PeopleFirst! with Morag Barrett

If you're working internationally and looking to develop your cross-cultural competence then this is the episode for you. Join me and my guest Dr. Kumar, an expert in International Business Strategy and Cross-Cultural Management.

Show Notes

Dr. Kumar is an expert in International Business Strategy and Cross-Cultural Management. Originally from India, Dr. Kumar has lived and worked in the United States, U.K., Denmark, France, Finland, Netherlands, and New Zealand. 

Through personal experience and academic study, he has developed a deep appreciation and awareness of the importance of the cross-cultural dimension and how it impacts strategy formulation and implementation.

Dr. Kumar has a Ph.D. degree in International Business from New York University, an MBA from Rutgers University, and a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Delhi. Dr. Kumar is author of International Negotiations in China and India published by Macmillan in 2011. He also coauthored Doing Business in India which was published by Macmillan in 2005. 

During his academic career he has published numerous research papers in academic journals. Dr. Kumar is also a certified Global Dexterity Trainer and is currently appearing on Leadership Podcasts as a guest where he highlights the importance of managing the cultural dimension for global companies. He also leads training programs for companies engaged in global business.

What is PeopleFirst! with Morag Barrett?

Welcome to SkyeTeam's People First! In this series, we explore the people side of successful business and careers. We all have a story to share, a leadership journey that we are experiencing.

We'll be interviewing authors, business leaders, thought leaders, and people like you to uncover the latest ideas, resources, and tools to help you become more effective at work - and in life. As it turns out, the secret is cultivating winning relationships. Business is personal, and relationships matter!


welcome to sky team's people first with

morag barrett

welcome to this week's episode of people

first where leaders come to accelerate

their leadership journey and my guest

this week is the fascinating dr rajesh kumar who is an expert in international

business strategy and cross-cultural


originally from india dr kumar has lived

and worked in the united states the uk





and new zealand

and through personal experience and

academic study he has developed a deep

appreciation and awareness of the

importance of the cross-cultural


and how it impacts strategy formulation

and implementation

dr kumar has a phd degree in

international business from new york

university an mba from rutgers

university and and a master's degree in

economics from the university of delhi

he's the author of international

negotiations in china and india

published by macmillan in 2011

and he's also co-authored doing business

in india which was published by

macmillan in 2005.

