All Articles Leadership Strategy How to be effective across borders: A Q-and-A with Andy Molinsky

How to be effective across borders: A Q-and-A with Andy Molinsky

7 min read


What is the cost of poor global leadership? For some companies, it’s billions of dollars and years of recovery. For others it’s just a part of a learning process.

The war for talent makes it harder for companies to recruit and develop the leaders necessary for a global environment. What competencies do leaders need to be effective at managing international markets? How do you identify executives who can win in the international arena?

I set out to uncover insights from Andy Molinsky, the author of the book “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process” (HBR Press, 2013). Molinsky is an associate professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Brandeis University’s International Business School.

In our discussion, Molinsky shares his perspective on what matters when it comes to cross-cultural leadership: global dexterity, or the ability to adapt behavior across cultures without losing who you are in the process. Easier said than done.

How do you think your book “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process” can help global leaders be more successful in cross-cultural interactions?

Andy Molinsky: My goal with “Global Dexterity” is simple: it’s to provide global leaders with a useful, substantive, and engaging guide to adapting behavior across cultures. By useful, I mean something leaders can use right away and apply to their own experience. In fact, at the end of each chapter, I offer leaders concrete tools to directly apply what they have learned to their own cross-cultural challenges.

By substantive, I mean a book that is grounded in rigorous and scientific study. Finally, by engaging, I mean a book that is an “easy read” — something that busy executives can pick up and put down (but perhaps not even want to put down!). That’s been my goal with “Global Dexterity” and, thankfully, the early feedback has been very positive!

What are the key challenges involved in mastering the art of being effective in a foreign culture? How to overcome them?

The reason being effective in the global settings is easier said than done is that people can experience psychological difficulties adapting and adjusting their behavior to a different cultural style – especially if that style is very different from what one is used to and comfortable with.

First, people can feel anxious or even embarrassed about their inability to switch effectively. I have seen many managers and executives struggle to judge just how assertively to act, or just how much enthusiasm to express in a given situation in a new culture. And when you’re not sure, but you have to behave anyway, it can be quite anxiety provoking. So, that’s what I call the “competence challenge.”

The second challenge is the authenticity challenge: the fact that even if you can end up “hitting the mark” and acting in an appropriate manner in the new culture, it may feel quite disingenuous and inauthentic to do so. Imagine, for example, having to act in a very authoritarian style in a new culture that demands that form of behavior, when at heart, you are a very participative manager from a culture that shuns traditional hierarchy. Or imagine that in order to make a positive impression in a new culture, you need to promote yourself to a degree that would be considered offensive and immodest in your cultural setting.

You may be capable of gritting your teeth and adapting in the short term, but inside you feel completely outside of your personal or cultural comfort zone. That’s the authenticity challenge.

Finally, there’s what I call the resentment challenge: the fact that you resent having to adapt in the first place. I have seen many managers and leaders suffer from this challenge: feeling angry and frustrated that they have to change who they are in a foreign setting in order to adapt.

When you feel anxious, embarrassed, inauthentic and frustrated, it can be very difficult to adapt successfully. And that’s the “paradox” of global dexterity: to adapt behavior, you need to be flexible. But often, the very experience of adapting behavior — including all this negative emotion — makes flexibility very difficult to achieve. In my book I offer tools to help people out of this conundrum.

Based on your experience what would be the most important skill for global leaders to have today? Could that be global dexterity?

I’d like to think so! Leaders today are bombarded with situations where adapting cultural behavior is a priority. These are situations where the way that they would naturally and comfortably act at home is completely different from how they need to act in a new culture to be effective. There are literally hundreds of situations like this that are the lifeblood of everyday work in today’s global organizations. So, absolutely: global dexterity is an essential skill for today’s global leaders.

Do you think global dexterity can be mastered through experience? Or it requires a special talent or gift? For example, most runners are not Olympic champions. I play soccer, but I am not as good as David Beckham.

Great question, and I think that the answer is both. There certainly is a talent component to global dexterity; there’s no doubt. We all know people who are particularly skilled at adapting to different cultures and circumstances. But global dexterity is something that can be learned as well. I’ve seen it firsthand many times through my own one-on-one coaching and through the MBA course I have created to teach foreign-born students global dexterity. I also heard many compelling stories, during my research for the “Global Dexterity” book, of individuals working very hard to adapt and adjust their cultural behavior.

But just like learning anything, the key is to have the right learning process: one that actually achieves results — and that’s my goal with the book: to provide readers with a process, grounded in my own research and in the experience of successful managers and executives, for adapting cultural behavior and staying authentic at the same time: “fitting in without giving in.”

Have you experienced uncomfortable cross-cultural communications? Maybe you can give us an example.

Here’s a recent one: As a business-school professor in the U.S., I have many foreign students who try to adapt to the more informal American educational setting but end up actually over-adapting and behaving “too” American — even for Americans. For example, I have had students slap me on the back, call me “Andy,” put their feet up on my desk, and make small talk that’s just a little too “personal”!

Global leadership is a complex concept. Local knowledge of a foreign culture is just one piece of a puzzle. Ability to transform this knowledge into behavior is a another strength of global leader. The good news it can be developed and learned, but at what speed and level it depends on you. Good luck with your journey!

Lilia K. Staples is a marketing coordinator at Hunt Executive Search, a boutique firm specializing in C-level recruitment and consulting. She interviews world’s top executives, entrepreneurs and thought leaders on the issues of global business and leadership.