Corporate teams work together to achieve a common purpose. But when you’re leading a cross-cultural team that’s separated by geography, language, and culture, as Nicolas Krafft has done, teamwork doesn’t come easily. It’s hard enough for managers to lead single-culture teams but managing across cultures has unique challenges that test even the most seasoned leaders.
Global brands need their teams firing on all cylinders, but cultural differences, misunderstandings, and communication barriers make successful cross-cultural management a real challenge.
Former L’Oreal Executive Nicolas Krafft shares his experiences managing cross-cultural teams, offering 4 tips to ensure project success.
About Nicolas Krafft
Nicolas Krafft has over 20 years of experience in the professional beauty industry. With international brand expertise across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, Nicolas has a proven track record in branding, business development, sales, and marketing. He worked for more than a decade on L’Oréal brands like Kérastase, Matrix, and Biolage, and most recently on the indie brand Pulp Riot.
Nicolas Krafft spent most of his career unifying teams across borders and cultures. Today, Nicolas Krafft believes a shared purpose is what helps international teams overcome their differences—and channel those differences into a stronger work product.
The 3 challenges of cross-cultural management
Nicolas Krafft says even the most seasoned managers will encounter these 3 challenges when managing a cross-cultural team.
1 – Communication
Communication is a big challenge on any team, but it’s amplified when you’re working through the lens of a different culture.
“Communication in cultures like the United States is very explicit,” Nicolas Krafft says, “Except for when we’re giving each other feedback on work, which can surprise people who are new to the U.S. culture.”
However, Nicolas Krafft realized Eastern cultures, like China or Indonesia use more subtle and nuanced language. Face-saving is an important part of the culture, which means avoiding confrontation and softening language. “I learned to read between the lines of an email with my Asian teammates to understand the real meaning,” Nicolas Krafft adds.
Communication styles differ by person, but overall, leaders will need to identify gaps between their own communication style and that of their global team members. Once you identify the gaps, you can adjust your communication style to fit the project.
2 – Hierarchy
The second challenge with cross-cultural management is hierarchy. U.S. business culture tends to be very top-down and hierarchical. “But other businesses are less centralized; this is common in northern European countries,” Nicolas Krafft says.
For example, a team in Germany might take the time to gather feedback from every team member before making a decision. That’s quite different from most U.S. companies, where executives are often expected to make the decisions.
Understand how each culture approaches authority and decision making in the workplace. A dose of awareness will help you adjust your processes to accommodate each culture’s approach.
3 – Terminology
The last challenge of cross-cultural management is terminology. Just because you have a bilingual team doesn’t mean everyone perceives terminology the same way.
Words have different meanings in different cultures, even when you translate them. Minimize terminology mixups by getting your entire team on the same page during a kickoff call, or ideally a face-to-face meeting. “Clarify all definitions in the beginning to avoid any misunderstandings,” says Nicolas Krafft.
Global leadership is for both business and personal life
Although cross-cultural management is challenging, it’s worth the investment, leading to huge wins in both the business and personal spheres.
Diverse teams lead to better business results, which translates to:
- 87% better decision making.
- Better profits (43% of diverse businesses earn more)
- A 35% lift in performance
Who wouldn’t want a significant lift in revenue and output? Successful cross-cultural teams show the power that diversity of thought can have for corporations.
But there’s another side to cross-cultural leadership: it’s personally enriching, too. “I had the chance to visit over 60 countries. Everyone has a different approach to life depending on the culture,” Nicolas Krafft says.
As a leader, you might need to live and work in another country for weeks at a time. That’s a priceless experience that not only gives you firsthand experience in a foreign market but makes you more well-rounded and curious as a person.
“Traveling, living, and working abroad will change your perspective for the better,” Nicolas Krafft adds.
Nicolas Krafft’s 4 tips for managing a cross-cultural team
Every cross-cultural project will be different. The correct approach depends on cultural differences within your team. You can prepare leadership for cross-cultural management, but Nicolas Krafft believes much of it is learned through doing.
