Leading a Cross-Cultural Team

Toudai moto kurashi

— Japanese Proverb

The lighthouse doesn't shine on its base: motivating a cross-cultural team
Woodblock print by Shotei Takahashi Hiroaki (1871 – 1945)

Cross-cultural teams have become the norm in virtually every multi-national company, and many smaller companies doing business globally. Building a highly-effective cross-cultural team can be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, opportunities for a team leader.

Early in my career, a Japanese company recruited me to lead a cross-cultural team that was struggling with the development of a new IT product in an emerging and highly-competitive category. The product and marketing teams were part of a relatively new division within a hundred-plus-year-old, very traditional Japanese company. The design and development teams were in Japan and the marketing teams were in the US, Europe, and Japan. The product was to be sold globally, which meant having to address the needs of multiple markets around the world. While I had previously been part of a team introducing a telecommunications product line into Europe, leading an end-to-end global design-to-market team within a Japanese cultural context was a completely different type of challenge.

Leading a Cross-Cultural Team

Unlike my first expatriate experience as part of an American company based in London – where most of my colleagues back in the US assumed that the only real difference was that the British spelled differently – joining a Japanese company was a very different experience. Being a ‘gaijin’, or foreigner, resulted in much of the on-boarding emphasis being placed on what was different about the Japanese culture, and the challenges those differences might create in leading a cross-cultural team made up of Japanese, Europeans, and Americans.

I was given a language teacher, a cultural coach, and several books to read – ranging from The Tales of Genji (the world’s oldest novel) to Embracing Defeat. As anyone who has lived or worked in Japan knows, there are many differences between Japanese and Western cultures. I quickly came to realize that someone could spend a lifetime trying to understand and appreciate the richness and complexity of Japan and its mores. If that was going to be the key to this team’s success, then I was going to need to learn fast.

Prepared with a clear set of goals for the team, a smattering of Japanese, and an elevated level of sensitivity to cultural differences, I jumped into my first team meeting (which was held in a smoke-filled room with more than one team member taking a nap). I quickly discovered that the challenges we faced were common to many teams: silos that contributed to people taking a narrow view of the purpose of their role, inside-out thinking that created a strong internal bias, and poor cross-team communications. The trouble was that all my recent training pointed me in the direction of seeing cultural differences as the culprit. To make matters worse, while there was an appreciation for my attempts at speaking the language and interest in Japanese culture, focusing on and understanding cultural differences did very little in the way of creating a more effective team and accelerating the time to market.

Toudai Moto Kurashi

After a frustrating first month, I was debating the wisdom of taking on this project, which looked like it might become a spectacular failure. At that point, my Japanese mentor and translator “Matt” Yoshihara stepped in with some wise counsel. Matt, who had lived and worked in both Europe and the US, and was a successful, and very well-respected team leader, took me aside after one particularly long and frustrating team meeting and said, “Toudai moto kurashi”: The lighthouse does not shine on its base. He went on to explain the proverb and his observation that I was illuminating the problems and focusing on the cultural differences, but I was leaving the human factor in the dark, and this was getting in the way of building an effective team. The challenges we were experiencing were human challenges, not Japanese, American, or French. The designers and engineers needed to realize that their purpose was to create an amazing customer experience, not just to build reliable hardware. And, the regional product managers needed to move beyond quoting competing product specifications to narratives that described the use of the products in terms of where, how, and why.

We recognized that creating a common language around where, how, and why meant that both developers and marketers needed to feel more confident in their understanding of customer needs, and to trust one another in expressing those requirements. We took the unconventional step of putting cross-functional teams on planes and sending them to beta customer sites around the world. What had been specifications on a PowerPoint for the teams, became customer conversations that led to a keen sense of competency and confidence in what the customers need. Most significantly, we set the stage for people to develop common perspectives as we shared customer stories on planes and over team dinners of sashimi and sake. By focusing on the team relationships, the gaps between what teammates expected of each other and what they were experiencing gradually closed. The result was a significant improvement in team performance, a successful product launch, and the creation of an innovative approach to designing and developing products.

Illuminate the Base of the Lighthouse

Yoshihara-san’s wisdom is relevant to every team leader, especially those leading multi-cultural teams. Building highly-effective cross-cultural teams require understanding our own views and biases as well as being sensitive to others as you illuminate the challenges, and then focus on what is common across them.

The essence of exceptional team leadership, and especially cross-cultural team leadership, is recognizing what we all have in common: that human motivation comes from finding a purpose that matters, developing competencies that create confidence, and having the freedom to demonstrate that we can make a difference. Matt’s wisdom in focusing me on motivating people by building relationships, and closing relationship gaps, among the team members and across the teams was both professionally rewarding and personally gratifying.

Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Yoshihara-san!


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.