Throughout my career I’ve lived and worked in cities around the world, covering territories in Asia, Europe, Australia, and Latin and North America. With each new assignment, I intentionally immersed myself in the local cultural and business traditions.
While my international experience taught me to work effectively within different cultures, I’ve also learned that certain skills transcend cultures. The skills I employed while learning a new place are just as useful for interacting with anyone, anywhere.
Effective relationship skills vary by culture, and what might be seen as rude in one place may be perfectly acceptable or even expected in another. My global territories have been large, and when work took me to a new country, I often wouldn’t just go for a day or two, I’d stay for months at a time and intentionally work to understand the cultural nuances. In some cultures, I found that it was essential to spend time fostering a thoughtful relationship with business prospects or colleagues in order to express my interest, intent, and willingness to invest in the relationship as a prerequisite to business dealings. In other areas, people tended to be more interested in getting right down to business. As I learned how essential it is to take the time to understand how your actions might be perceived in any given setting, I also discovered that our ability to connect is universal when we intentionally embrace different styles and perspectives.
When it comes to the workplace, it’s common knowledge now that we all work differently. There are extroverts and introverts, those who are more collaborative, and those who prefer to think concepts through alone before contributing. As a leader, it’s important to take the time to understand differing work styles and recognize that all are necessary to build a successful team. I’ve been able to adapt my experience working within different cultures to better lead a team with wide-ranging expectations, preferences, and skills. I know some employees prefer me going to their desk with questions, while others find that approach disruptive and respond better to an email. Some are impatient with small talk, so I keep my conversation very directed, while others value and respond to a more casual approach. It’s all a matter of learning what works for different people to get the best results.
It is always important to be a focused listener, but even more so when cultural nuances can be missed in unfamiliar regions of the world. It sounds simple, but in our multi-tasking world it is easy to not fully be present and engaged in conversations. Everyone wants to feel heard and validated. People can tell when you’re distracted and often perceive this as a lack of interest. The ability to hear what someone says and play back what you’ve heard can make a real impact.
Curiosity about people is the best way I’ve found to hone conversational skills and guide conversations to uncover deeper topics. It starts with being genuinely interested in learning more about the other person. People often like to share their interests, so I find it’s best to start with an easy, open-ended question and ask follow-up questions based on information they share. Once you uncover topics they feel passionately about, you’ll likely find common ground to begin building a relationship around. For example, this learning came in handy when I was attending the US Open with some prospective clients and I met someone who was working in engineering solutions. Eventually I learned his work relates to sustainable energy, which happens to be a passion of mine. My ability to speak knowledgeably and genuinely about sustainable energy helped establish common ground and strengthen this new relationship.
My experience at the US Open demonstrates another important point. Regardless of where you are in the world, it is valuable to be a life-long learner, which leads to many opportunities to connect with people over expansive areas of interest. At the same time, it is essential to be candid about your own knowledge and passions. I have only a limited interest in sports: I generally don’t pay attention until the championship rounds. If I were to pretend during a conversation at the US Open that I followed tennis year-round, it would soon become clear I wasn’t being genuine. On the other hand, moving from one real topic to another along common ground can easily segue into a business-related discussion, or help nail down a plan for a meeting.
I have found this model of relationship-building to be critical not only in connecting with clients and prospective clients, but with the employees I lead.
While many millennials and Gen Zs have grown up with the internet and smartphones, they are far from the only generations that lean heavily on the convenience and lure of devices. Yet experts worry that we rely too much on communicating through devices, and neglect to engage in true human interaction. I have found that there is real value in face-to-face or video communication with employees, where possible. This is another aspect of active listening: it encourages both sides to be fully focused on the subject at hand. When was the last time you were fully engaged in an exchange conducted by text?
And just as with clients, it is important to genuinely get to know your employees. My time in other countries made me wary of stereotyping, and this has served me well in my work with new generations of employees. Don’t make assumptions or generalizations based on generational stereotypes. For example, when it comes to millennials, many assume they prefer to interact almost entirely with technology, but in fact many prefer to work collaboratively. By responding to colleagues, clients, and other team members as individuals, you are acknowledging that everyone contributes unique value—leading to higher engagement in your company and its mission.
If my years spent living around the world taught me any one thing, it was that all people share the desire to be respected and valued. Strong leadership comes down to listening to people and connecting to them on a genuine level. When we do that with employees, whatever their age or back story, they respond and give back many times over.
Brendan Walsh is the executive vice president and GM of US sales and account development for American Express Global Commercial Services (GCS).