“You should write on culture! Start with a blog…”

This is how it started… And it got my brain spinning in thousands of directions as there is so much to say!

What is culture? How is it defined? Although there are many definitions or frameworks around it, I have not found a consensus so far.

Culture is a fascinating topic–because it’s always there–in any of your daily interactions with colleagues, family members, and neighbours. If you ignore it, it may well  get you in a delicate or interesting situation.

The Brussels office of the Center for Creative Leadership is a great place to observe culture and its effects. Not only are we truly international in the office (over 20 languages are spoken), but we meet participants from all over the world. So we witness exchanges and (mis)communication, develop unexpected friendships and get a daily education on cultural norms and missteps. And what we don’t see, we hear through stories from others… along with their interpretation that can leave us thoughtful and yearning for more! Here is a story I got from one of my colleagues.

In a leadership program she attended a few weeks ago, a French participant (let’s call him Jules) was puzzled by the concept of leadership. Interestingly enough, there is no French translation for leadership. Although you can explain the “symptoms” of leadership, getting a clear definition is tricky, as it is not part of the language. In the classroom, trainers and participants were moving through program activities. And Jules was struggling with the leadership concepts. He fell into a conversation about what leadership is with a classmate from the Middle East (we’ll call him Ali). My colleague was sitting nearby and following the exchange with some interest. Jules stated that “Leadership is just a small part of management.” Ali answered, “No, leadership is much more than that,” and he went on trying to convey to Jules his view of what leadership entails, how big and important it is and how it can change your life. But Jules did not agree with this perspective and still saw leadership as a management skill needed to be successful at the level of team management. As the program unfolded, Ali truly enjoyed his experience while Jules got more and more perplexed as he could not reconcile what he was discovering with his understanding of leadership. As a result, he disengaged from the program.

Hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder about what could have been done differently for Jules so that he could benefit from the full impact of the program. Was there an “easy fix” for this type of disconnect? Can we learn from this story and get better, as individuals and as a company, at reading the early signs of disengagement or at seeing the cues of misunderstanding? When a concept does not register with someone from a particular culture, could it be addressed by just defining what is meant, here and now, for the length of the exercise or the program, so that everyone is on the same page? How can we act on this as a multicultural group–keeping in mind the various sensibilities and perspectives present?

At CCL, we have been looking at this and recognizing the importance of culture and languages for many years, and consequently we have built unique project management and linguistic expertise in the shape of a Global Language Strategy (GLS) Team responsible for handling all language-related projects, keeping in mind the uniqueness of our clients and our field. This is a first step in the right direction as an organization.

Please join me in sharing experiences and documenting best practices of doing leadership development across cultures. By starting a Community of Practice on this subject, we can learn from each other’s experiences and become better at what we do–creating a bigger impact for our clients and our colleagues around the world.

If you would like to share your stories around culture, the mistakes you have made and the lessons you have learned, I’m eager to hear from you. You can reach me via e-mail at duquea@ccl.org.

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