Over the past 2 years, I have coached more than fifty leaders in twenty countries: ten countries in Africa, seven countries in Europe, and three in Southeast Asia. Most of the people I coach are social entrepreneurs managing their own startups. The products of these entrepreneurs encompass a wide range. There is an organization in India that is accelerating the usage of renewable energy while replacing kerosene lamps and diesel generators, another nonprofit in East Africa is building affordable childcare centers. The leaders of these organizations are mission driven, passionate, open-minded and curious to explore their leadership challenges.
I have been in the coaching business for over 30 years. I started my career as a Human Resources professional working at various high-tech organizations in Silicon Valley and later established my own firm as a full-time executive coach. In 2013, my family and I transferred to Italy, and I have since developed a growing online global coaching practice.
Working with a variety of global leaders has given me an opportunity to reflect on some of the differences and similarities in coaching international leaders versus those in the U.S.
The most important difference in international coaching is of course the culture of the countries in which the leaders work. I have found it is important to have at least a cursory knowledge of each country’s background. I am curious about the country’s recent history, current geo-political situation, and demographics. I research their local customs in regard to food, music, dance, and the role religion plays in their environment. Understanding the life style of the country helps me understand the context in which the leader operates.
On the initial call, I ask the client to describe their country in respect to other countries in their region. Next, I ask about their company culture. How would they describe their work force? What are the biggest challenges in establishing their startups in the countries where they are located. In these times of COVID, I ask how the pandemic has impacted their business, families and employees.
Once I have a basic understanding of the clients’ environments, I find it is important that I view the culture and context from their perspective not mine. For example, I was on a Whats App call with a client in Cameroon. In the background, I could hear loud staccato noises. When I asked him about the sounds, he said that it was gunfire. I immediately wanted to stop the session and reschedule our time. The client said he didn’t want to do that. He explained that talking to me was important to him, the gunfire was far away, and he knew how to keep himself safe. We continued on with the coaching call, and I tried to refocus myself away from the sound of the gunshots and on to the story he was telling me.
Another leader I was coaching in Nigeria had a problem with one of her best employees who wanted to quit. When my client asked the employee why she was leaving, the employee responded that her husband didn’t want her to work any more, even though he himself did not have a job. In order to keep peace in the family, the employee said she had decided to resign. My client asked me what I thought she could do to get the employee to stay. When I asked what ideas she had, she said she thought she should talk to the employee’s husband. Putting aside my own concerns about triangulation, we discussed how to structure a conversation with the husband. We role played the conversation several times until my client was comfortable. The next week she had a productive meeting with the husband, and the woman is still an employee with my client.
In both these situations, I needed to drop my own cultural biases, and enter the culture of the client. In the first situation, I could not allow my fear to be the decision maker about continuing with the call. In the second situation, I had to recognize and let go of my own objections to the husband’s behavior and focus on the goals of my client.
Although the culture and setting of the work may be different, the content of leadership coaching is often similar. People in all countries want to talk about coping with COVID, work/life balance, how to motivate their teams, how to build trust in their organizations and how to develop an inspirational vision. In these times where so many things seem to divide us, it is notable that at the leadership level, we struggle with many of the same things.
As a leadership coach, I ask questions that encourage people to find and validate their own wisdom. They know their country culture and work environment better than I ever could. What I can do for them is to look for themes in the stories they tell me, and then reflect back the patterns that I see that may or may not be helpful to them. Together we then work on changing those patterns that get in their way. This approach to coaching is as valid in Pakistan as it is in California.
As an American coach in an international environment, I constantly challenge myself to be aware of any “Americanisms” in my beliefs and judgments about leadership and culture. I had an Italian client who told me she was struggling with her American boss who expected her to be more enthusiastic. I caught myself identifying with the American manager. I took a deep breath and listened more closely to my client. I heard how this this type of phony enthusiasm affected my client’s motivation and relationship with her manager. Once I put aside my own biases, I was able to coach my client on how to better communicate her objections to her manager. Noting my own biases allowed me to let go of them.
Although the challenges of leadership are often constant across country borders, the solutions to management problems frequently depend on the culture in which the leader resides. As with all leadership coaching, a trusting relationship between the coach and the client is a fundamental requirement. Trust is partly established by the coach taking the time to understand the culture and background of the leader and of being aware of her own biases and judgements and checking them when they arise. Once this is done, the coaching sessions can progress as the client desires.
I have found global leadership coaching to be both challenging and fulfilling. Being able to contribute to the next generation of leaders across the world is its own reward.