Connecting Internationally Isn’t a Spectator Sport

SHRM 2015 global business experts blog series - web


Should you ignore headquarters while travelling on international business?

While international travel has its own ups-and-downs, international business travel has more. Not only are you dealing with other cultures, cuisines and customs, all of which have their unique challenges, more often than not you may find yourself juggling a very hectic on-the-ground schedule with that constant nagging pressure to be on conference calls with headquarters or clients and manage business back at the office. At least that’s the way I’ve often felt.

Having done business, lived, or studied in nearly 90 countries on six continents, it’s been tough to find that balance and my experience tells me that it’s elusive, and even counterproductive. A sounder tactic is to get as involved and focused on where you are with the partners and clients at hand, build trust and really connect with them. If you do that, you’ll be better positioned to grow and sustain international business than if you’re constantly checking in with the home office. Clearly some things always need to get done back at headquarters while you’re away, but primary attention and activity invested in where you are overseas – being present and looking forward rather than back – bring immense longer term returns. In most places of the world, relationships trump transactions, and if you rush into the dealings too soon, you risk offending others and even losing business opportunities.

Here are a few things I try to do as frequently as possible – so to speak, my own personal rules for global connectedness – which I’ve developed over many years of travel:

Learn a language…
With the advances in language-learning technology, on-line resources, and increased global mobility, business people have much wider choice in how to learn a language, when, and where, than ever before. I was in Kenya recently and knowing how to say “Pleased to meet you!” in Swahili connected me to new business acquaintances in a way that English couldn’t have. When you make an effort to communicate in the local language, even just the pleasantries, you’re showing esteem for the culture and earning respect as an engaged guest.

But know that that isn’t enough!
So be prepared. Always have a ‘cheat sheet’ ready with the five most useful words in any language: Hello, Please, Thank You, and Goodbye. My other personal favorite is beer! There’s no excuse anymore for not knowing how to express your appreciation with a simple ‘thank you’ in the local dialect and a smile. You’d be amazed how far that gesture takes you!

Break bread with others enjoying local cuisine at local times.
Nothing builds trust with potential business partners or solidifies it with old friends like sharing a meal – and demonstrating genuine thankfulness for local flavors. Learning how to navigate table manners correctly in another country and culture both humbles the novice and honors the host.

Give yourself the gift of culture: Always visit at least one museum, national monument, or historic site.
Who knows when you’ll be back and have that opportunity again? More importantly, you walk away from that exposure with a broader appreciation of the complexity of place, time, and history that makes every locale distinct and memorable. And, it’s always good fodder for conversations with locals.

Leverage the importance of names and titles.
Everyone feels special when addressed by their name, particularly when pronounced correctly. Regardless of the language, if you’re having trouble kindly ask your contacts how to say their names phonetically and repeat and rehearse until you feel comfortable using them. Remember, though, that it’s always best to err first on the side of formality using titles and surnames appropriately before moving to a first-name basis.

Manage both greetings and departures respectfully.
It’s important to investigate and know the order of whom to greet in the room in what order, as in many cultures seniority matters. Moreover, when is the handshake more appropriate than the local kiss on the cheek (or two or three, depending on the city or country!), the shoulder-hug embrace, or no contact at all? And frequently when saying goodbye you need to repeat the same sequence as when entering, valuing your counterparts’ time and presence with you.

Connecting across borders is a lot about using common sense, losing your inhibition or fear of offending anyone, and being actively involved and flexible; with some practice, consistency, and respect most hosts will be flattered and thoroughly won over by your efforts.

If you’re attending the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas, come learn about global competencies and more tips on how to connect across borders at my concurrent session “Developing and Being More Effective Internationally” offered twice either Monday, June 29th from 7:00 – 8:15 AM or Tuesday, June 30th from 10:45 AM – 12:00 noon. See you there!

Howard Wallack - SHRM - headshot

Howard A. Wallack, SHRM-SCP, Global Markets Executive at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

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