Have you ever in a moment of quiet reflection looked back at your life and asked yourself ‘how did I get here?’ I did this recently when I reflected on how a young boy - who had grown up in a small town in the UK with a local sales rep as a father and legal secretary as a mother - had ended up with a Chinese wife and Chinese-speaking kids, running workshops linked to the theme of global agility around the world.
It struck me how ‘global’ I and others like me have become in just one generation. It also struck me that the story behind this global development in my personal and professional life is not so much the end result of carefully followed personal career planning and ambition; nor even a deep-seated curiosity about the world from my childhood. It came about more through a readiness to ‘go with the flow’ and embrace the unknown in a fast-changing and rapidly globalising world.
I remember a moment in the early 90s when I accepted an unexpected offer to lecture in a Chinese business school. It meant designing and teaching an introduction to management that I had never done before, in a cultural context that I had no experience of. For the growing numbers of others like me, it is often not so much a case of ‘shaping your life’ but rather remaining agile in those moments when ‘life reaches out to shape you’. Looking back, I realised that I had been ready to take an opportunity to accept the unknown, to participate in the opening up of China, in ways that would have long-terms implications for my life. Looking back, our life seems to be made up of neatly converging paths which meet in the present; looking forward our future path can seem hidden in a confusing, intimidating and impenetrable jungle.
What helps us to embrace these kinds of opportunities and then thrive, rather than just survive, in everything that evolves out of them? Undoubtedly, in my case, what helped me to start off was a bungee jumping sense of adventure, a flexibility in behaviour and a growing awareness of the different cultural values of those growing up in different parts of the world. As time has gone by, these personal resources have developed. I have a growing self-confidence in my ability to manage whatever challenges life throws my way, an ability to choose when to adapt and when not to, and finally an ability to respond to whatever behaviours are displayed in front of me by international partners despite what it says is ‘normal’ in the cross-cultural literature. It always helps to remind myself that, while we constantly yearn for an oasis of calm when the testing time is over and things calm down, life will always throw something else at you.
There has never been a time when the global context we live in presents so many opportunities to shape us in new and unexpected ways. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we inhabit means that as professionals we no longer have to take expatriate assignments in places like China to experience being taken out of our comfort zone. My colleagues in TCO International and I have realised that what we offer to our clients is no longer the ability to ‘go global’ but ‘grow globally’. When we first started 25 years ago, the primary challenge was to help people cross borders, linguistically and culturally. Now globalisation has sparked a new generation of organisations. These are either ‘born global’ or after a period of rapid expansion into new markets, and the acceleration of virtual working, are consolidating the relationships they had developed in a period of expansion. The number of expatriates may be going down but the expatriate challenge - needing to achieve high performance when engaging with global partners while managing personal change - is growing exponentially. After all, VUCA comes to us; we don’t need to seek it out.
In TCO International we believe that the key ability required by all of us to thrive rather than just survive is global agility ‘How can I think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA environment’.
By ‘thinking’ we mean understanding without stereotyping others; being self-aware while understanding that there is no limit to how we will be seen by others across geographic and organisational boundaries. Even the most positive cultural ‘generalizations’ about others may need to be put aside in a world where the behaviours of so many local professionals are already partially adapted to the styles of their international partners. I am constantly meeting Chinese professionals who have never lived abroad but whose experience of working for Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIEs) in China gives them an ability to switch from a face-saving style with their local Chinese colleagues to a straight-talking, task-oriented approach to giving feedback with Europeans and North Americans.
By ‘acting’ we mean making decisions and initiating contact with others without ever knowing exactly how they will respond. This requires us to draw on a combination of making our own intentions clear, while exploring the needs of others, so that we negotiate ‘what we mean’ in the present moment. Too much reliance on goals and plans and we can lose the opportunities provided by the present. Too much adaptability and we can lose track of our goals. By ‘creating value’ we mean ensuring that we have the ability to build trust, relationships and ‘comfortable levels of clarity’ in every interaction without always having the opportunity for longer-term relationship-building that existed among colleagues rubbing shoulders together in the traditional workplace.
In supporting personal agility in a VUCA global context we help individuals manage the dilemma they face between focusing on ‘My Way’ (getting things done and remaining authentic to yourself) and ‘Your way’ (knowing how and when to adapt to others). Our belief is that we can build trust and credibility with new global partners through either approach. You can ‘frame’ the benefits of your preferred style of communication to your global partner but knowing how and when to ‘adapt’ to their local way of doing things is likely to help you succeed when visiting their country or supporting one of their clients.
In our global agility framework there are 4 areas of ability which act as compass points in helping us to navigate the My Way and Your Way dilemma in an interconnected VUCA environment.
These abilities relate to 4 questions which connect to the ‘inner world’ of feeling and thinking, as well as to the outer world of doing and saying. We draw on a combination of experiential activities, personal reflection, and coaching to help individuals engage with these questions, as well as find their own answers.
Self-awareness and Intentionality. In terms of the ‘My way’ of approaching global agility you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on me? What do I need?’. In terms of the ‘inner world’ are you, for example, someone who quickly requires closure and certainty when faced with the unexpected or are you happy to ride the waves of uncertainty? But such ‘self-awareness’ is not enough, and needs to be turned into action. You need to answer the question ‘How can I take responsibility for my behaviour when faced with VUCA? What can I say and do?’. This requires a focus on expressing your own intentions, needs and non-negotiable values (we call it Intentionality). It may need to include clarification of the benefits these needs and values bring to others. Such ‘intentionality’ is even more convincing if it includes an awareness of how you may be perceived by others from different organisational or cultural backgrounds. Recognising how our own behaviour may be seen as challenging reflected in the eyes of others can be important for trust-building – a critical upfront investment in creating value in a VUCA context.
Other-awareness and Connectivity. In terms of the ‘Your way’, you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on those who I interact with? What do they need?’. How does, for example, the spirit of adventure and resilience of your international partner compare with yours? How do they respond in a crisis? What aspects of VUCA are going on in their local context? To what degree are they primed by culturally-motivated instincts that drive them to avoid uncertainty and dislike learning by mistakes? In terms of the ‘outer world’, such ‘other-awareness’ is again not enough. You need to respond to others and answer the following question ‘How can I create value with others when we face with VUCA? What can we build together?’ In certain cultural contexts, despite one’s natural impatience to get down to the task in hand, a willingness to work on the personal relationship-building through an informal chat over a meal, at the start of a call or around the coffee machine might provoke the right climate for progress.
In TCO International our approach to Global Agility has been shaped by examining ourselves and those effective leaders and professionals that we have met and worked with, by answering the question that I asked myself at the beginning of this blog: how did I get here? The answer lies neither in the opposite poles of a planned strategy, on the one hand, nor a bungee-jumping spirit of adventure, on the other. It lies in a structured framework of choices that an individual can implement as they are challenged in the moment with the new people and unknown paths that this global context increasingly presents us with.
Are you curious about the choices you can make when you need to influence people in an unknown environment? Start by testing your Influencing Agility. It takes just a few minutes and it shows you both your default influencing style, and the related opposite that would allow you to become a much stronger influencer.