Any association expanding globally is seeking a return on investment. And those organizations seeking better business returns should place an emphasis on relationship building.
As more and more associations grow internationally, regardless of where they are incorporated or headquartered, so too do the expectations and scrutiny by boards and senior leadership for quick membership growth, financial returns, and tangible programmatic results.
This is particularly acute for U.S.-based associations, where there is often a focus first and foremost on transactions and revenue generation before relationship building. However, in much of the rest of the world, relationships based on mutual respect, reciprocity, and trust outplay transactions. Relationships need to be solidly in place before potential partners (whether components and chapters, vendors and corporate customers, or affinity associations) get down to any association business.
Open yourself to local cuisine at local times. Sharing meals with others is one of the most effective ways to build trust.
Association leaders who manage global outreach can use and leverage the LEARN concept to build trust: learn and listen; engage; adapt; respect and take limited, educated risks; and network. Using that framework, here are 10 tips to be more effective across borders:
1. Learn. Educate yourself on the local scene, including business, economics, politics, sports, arts, literature, and music. Read and access global and local in-country news sources: both leading international and local publications, broadcast media, and social media.Build an inventory of topics you can ask your hosts questions about to interact with them.
In your early meetings, listen more than you speak, give your hosts ample time to ask their own questions, and assume an initial posture of humility instead of heavy organizational marketing or self-promotion.
2. Break bread. Open yourself to local cuisine at local times. Sharing meals with others is one of the most effective ways to build trust. Don't be shy about sharing information on any food allergies you might have, but be adventurous and try local foods and beverages.
By doing so, you're demonstrating tolerance and respect for local practices, and if that means lingering over long business lunches in some parts of the world, or not even starting business
dinners until exceedingly late in others, that's the price of admission for being culturally sensitive.
3. Learn a foreign language. Even if you don't have the time or aptitude to study languages formally, know and use some of the most important words of the local language (i.e., hello, please, thank you, goodbye, excuse me) wherever you visit. And you can never say "thank you" too often. Doing so in the local language will inevitably bring smiles to people's faces and often results in better customer service, just because you made the effort.
4. Embrace the culture. Give yourself the gift of culture. Visit at least one museum, national monument, historic site, or local sporting event, and, if possible, invite and go with your counterparts.
Learning about a nation's history and culture fills in knowledge gaps and provides insights and long-term perspectives to counterbalance and deepen the current and immediate context you're experiencing. Sharing it with a counterpart demonstrates a curiosity and respect for your hosts that is invaluable.
5. Explore. Get out of the largest city, whether capital or major commercial center. Immerse yourself by using public transportation, visiting local markets, dining out, and exploring neighborhoods you wouldn't normally be exposed to. It's unquestionably important to stay safe, but it's equally important to get out of the artificial bubble of taxis, chauffeured car services, and central business districts that visitors rely on for fast connections with over-programmed schedules and pressure to get back to the office as soon as possible.
When you have or can make the time, go to the end of the line and explore outlying districts to get a better appreciation for the local economy and to understand the environment more from a potential member's perspective.
6. Respect time differences. Understand and manage different perceptions of time (business versus social events). Time management and priorities vary depending on culture. It's important to adapt to local norms when in another country. And when working virtually from afar with remote partners and teams, don't always schedule meetings when it's most convenient for you; instead, share the burden of time-zone differentials equitably among all group participants.
7. Network well. Leverage the importance of names and titles and err on the side of formality first.In many cultures identity is marked more than just by someone's name and often includes business titles or identifiers beyond first and last names that recognize academic or other achievements. With respect and sincerity, informality comes quickly, with counterparts signaling to you when it's acceptable to use first names.
When interacting in other cultures, recognize what topics should best be avoided, and being cognizant of when you bring up business discussions is also important. Too early and you appear overeager and insincere. Be patient.
8. Use humor effectively. Be able to laugh at yourself. Jokes frequently don't translate well, so review and rehearse humor with a trusted local confidant first before using it in larger groups.
9. Manage greetings and departures respectfully. In some places the handshake suffices, while in others a traditional greeting may be the ceremonial air kiss on the cheek. (Yes, even for professional situations!) Alternatively, the right kind of bow, and at a certain angle, or a friendly embrace may be more appropriate.
It's equally important to learn what to do when saying goodbye. In some cultures departing without making the rounds and shaking hands (or using whatever gesture is most suitable for that location) can cause offense and undermine all the goodwill established when you arrived.
10. Understand and appreciate gift-giving etiquette. In the age of Sarbanes-Oxley regulations and anticorruption campaigns worldwide, it's not that all gift giving should be avoided. Rather, there's an emphasis on what kind of small, symbolic, and stature-appropriate gift is appropriate to give to hosts as well as to accept for your business purposes and goals.
There should never be any quid pro quo but instead a genuine sharing of something from home that indicates that you thought of your counterparts before departing. Research what kind of wrapping papers or gift boxes–and colors–are culturally acceptable for the location, as some colors are associated with success and prosperity while others have less positive connotations.