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Alan’s Corner: Four cultures of leadership and how to adapt to them

Alan’s Corner: Four cultures of leadership and how to adapt to them

Individuals bring different leadership styles to the job based on past experiences in other organisations

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Alan O'Neill

About 10 years ago, the London-headquartered Selfridges Group acquired the Dutch de Bijenkorf chain of department stores. Buying and integrating any acquisition is a challenge, but in this case, the fit with
the overall group was strong. It was very clear that de Bijenkorf had more potential to grow sales and profitability, once the expertise of the wider group was employed.

As the ink was drying on the contract, Selfridges Group team started to immerse itself in the new business and was careful to be non-directive and inclusive. Within a few months, I was invited to delve in and get to grips with the culture, the strategy and the mechanics of how the organisation was run.

It quickly emerged how cultural leadership can differ across countries. Despite us treading lightly, some of the Dutch leadership team saw us as interfering. Their expectation was that they would continue to operate forever as a standalone business, with the occasional update on progress to the group. That made for a steep learning curve.

Authority versus decision-making
The thing is, regardless of whether it’s during an acquisition or even just with business as usual, doing business across different cultures is challenging. In our day-to-day activities, most of us concentrate on strategy and operational detail.

We busy ourselves talking about new products, cutting costs, driving synergies and developing new markets. We just don’t give enough airtime to the topic of culture. I want to focus here on two key dimensions of leadership culture. One is authority and the other is decision-making. In some cultures, they are one and the same. But let me illustrate how they are very different.

Since modern management theory started to develop (mainly in the US) in the 1960s, we learned that being authoritarian is much less preferable and effective than being democratic. In this culture, leaders encourage their people to speak up, to use first names and, ultimately, are more inclusive. Empowerment became a buzzword and ‘management by objectives’ has become the norm. Tentative problem-solving is encouraged at ground level and then escalated to management for a decision. And it is expected that decisions are then made quickly by the boss.

In this context, Americans see the Japanese, Germans and Dutch as very hierarchical. Yet in Japanese and German culture, where positional authority is indeed still prevalent, decision-making is much more consensual and collaborative.

Problems are also discussed at the ground level and solutions are sought. Leaders then act more as facilitators, rather than decision-makers. It’s interesting that the different management styles I described earlier between the Selfridges and de Bijenkorf teams were within Europe, where only a few hundred miles separate us.

What can we say about culture differences from Dubai to Doha, Chicago to Cebu, and Mumbai to Mombassa?

How the four cultures of leadership work
Consider two dimensions, hierarchical and collaborative. Then consider the team you manage, their preferred style, and adapt accordingly.

01. Hierarchical and top down
I was speaking with an Irish organisation that has a joint venture with a Saudi Arabian partner in Riyadh. This hierarchical culture of leadership is very prevalent in Saudi Arabia. My client needs to flip its default collaborative and democratic style and be more directive. That’s what the locals expect and need.

02. Hierarchical and collaborative
This is where teams expect the boss to make decisions but will also expect to be consulted beforehand. The leader should therefore ask lots of questions but check for quality of input and reasoning behind opinions, before making a decision. I personally use this style in Germany.

03. Democratic and top down
Regardless of your status in the team, speak up before the decision is made. But even if you don’t agree with the final decision, support it as if it was your own. You’ve had your say and you didn’t manage to convince the relevant person. So accept it and move
on positively.

04. Democratic and collaborative: This is where the team gets involved in making decisions and may get upset if the leader takes over. The leader’s job is to facilitate the process. Accept decision-making will take longer but the execution of decisions will be swift.

The last word
Every organisation has a culture, even if it is not defined or written down. The challenge is to take time to understand differences. After all, individuals bring different styles to the job based on past experiences of other organisations. Recognising and embracing difference is your challenge.

Alan O’Neill is the managing director of Kara, change consultant and speaker

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