so dr kumar welcome to people first

thank you marek thank you for inviting


well i'm really looking forward to this

conversation as a woman who's had an

opportunity to work with leaders from

more than 20 countries and on four

continents as a transplant myself the

cross-cultural and the global impact for

all of us cannot be underestimated

however before we get into the juicy

stuff sure i want to start with your

origin story so when you go back to

being a wee lad you're growing up you're

in primary school middle school yes the

teacher says rajesh what do you want to

be when you grow up what was yours

right so again here you get into culture

because at the time when i was growing

up in india

the dominant uh

dominant focus was on becoming a

bureaucrat because india in the 70s was

you know a fairly restricted economy it

was not so open was not doing so well

and you know given the hierarchical

structure of the indian society the best


for everyone at that time of the

dominant ambition was to become a

bureaucrat and to enter the indian

administrative service

which is actually a precursor to the

indian civil service which was

established by the british when they

ruled india

so you know that was what everyone had

set its ambitions on their ambitions on

and my parents wanted me to join that

service as well but

i it was not to my inclination not to my




and perhaps didn't suit my temperaments

now i decided against that and

decided to venture overseas and my first

journey out of india was actually in


where i went to london

and i was at that time

uh article with an accounting firm and

uh trying to become a chartered


but again i kind of got disillusioned

with that and then moved to the u.s


interesting though because i mean i

started in numbers as well 15 years in

finance and realized that part of the

equation but it's the human element that

makes the change

not a bureaucrat

not an accountant right what was the

inspiration then for cultural awareness

and the the working of peoples from

around the world right so i think one

was my own practical experience because

when i moved from india to the u.s

it i faced a culture shock

because clearly the british way of doing

things was very different from the way

people do things in india

and i struggled in terms of


in terms of getting myself understood

in terms of understanding

what the others were were saying of what

the intentions were

and so i realized at that point in time

that this is an important issue and uh

and i needed to change myself and so

and then when i moved to the u.s there

was again

a little bit of a culture shock less so

but still there and

and then in the process i also

came to recognize the positivity of

these differences because you meet

wonderful people you come to appreciate

different ways of thinking you are

really introduced to things

that you may not have been aware of

and so i think in retrospect

and in fact looking back it was a very

positive experience but when you're

going through it and especially

initially it's a little bit of a

challenge it is i mean i remember when

we moved to the states

obviously from england to colorado here

and allegedly we speak the same language

yes i can confirm from my own faux pas

that we uh american english and english

english don't always translate correct

even going to the grocery store yeah

calling a grocery store versus a

supermarket is one example of language

difference but the brands look different

and the

the climate is different here in

colorado to where i grew up so the foods

i would cook didn't feel like it suited

where we were living and what we wanted

to eat but i couldn't even tell which

brands were the ones that i might want

to purchase and so thinking about it at

a human level it's not just the language

breaks but it's the the customs the

etiquette absolutely and just putting

heads on the table feels weird and

different absolutely and if i'm not

mistaken i think this british company

tesco tried to enter the u.s market

and i don't think they succeeded

you didn't and there are

plenty of stories like that so let's

start there then where does a lack of

appreciation for national culture and

the similarities or differences how does

that impact

a company's performance

oh it does so in so many different ways

i think first of all

if you don't really understand the local

mindset the local needs the local

you know the local desires

you might

number one end up producing a product


that that nobody wants to buy and i

think to some extent that's that's one

of the issues if not all of the issues

that happened with tesco and a number of

other companies

and same thing has also happened with

general motors in india they

exited after 21 years

they tried a number of different models

but the fact of the matter is

that they could not produce a low priced

car because india is a price sensitive


and so they ceded the market to their

korean competitors so the first thing is

you've really got to really understand

the local mindset the local


and if you don't then i think you know

there's going to be a problem in terms

of what you offer and what the market is

willing to accept and the same thing

also happened with ebay when they were

entering china so

so they had a chinese competitor which

allowed the buyers and the sellers to

communicate directly

whereas that food that was not permitted

on ebay now that became a disadvantage

for them because in china and in other

asian countries relationships are very

important and personal interaction is so


so you've really got to understand the

interface and the and the

and the and the need for local


if you are going to succeed

now i recognize that as soon as managers

hear the word local responsiveness

it means greater costs yes because

you've got to adapt

but on the other hand if your interest

is in longer term market penetration and


then i think you'd really do need to

adapt now i'm not saying all adaptation

is necessary but certainly you know you

need to get to know the lay of the land

and and realize the boundaries

within which you can make the adaptation

so it's interesting as i listen and i'm

thinking about the clients and leaders

i'm working with who are working

internationally or the leaders who are

leading internationally whether they're

they've got uh offshore resources that

they're tapping into or cultural

dynamics on their team

so i'm curious first of all on the


which is easier for me to

learn is it the business rules of

engagement abroad because there's a

textbook and a manual

yes or is it the

human bit of how business gets on the

people a bit

which trips up leaders more often is it

i think it's the human aspect of it

and i think the other thing is the two

things are kind of interrelated so even