There’s a learning curve for managing cross-cultural teams, but it’s worth the work. “I’m a strong believer in collective intelligence,” Krafft says, “When I worked with L’Oréal, I was inspired by work the brand did in Russia, Indonesia, and India. They helped everyone do better and get better results globally.”
Although every project requires a unique approach, there are still a few rules of thumb for managing cross-cultural teams. Follow Former L’Oreal Executive Nicolas Krafft’s 4 tips for better cross-cultural management.
1 – Have a clear purpose
What’s the purpose of your project? Why are you assembling a global team, anyway?
Start every project with a shared understanding of your mission and goals. Explain this in a simple way so everyone knows why they’re here and why the project must succeed.
Use your kickoff call to clarify:
- The purpose of the project
- Your mission
- Team roles
- Tools and processes
- Important dates
This sounds like a fluffy first step, but it’s necessary. “A clear, shared objective will help you get through frustrations and misunderstandings more easily. It’s easier to manage when everyone knows the end goal,” Krafft says.
2 – Build a healthy culture
Culture-building is a huge challenge, but it’s necessary. You need trust and respect from the start, which means modeling that behavior as a leader.
“When visiting a country for the first time, I dedicate the first day to building trust, aligning on vocabulary, and understanding the context. A healthy culture starts with alignment,” Nicolas Krafft says.
Empower everyone on the team to share their thoughts. This way, they have a stake in the solution and offer better ideals. Nicolas Krafft adds, “This may be time-consuming, but it’s critical for success.”
When joining a cross-cultural team, it is crucial to build trust and a level of comfort with your team, especially in a creative field like the beauty industry.
As the manager of a cross-cultural team, you are not only responsible for the outcome of the projects and making sure everything runs smoothly, you are also in charge of making sure the team connects and is able to perform at a high level. Employees will look to you to instill confidence in them and in the business, and to problem solve as needed. Let your team know they can rely on you to step up when it comes to managing the team dynamics, critical tasks, or potential crises.
3 – Clarify misunderstandings immediately
Frustrations and misunderstandings happen often on cross-cultural teams. The wider the differences between cultures, the higher the likelihood of friction between team members. It’s the leader’s job to manage everything carefully, providing immediate clarity to keep the team together.
If it’s clear a team member misunderstood something or a work product doesn’t meet your expectations, address it immediately. You don’t want the team to perpetuate incorrect information to their coworkers; that will only delay the project and frustrate everyone further.
Focus on solving the issue but work on one issue at a time, especially if you’re working remotely. Changing a lot of things at once or addressing multiple problems in one call can lead to more mix-ups and confusion.
4 – Don’t judge
Humans are naturally judgmental creatures. When we see something that’s different from our way of doing things, we make a snap judgment. But as a leader of a cross-cultural team, you need to rewire the part of your brain that judges.
Do your homework when you partner with coworkers across the globe. Understand cultural differences like:
- Sense of time and urgency.
- Decision-making processes.
- Hierarchical structure.
- Academic versus a practical way of learning.
- Social norms like politeness, respect, and distance.
As a leader of a global team, you need to listen more than you speak. It’s easy to be prescriptive as a leader, especially if that’s the norm in your culture, but being empathetic and a strong cross-cultural leader takes work and discipline.
There might be so much you don’t understand yet in a cross-cultural team. What are you not hearing? What questions do you need to ask? You’ll never know if you’re doing all of the talking.
Remember, you’re the one who needs to be flexible. Every cross-cultural team is different, and that means adjusting your style to fit the needs of the project.
The bottom line
“Cross-cultural management taught me to listen, to focus more, and be more patient,” Nicolas Krafft says, “There’s always something we can learn from each other, and especially from people who are very different from ourselves.”
Tap into the power of collective intelligence on a global scale. While cross-cultural management is a challenge for even the most experienced managers, a respectful and humble approach will take you far.
Approach the project with patience and sensitivity to empower everyone’s valuable contributions to your project. Successful cross-cultural leadership brings out the best in everyone, synthesizing multiple cultures to make something truly great.