Culture Clash – Leadership Across Borders

Delegates on our MBA and Leadership programmes often ask us about the leadership challenges of running a business in multiple countries and regions.  How much should leaders adapt their style to the local culture – is it even necessary in a global company?

The short answer is yes: even the most global companies need to pay attention to the different cultures in their various markets. In some, individuals will expect to be consulted on all decisions and to have a high degree of autonomy. In others, staff acknowledge the authority of the leadership and will expect clear instructions on what they should do. Attitudes towards teamwork and collaboration may vary; local political and personal interests can play a part in motivating staff; economic factors and local business performance will also influence what sort of leadership style is appropriate. Our latest White Paper, “Culture Clash” covers these and other topics in more detail. 

Building Trust

The key here, as Yanos Michopoulos, our Leadership Course Director, points out, is Trust. Whether the leader applies a “Command & Control” or a “Servant-Leader” approach is irrelevant if there’s no trust in the relationship. And to develop that trust, leaders need to take time to understand the individuals they are working with and adapt their style accordingly.

We’ve developed the CREST model to illustrate how leaders can develop trust:

  • Credibility: having the experience and qualifications (hard skills) to be credible when making decisions. In the E&P world, this may mean time out in the fields or on the rigs, in some of the harsher environments where oil is found.
  • Reliability: a cornerstone of trust in any relationship – doing what you say you will do; your behaviours aligned with values, your actions matching words.
  • Empathy: understanding what your followers want and need. This includes understanding the local culture.
  • Safety: creating a safe working environment – not just physical safety, vital as that is in oil and gas, but also emotional safety, an environment where questions can be asked and support provided.
  • Time: trust cannot be earned overnight – it takes time, effort, and consistency in behaviours

Corporate Culture

On top of this is the question of corporate culture. How much should leaders allow the corporate culture to change around the world? Core values and of course strict adherence to legal and HSE standards are non-negotiable, but as Yanos says, in other areas of management processes, some flexibility is recommended.

Communications is another area to watch out for: a corporate “tone of voice” developed for head office may not ring true in a foreign market; and although English may be the language of global business, there are often significant differences between what people say, what they mean and what the audience understands.

Our White Paper, “Culture Clash – Leading Across Borders” – explores some of these issues in more detail you can download it here.

Our 3-Day Leadership in Energy course covers these and other leadership topics, with case studies and examples from the world of energy: the next programme runs in London at the end of June – click here for more information.



  1. Dear Angus, an interesting subject and in all honesty a minefield for many if not most.
    Having been a manager or in a supervisory role in many countries with many different nationals I can offer some experience but not expertise.
    Yes it is necessary to consider people from different countries and of differing religions and different moral standards in a different manner but at the end of the day the manager has to be consistent, disciplined but above all, of the highest integrity in dealing with all who look up to, across at, or down upon that manager. I always tried to treat my colleagues in the same manner as I would like to be treated myself. Also I would never ask anyone to execute a task that I would not be prepared to undertake myself. This does have personal disadvantages since I do not like heights but have found myself climbing 150ft flare stacks and 300 metre chimney stacks simply to encourage tradesmen to follow me up so that repairs can be made to non-functioning instrumentation. This rule also applies to engineering design when installations should not be designed where the maintenance technician or process operator is required to work from an unsafe location in order to fulfil their responsibility.
    I have learned many attributes over the years, most from experience, usually my failures, and many from the classroom, where my failings were readily pointed out to me. I am not a very good diplomat and have often been referred to as WYSIWYG but apart from the odd one or two individuals (who operated to their own agenda regardless) feel I had more successes than failures as a manager and supervisor especially when working in foreign countries.
    One thing I never lost sight of was the safety and well being of the people I worked with from both a personal perspective as well as an engineered or designed solution. Unfortunately this is not always the case as incidents like Deep Water Horizon still remind us, now that was a failing in Leadership!
    Best regards.

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