8 tips on how to impress senior leaders across cultures

The dilemma is a common one. You’re dealing with leaders at the highest level and you want to impress. But how do you achieve this without appearing too aggressive, or too timid, or even disrespectful? Knowing a little about the individual helps, of course, as does doing your homework on the company culture. But in a broader context, you also need to understand the national culture and how it affects the role of leadership.

  1. In Japan, understand the value of silence when dealing with senior executives. Silence allows the harmony in the room to be preserved; it provides time to think and formulate a response; and it is a sign of possessing wisdom and self-control. Never try to fill a silent pause with chatter. Remember that Japan is a group-orientated culture. While you should make initial eye contact with the most senior person in the room to acknowledge their status in the hierarchy, do not try to appeal to them as an individual, but to your Japanese counterparts as a whole.
  2. German companies can have fairly steep hierarchies and it is important to show respect to those at the top – and to understand that many German business leaders have arrived where they are thanks to their technical expertise. Do not be over-familiar. Certainly do not use first-name terms. Be prepared to back up your case with a solid technical argument. Present your case in the context of the rules and structures favored by German leaders and communicate in a direct and explicit way.
  3. In South Korea, a leader is seen as similar to the head of the family, or clan. Leaders with family connections to the company are all the more powerful and respected and will adopt a paternalistic style. South Korean leaders will formulate and accept detailed plans but use these to build consensus and then, most likely, adapt them. Foreign executives dealing with South Korean leaders therefore need to show flexibility. Korean companies also place strong emphasis on corporate social responsibility so showing an understanding of CSR and its relevance will create a good impression.
  4. Kenyan leaders are treated by subordinates as wise, paternalistic elders. While you, as the foreign executive, may not share this cultural viewpoint, you should still treat business leaders with respect and a level of deference. Value is placed on honor and saving face. Decisions are made from the top down and the leader’s opinions are rarely questioned. However senior you are, you may still be kept waiting by your Kenyan counterpart when it comes to turning up for meetings, or making decisions.
  5. In Thailand, leaders come across as authoritarian and autocratic, but the ultimate goal is to preserve harmony. Thai businesses have steep hierarchies. You will need to build a relationship with an individual and their company before doing business – and they will want to place you within your own hierarchy so they can understand how you should be treated. Even when dealing with executives of similar status, focus on saving face and avoiding direct confrontation. If you are going to attempt the wai (the bow offered as a traditional Thai greeting, hands clasped in the prayer position), be aware that the most junior person bows first, and the depth of the bow is related to the seniority of the other person.
  6. In the USA, successful leaders are dynamic, decisive, inspiring and profit-orientated. When dealing with senior executives, show respect without coming across as indecisive, or apologetic. Keep sight of your personal brand; you need to make an impression. Be polite and deferential, yes, but make sure you sound informed and decisive. Do not be too familiar; just because you are in a culture where structures are flat and everybody is on first-name terms, you should not treat senior executives as your new best friend.
  7. Australians value leaders who are charismatic, accessible, inspiring and participative but don’t assume all Australian leaders are similar; a growing Asian population in Australia has considerable power in business and some leaders may display more Confucian Asian traits than Western.
  8. In Saudi Arabia and to an extent, other Arab cultures, a leader’s position is related to family connections, status and age as much as their job title. Relationship building is essential. Impress senior leaders by dressing smartly, showing respect, following protocol (for example, observing a formal seating arrangement around the table and using the correct terms of address). Be patient when meetings are interrupted, maintain face at all time and negotiate hard but with respect. Prepare to make concessions to allow others to save face. Always make sure you are dealing with the most senior person as they are invariably, after consultation with other stakeholders, the decision maker.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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