, or are they unconventional in some way? This kind of discussion ensures leaders see team members as individuals, rather than national stereotypes.

Expose your intentions. An important ‘push’ skill for international managers is making intentions clear, and aligning local activities to the organisation’s overall strategy. Feedback from local employees working for multinational companies shows that they are usually keen to become part of the business’s culture and play their part in its success.

So managers need to balance being sensitive with being clear and authoritative about how the local operation will make its contribution. ­

Learn to build rapport. This involves being attentive in ways that make others feel comfortable. It’s important in teams that work closely together, but it is also helpful in ad hoc groups that only communicate by teleconference and e-mail. Establishing trust quickly helps people gain the collaboration they need from distant co-workers.

Employees can be helped to improve rapport skills by a simple exercise. Spend 10 minutes each day simply observing and listening to colleagues, consciously leaving aside your own agenda. Then try to match their style in some way, for example, in choice of words or expressions.

If you then change the subject or make a suggestion and people willingly follow your lead, the chances are that you’ve achieved a rapport.

Adopt a range of styles. It is becoming clear that there is no formula for leadership.

Some cultures value leading from the front, while others prefer consensus-building styles. Those who believe there is a single right way to lead can find themselves unable to influence people effectively in new situations.

By contrast, successful international managers employ a range of styles, adapting their approaches to local situations. This skill can be developed if managers respect and study leaders who are successful locally, and thereby build a wider repertoire of management styles.

Understand how decisions are made. Many good ideas remain just that because they aren’t backed by key decision-makers and, in an international team, people can find their usual ways of putting forward ideas aren’t effective. Sensitivity to context means choosing the right time to contact the right person in the right place and in the right way. It’s a skill that can be developed by looking at how previous decisions have been made, and planning how to influence the key decision-makers.

Building on the foundations

Have a plan – get a coach. People who work in international contexts need to maintain, develop and, where possible, pass on what they have learned.

It helps to follow a pattern that starts with diagnosing strengths and weaknesses and drawing up a personal plan that focuses on three or four particular areas for development. Making the plan work can be helped by having an experienced coach with whom managers and professionals review progress at regular intervals.

Some companies have even built coaching teams that have experience of particular territories and can help individuals who are posted there throughout their assignments.

How different countries compare

WorldWork’s database highlights some clear differences in style between people of different nationalities. It contains responses from more than 500 people from the UK, a similar number from Germany, more than 300 from Italy, more than 200 from the US, more than 100 from France and Mexico, and about 50 from India.

The British ranked learning languages lower than anyone else, perhaps reflecting the fact that English is so widely used in business. However, the data refutes the idea of the British ‘stiff upper lip’. Compared with other European groups, the British set great store by influencing skills – such as building rapport.

The German group focused strongly on welcoming strangers. It shows more flexible judgement than the UK and US groups. But German respondents pay less attention to influencing skills than the British group.

The Americans emphasised ‘inner purpose’ more than any other group, apart from Indians. This means having strong personal values that provide consistency when dealing with the unfamiliar. They also showed comparatively low focus on ‘flexible behaviour’ and ‘flexible judgement’.

The French respondents gave a very high score to ‘exposing intentions’, which probably springs from the value placed in French business culture on having a very clear rationale for all decisions and requests.

The Italian respondents showed strong tendencies towards flexibility in behaviour and judgements, and a relatively high willingness to learn languages.

The Indian group paid a lot of attention to flexible behaviour and reflected awareness – being conscious of how you come across – suggesting a tendency to understand how their own behaviour is perceived, and an ability to fit in with new colleagues and partners.

Women make best global managers

One of the most interesting findings from WorldWork’s analysis is that many women who respond to our questionnaires – whether they have worked abroad or not – naturally possess the range of skills that international managers acquire through experience. These include:



  • Valuing differences – enjoying working with people from diverse backgrounds
  • Welcoming strangers – being keen to make contact with new people
  • Spirit of adventure – being keen to seek out variety and happy to put oneself into unpredictable situations
  • Acceptance – not only tolerating behaviour that is different from one’s own, but positively accepting it.

Women also tend to be sensitive to the non-verbal aspects of communications, while men emphasise clarity of communication – essentially clear oral communications. Women tend to value rapport as a means of influencing, while men emphasise sensitivity to context, which is more about finding out where power lies.

It’s important not to oversimplify the findings or create stereotypes. Just because many women give priority to listening doesn’t mean they are not goal-oriented. Equally, many men value ‘pull’ or ‘outside-in’ qualities. However, in general, the findings are a challenge to any organisation where the number of women taking on international assignments compared to men is low.

How different countries compare

WorldWork’s database highlights some clear differences in style between people of different nationalities. It contains responses from more than 500 people from the UK, a similar number from Germany, more than 300 from Italy, more than 200 from the US, more than 100 from France and Mexico, and about 50 from India. 



  • The British ranked learning languages lower than anyone else, perhaps reflecting the fact that English is so widely used in business. However, the data refutes the idea of the British ‘stiff upper lip’. Compared with other European groups, the British set great store by influencing skills – such as building rapport.
  • The German group focused strongly on welcoming strangers. It shows more flexible judgement than the UK and US groups. But German respondents pay less attention to influencing skills than the British group.
  • The Americans emphasised ‘inner purpose’ more than any other group, apart from Indians. This means having strong personal values that provide consistency when dealing with the unfamiliar. They also showed comparatively low focus on ‘flexible behaviour’ and ‘flexible judgement’.
  • The French respondents gave a very high score to ‘exposing intentions’, which probably springs from the value placed in French business culture on having a very clear rationale for all decisions and requests. 
  • The Italian respondents showed strong tendencies towards flexibility in behaviour and judgements, and a relatively high willingness to learn languages.
  • The Indian group paid a lot of attention to flexible behaviour and reflected awareness – being conscious of how you come across – suggesting a tendency to understand how their own behaviour is perceived, and an ability to fit in with new colleagues and partners. 

Comments are closed.