Friday, March 31Welcome

Insights: The Four Cultures of Leadership

Alan O'Neal

About ten years ago, London-based Selfridges Group acquired the Dutch de Bijenkorf department store chain. Acquiring and integrating is difficult, but in this case,
The whole group was strong. It was clear that de Bijenkorf had a better chance of growing sales and profits if the expertise of the wider group was employed.

As the ink on the contract dried, the team at Selfridges Group began to dive into the new business, careful to keep it non-directive and inclusive. Within a few months, I was invited to delve deeper into the culture, strategies, and mechanics of how the organization operates.

It quickly became apparent how cultural leadership varied from country to country. Despite our imprudent behavior, some members of the Dutch leadership team saw us interfering. Their expectation was to keep operating as an independent business forever, with occasional updates on the group’s progress.

authority and decision-making
The problem is that it is difficult to do business across different cultures, whether during an acquisition or as a business as usual. In our day-to-day activities, most people focus on strategy and operational details.

We are busy talking about new products, cutting costs, driving synergies and opening new markets. It just doesn’t give enough airtime to the topic of culture. Here I would like to focus on her two key aspects of leadership culture. One is authority and the other is decision making. In some cultures they are one and the same. But let me explain how they differ significantly.

Since the 1960s when modern management theory began to develop (mainly in the United States), we have learned that being authoritarian is less desirable and less effective than being democratic. In this culture, a leader encourages his subordinates to speak up, use his first name, and ultimately be more inclusive. Empowerment has become a buzzword and “management by objectives” has become the norm. Interim problem resolution is encouraged at ground level and then escalated to management for decision. And quick decision-making by superiors is expected.

In this context, Americans view Japanese, Germans, and Dutch as highly hierarchical. However, in Japanese and German cultures, positional authority is still common, and decision-making is much more consensual and collaborative.

Problems are also discussed at ground level and solutions are sought. Leaders act as facilitators, not decision makers. It’s interesting to note that the aforementioned different management styles between the Selfridges and de Bijenkorf teams were within Europe only a few hundred miles apart.

What can be said about the cultural differences from Dubai to Doha, Chicago to Cebu, Mumbai to Mombasa?

The Four Cultures of Leadership
Consider two dimensions that are hierarchical and collaborative. Then consider the teams you manage and their preferred styles, and adapt accordingly.

01. Hierarchy and top-down
I was talking to an Irish organization in Riyadh that has a joint venture with a Saudi Arabian partner. This hierarchical culture of leadership is very common in Saudi Arabia. My clients need to change their default collaborative and democratic style and become more direct. That’s what locals expect and need.

02. Hierarchical and Collaborative
This is where the team expects their superiors to make decisions, but also to consult them beforehand. We need to see the reasoning behind the quality and opinion. I personally use this style in Germany.

03. democracy and top down
Speak up before decisions are made, regardless of your position on the team. But even if you disagree with the final decision, stand by it as if it were yours. You had a voice, but you weren’t able to convince the people involved.So accept it and move on

04. Democratic and Collaborative: This is where teams are involved in decision-making and can sway when leaders take over. A leader’s job is to facilitate the process. Decisions take longer, but decisions are executed faster.

The last word
Every organization has a culture, even if it’s not defined or written down. The challenge is to take the time to understand the difference. After all, individuals bring different styles to work based on their past experiences with other organizations. Recognizing and accepting differences is your task.

Alan O’Neill Managing Director, Change Consultant and Speaker at Kara

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