if you have a certain manual or certain

rules or regulations

the fact is that how they're implemented

how they are used

varies across different cultural


and so you've really got to get to as i

said earlier the lay of the land

which is what works what does not work

what is the real you know what is the

actual way of doing business

as opposed to the stated way of doing

business yes

so everyone will talk about transparency

and honesty and all of this yes yeah and

yet how this manifests itself

is different in different contexts

so tell us a little bit more about that

i know for example negotiation yes how

does that differ across cultures and



absolutely so you know in a lot of asian

countries or cultures

negotiation is about building


you've got to spend time together you've

got to socialize you've got to uh

you know you've got to you've got to you

know you've got to build trust now a lot

of western managers who go to asia you

know at times to get frustrated because

it takes long time it takes a long time

to get down to do business

and and so they often may not have the

patience or the uh or the ability to

actually cope with those particular


but you know the thing is that

for a lot of people in asia i think

building trust is vital

and you build trust through

interpersonal connections

and how do you build interpersonal

connections you know i think you as in

other situations as well

you know you meet people socially you

have a drink you go out for lunch you

you you converse you get to uh

you get to know each other

now for the western manager you know

this is considered as something

different from doing business

but i think the point is that in a

number of different cultures the two

things are are completely interrelated

and similar but different i mean i'm

thinking about my own experience

obviously working in london yes you

could go to the pub you'd go out for a

meal your food and drink yourself the

relationship when i was working in asia

however the idea of taking clients and

customers to a karaoke bar in order to

close the deal was

coming from a british perspective it was

like heck you're not going to get me

singing anywhere

and probably for good reason so

so as leaders are thinking about the

environments that they're working in

what are the sort of first steps that

they can

take in order to become more culturally

aware but also culturally adept right so

the first thing is they

they need to get out of their comfort


they need to actually recognize

that there is an alternative reality

because unless you don't recognize that

then i think there's going to be a


and so it might very well be the case

that a lot of countries look to america

or look to the west

in terms of uh you know in terms of

guidance in terms of source of


and certainly you know u.s has obviously

been the leader in a lot of high-tech


but the fact of the matter is that even

as they look towards the us

you know in a lot of asian cultures

business is very personal

and so i think you've got to recognize

that and realize it's its importance

and often enough people who have not

gone out of their own particular country

they don't recognize that there's such

thing as culture

so i think there needs to be that

initial awareness yes

and in terms of adeptness i think it is

a matter of time it requires training

it requires having a corporate uh

corporate management team that is very


because then they can actually pick up

clues and be sensitive to what is

required to succeed in different markets

you need to

train people socialize people

it's a process it's not something that

is going to happen overnight

but if you're going to be active


then you've got to create a unit in your

own organization

that is going to create

or develop people who develop these

particular kinds of skills

so yes a unit if your organization is

big enough or at least the confidence in

your own to aid your reading before you

go um to perhaps ask somebody who's on

the ground locally to continue to give

us feedback as we're learning to flex

and adjust around the customs norms and

expectations right absolutely and then i

think what you can also do is

not everyone is going to succeed


so you also need to have the right kind

of selection in terms of what kind of


will succeed in those environments so

tell us more about that then how do we

identify whether i

am suited to working internationally or

if i'm promoting or hiring leaders into

international roles right so there's a

lot of another thing yeah so there are a

lot of cross-cultural consulting firms

to do this there are a lot of

psychometric tools that are available


you know so basically

you know you're looking for certain

traits such as uh

you know emotional intelligence or

cultural intelligence or patience or the

ability to build relationships

uh you know and you've got to have

somebody who has openness who's open

to really

understanding different cultures

oriented to differences

because very often what happens is we

consider differences to be wrong

and and i think we need to move beyond

that mindset and we consider that to be

wrong because you know

we operate on the basis of her mind and

the mind likes to control the mind wants


and the way you get predictability is by

creating these silos

you know it's either x or y right

but the fact is that when you go into

novel environments you need to be on you

need to go beyond that mentality

beyond that dichotomy by on beyond that

dichotomy of it yeah it feels wrong it's

like right not right

yeah because you know we we are 95 of

the time you know our mind is acting

unconsciously we're making judgments do

we like someone do we dislike someone do


do we trust someone do we not trust

someone else yes

and i'm saying when you're going in a

cross-cultural context

you need to go beyond that because

your initial judgments can be completely

wrong can be complete can be completely

inappropriate because you don't have a

good understanding of the lay of the


how important is language in being a

good international


i think it is helpful and you know i'm

not saying that it is

you know so if you are going to be

resident in a country for a long period

of time

you know as a country manager or

otherwise then it's helpful to know the


it's not it is so it is helpful i would


i won't say it's critical i think what's

really more important is your

personality and your attitude

because ultimately people will react to

you based on your attitude your personal


they might forget the fact that you

don't know the language


you know

so i think that's really more important

i'm not downplaying the importance of

language i think if you're going to be

resident in a place for a long time

it is certainly helpful to know that

but i think a lot of companies certainly

