How much time have you spent traveling outside the United States? And how often have you done business outside this country? If your answer is "just a little" or "not enough" you may be holding yourself back, because exposure to other cultures will make you a better leader.

That advice comes from Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., cross-cultural communications consultant and author of Access to Asia. She would know. Schweitzer has traveled to 65 countries, covering all seven continents, and she started at an early age. Growing up in a military family, she lived in Hawaii, Japan, and Guam. That made her a TCK-"Third Culture Kid." It also naturally developed solid leadership qualities. "Some of the global leadership traits we test for are tolerance of ambiguity, self-awareness, and curiosity. All three of those are things a TCK learns very early-we're always in a new situation," she explains.

If you've spent all or most of your life in one place, getting out and seeing the rest of the world, even a small portion of it, will expand your mental horizons and leadership skills in unexpected ways. But even if you can't travel the world at the moment, consider some of the lessons Schweitzer has learned in her years of doing business abroad. Anyone can benefit from them, whether you've been everywhere, or haven't strayed beyond your home town:

1. It's never too early to start gathering support.

In Japan, informally seeking advance support for a new project or idea is such a common practice there's a word for it-nemawashi. "They reach out to all parties before a meeting to get their feedback," Schweitzer says. "The advance groundwork makes the other stakeholders feel part of the process, and builds their support, leading to a successful meeting."

She's seen it time and again, she says. "They don't brainstorm in a meeting at all. By the time they get there they've worked everything out. So we come to the table and we get the feeling the decision's already been made. I've seen that happen year after year."

It's important to do nemawashi if you're doing business in Japan or other Asian countries. But even if you're only doing business in the U.S., that kind of consensus building is an invaluable leadership skill. "While we may be fueled by our passion, we need to get everyone around the table," Schweitzer says. "We need to do the advance groundwork and make all stakeholders feel like they're part of the process."

2. Always take the time to build personal relationships.

Schweitzer worked with an oil company executive from Houston putting together what would have been a very lucrative deal with a Japanese company. "The Japanese really needed this transaction-it was going to be a great investment for them," she recalls. Although the oil executive made a number of cultural mistakes during the meeting, the Japanese CEO invited him to dinner at the end of the day. He responded that he would love to-but he had already made dinner plans with someone else. "I knew right at that moment the deal wasn't going to happen," Schweitzer says. "The would say no, even though it would have been a great return on investment."

That may sound petty and self-defeating, but it's actually wise from a Japanese viewpoint, where relationships are paramount and memories are very long. "People there grow up in communities and stay in those communities all their lives," Schweitzer says. "If you get embarrassed, you'll be embarrassed for 50 years. So they don't take chances on people coming in from outside and embarrassing them. They saw this man as a wild card who might make them lose face."

Even in a more mobile society such as the United States, it's a mistake to underestimate the importance of relationships, Schweitzer says. So if you're doing business with someone, make the time to get to know that person as well. "Business is not just transactions," she says. "Get offline and off email, and go meet people face to face."

3. First impressions make or break you.

Doing business overseas has made Schweitzer acutely aware of how quickly opinions are formed and, once formed, how hard they are to change. "First impressions are created a full nine seconds before our brains realize that we've made a decision about whether or not we want to do business with someone," she says. "The smallest details can have a major negative impact."

Fortunately, she notes, "There's always something we can do to improve our first impression." A lot of it has to do with the leadership trait of self-awareness, which includes understanding the effect you're having and how you present yourself to the world. It also means being aware of the culture around you, so that informality that might be anathema in Western Europe might be a key to success in a place like Portland or Austin. So if you're heading into a new culture, industry, or situation, getting some inside information about social norms, dress standards, and even body language can be very valuable.

4. Never assume that others will see things the way you do.

"Working in other countries it becomes crystal clear that thinking is not universal," Schweitzer says. "At home, being mindful of other people's customs, and learning to respect and value those differences, is extremely helpful in our increasingly multigenerational, multicultural work force."

For example, when starting a micro-financing effort in Morocco, Western bank executives had to learn to accept "bakshish"-the tipping that is integral to the fabric of doing business in many countries. Of course, the bank officials couldn't legally accept tips. On the other hand, since bakshish guarantees good service, without it the Moroccan women they were trying to serve would not trust the bank with their money. The solution was to keep the bakshish money in a separate envelope, making note of who had given it, so that they could report this extra money whenever the bank was audited.

"Curiosity is a global leadership trait," Schweitzer says. "Don't think, 'Oh, they do it the same way we do.' Think of it being different and respect those differences." And think like an entrepreneur, she adds-you may spot an opportunity in those differences.

5. Think "we," not "me."

"Working in different Asian countries, I learned that their mindset emphasizes the group, not the individual," Schweitzer says.

In places like the United States and the United Kingdom, we tend to say "I" more often than "we," and to stress individuality more than the collective. But even here, taking a less I-focused approach has real benefits, Schweitzer says. "Applying that mindset at home has helped me create far stronger teams as a leader-team members know their input matters just as much as mine. By making that adjustment in my thinking, I find that I'm not only a better listener, I'm also much more effective at delegating and I build strong alliances with my colleagues."

Published on: Oct 16, 2015
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