It is not hyperbole to say that today’s hyperconnected, technologically-powered world has significantly upended the way companies go from tiny start-up to full-fledged business. In the past, the established trajectory for a successful company was to begin operating in a relatively small, largely familiar market — usually the most immediate one — before tentatively (or not so tentatively) pushing out into surrounding geographical areas.
The aim was to move at a pace that generated growth, without overextending operations into places where business rules and norms took time to get right.
That kind of trajectory is rarely the one companies will look to now. With nearly every business online and connected to a global market, the aim of many nascent start-ups is exactly the opposite — to get big in as many places as possible, as quickly as they can. The internet and the myriad of communication tools it has brought enables both this access to potential customers, and a way to marshal disparate employees across the globe.
The natural consequence of this kind of growth is that even very small companies will be handling the challenges of managing a global workforce far quicker than they might have in earlier times. From widely-different cultural norms and varied business practices for getting things done to simply managing people who are in different cities and time zones, the talent management and logistical demands can be tough.
For leaders of these companies, the challenge is to present a convincing leadership vision that translates across different cultures, while defining a day-to-day direction that global teams can get behind. Cultural awareness is key for this.
Leaders need to understand that different employees bring different experiences and expectations, and will respond differently to any particular leadership approach. They need to be aware that what is interpreted as challenging and inspirational for one person, could be interpreted as critical and harsh by another. And they also need to be sure that their actions and words accurately reflect what they intend for every person they lead.
Building this kind of cultural awareness and understanding can be a challenge for people focused on leadership development at a start-up. In larger companies, frequently, part of the answer will come from providing opportunities for leadership talent to gain experience working and leading in different geographies.
If you are already a multinational, this is relatively straightforward — employees in a leadership track can move around a few different global offices and gain rapid introduction to how your business operates elsewhere. At a start-up, such exposure often needs to either have happened already, or be gained rapidly on the fly.
This is where I believe businesses in the MENA region have a significant advantage. With so many nationalities and cultures already represented within its businesses and communities, there can be hardly anyone who isn’t exposed to some of this soft cultural awareness training every day.
Most leaders here will already be very used to managing and leading people from different backgrounds and cultures, and will find it relatively simple to extrapolate this knowledge out to working with new far-flung parts of their new business.
But they shouldn’t be complacent. Cultural awareness — as the phrase implies — requires actual awareness. You need to be ready and willing to learn from the opportunities for cultural understanding that the MENA workplace often provides.
Leaders should make a point of interacting with employees from across their business. Then they should be prepared to analyse these interactions, understand the cultural implications that might be involved, and consider how their actions could (or should) have been moderated.
Simply by being more open to learning from the fruitful opportunities for cultural awareness that MENA workplaces offer is an excellent way for business leaders to operate effectively in a globalised market. They’ll be better prepared to lead global teams, modify their behaviour where appropriate, and keep a whole group of differently-motivated people pointing in the same direction towards business’ success.
Ahmad Badr is CEO of Knowledge Group.