us companies want the send managers

overseas to send them for just three


which is i think a short period of time

whereas if you take a look at japanese

or other companies they send them for

six or seven years

so what advice do you have for leaders

who may be about to embark on their

first international assignment for that

first um transition period where you've

got off the plane off the boat however

you've made your way out of the

uh those first few weeks and months

what what tips and advice do you have

for leaders here i think even even

before you set down foot on the country

you need to prepare even well before in

advance so the one thing which i think

is very important

preparation preparation preparation

i cannot stress the importance of that

you know and this means

you know

trying to familiarize yourself with as

much as you can about the local culture

trying to identify local resources on

the ground who can actually help you

assist you

try to have some kind of a dialogue

anyhow before entering that particular


and then you've also got to just display

the ability to learn to adapt because

that will be essential

and and so it is a process that that

takes time

and sometimes that does not happen uh

you know i also took me a while for me

to adapt when i moved to england and

then to the us and i can share with you

another story of a german company that

was uh

that had entered into a distributorship

agreement with the company in india

and they signed the contract and they

thought everything was hunky-dory and

then they realized that the their

products were not selling and

and so they wondered what was going on


then the ceo of the indian company

visited germany



he was of the he was expecting that he

would be treated well

but the germans actually just gave him a

45 minute lunch in a cafeteria

he felt insulted

because he felt that


you know that he needed greater respect

or whatever

and the fundamental problem was

that the germans didn't realize that the

products that they were trying to get

this company to sell

that company was not interested in

selling them they wanted other products

from this german company

with the german company did not give to

them now here you have a very

fundamental communication problem

sense-making problem

and the party signed a contract but they

really had no great understanding

so i'm curious i mean as we look at the

pandemic the impact that's had

on global business and yes i change


it's had an impact on our ability to go

and have a drink

locally alone internationally build

relationships right so what are some of

the key learnings that have come out of

the last two years

that you're sharing in your research and

teachings right so i think it is

obviously i think it has made doing

business difficult

and i've spoken to a number of people

and uh

they say it has been hard to build

relationships yes

because you do not have the

face-to-face interaction

now in cases where relationships have

already been built it's a little easier

but it is difficult to really initiate

something new especially in the context

of doing business in asia latin america

or whatever it is but i think it's

probably changing now because people are

moving around now

and so the future what's caught your

attention in terms of ha

that needs some further investigation

what do you think is next for

the research in

international business and

cross-cultural competence

right so i think a couple of things on


on the international business side i


you know we're living going through a

period of great transitions

transitions within countries and across


and i think the jury is still active as

to how this is going to play itself out

uh because we see a lot of uh

so we see in europe the brexit and uh

boris johnson wanted to

wants to tear up that deal with the eu


that's you know that's consequential and

so there's uncertainty there in terms of

what happens yes

we have ongoing tensions of course

between us and russia and also with

china and yet the thing is the west is

so dependent on china

so how do you actually uh

balance the two and uh so you have both

economic tensions and also geopolitical


so i think right now it's a period of

uncertainty and


not clear not clear how things are going

to pan out

in terms of the cultural issue i think

again we see a problem challenge now


many countries are getting very insular

and as they're getting insular i think

you know there's going to be uh

you know with the exception of the

people who are converted who already

recognize the importance of this

i think you're going to see attentions

emerging between uh

between you know the and one of the

fundamental problems in cultural

adaptation is

who does the adaptation

and so there is

there is a pragmatic question answer to


there is a power based answer to it so

if i'm more dependent on you than you

are on me

then maybe i will be forced to make that

adaptation yes


that's that's looking at issue of

dependency but

the pragmatic thing is yes even if that

may be the case but if you're going to

do business over the longer term

then i think there needs to be mutual

accommodation and adaptation

but i think it is very difficult because

people seem to be so deeply

rooted in their own cultural identity

and they find it very difficult to get

get out of that

so getting out of that then so how can

listeners to the viewers of this week's

episode learn more about their own


um culture competence and international

business ability and learn to flex where

can we learn about your work right so i

think the number of things they need to

talk to a lot of people who've had

different kinds of experiences because

you know with diversity you will be you


you will realize uh

opportunities or avenues or ways of

doing things that you hadn't realized


so i think talking to people with

different backgrounds to people who have

actually lived and worked in different

countries yes that will be a very very

important source of learning and then

you've got to really immerse yourself as


in terms of a particular cultural


and there will always be differences but

i think the key to this is to focus on

the similarities

and to recognize that

we are all united by the fact that we

are all one in some sense

as philosophers or other

spiritual scholars would tell us so i

think we tend to focus on differences

not on similarities

so dr kumar i appreciate all of your

insights today

and uh for sharing some of your

experience of working internationally

and your studies and research i wish you

ongoing success thank you for joining me

on people first thank you thank you for

inviting me and being a guest

thank you so much for joining morag

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