How coaching across cultures isn’t your typical corporate leadership development program

In global business it has become best practice to provide executive travelers and employees who go on foreign assignments with cross-cultural training. Today, most companies fully understand the value of preparing transferees for the behavioral norms in different work environments. After all, business success often depends on how well executives cross cultures.


Recently the professional development arena has been warming up to the concept of complementing cross-cultural training with a coaching component. The benefits are multifaceted. For one, training in a corporate setting often resorts to one-off solutions with debatable longterm effects: How much of the information in a two-day cross-cultural training program will the participants actually retain – and, moreover, how much of it will they be able to apply independently weeks and months later?

An experienced coach helps making sense of the many dos & don’ts by working out the underlying whys of behavioral differences. In short: Knowledge about cultures can be learned; cultural competence needs practice. And coaches help professionals who cross cultures to stick with their “workout routine.“

This extension of cultural training appears logical to most of our clients. There’s a caveat, though. Not every cultural trainer is efficient as a coach. Obviously, like trainers, they have to be familiar with both the home and the host culture of the coachee. They need to understand the background of the person they are working with. For example: If the coach is from a more egalitarian culture like the U.S. or Northern Europe and the coachee from a more hierarchical culture in Asia, the way this relationship is set up in the beginning will be critical.

Now add to that the fact that coaching as a development tool is a predominantly Western, if not Anglo-Saxon, concept. And its methodologies may not always apply when coaching across cultures. The mere idea of working with a client as a peer will not have the same desired effects in all cultural contexts. Let’s look at the West vs. Asia example again: A coachee from a group-oriented culture with traditional hierarchies will most likely not give Western-style feedback to the coach. He will tend to see an elder in the coach and will be more obedient, which in turn defines how the coach can inspire and motivate the client.

FootFWDtoeThis is usually where the rubber meets road in cross-cultural coaching. Once there is rapport between both parties and once there is a mutual understanding of what the process is and what the expected outcomes are, coach and client can begin their workout routine. This practice pattern will sometimes become a dance: You’ll step on each other’s toes, you’ll apologize for your clumsiness, and, most importantly, you will draw learnings from it. In a way, cross-cultural coaching will become the practice laboratory in which the client is safe to make a cultural fool of himself as much as he wants.

There is another caution for switching from training to coaching: Just because trainers can teach about the dynamics of cultural transition doesn’t mean they are experts in guiding the adjustment process of specific cultures. Herein lies one of the core qualities of an efficient coaching relationship: That the teacher allows the students to make their own experiences and deduct individual learnings from these. And depending on the student’s background this will require significant adjustment on the coach’s behalf. There is good news in this: As a coach, if you remain open to learning for yourself, if you are willing to trust your own process, you will not only become a better coach over time, you will also increase your own cultural competence.

Here are some basic principles for an efficient cross-cultural coaching relationship:

  1. Study the foreign: To build rapport with a coachee you need to diligently explore her culture. This may sound like stating the obvious, however, the more you familiarize yourself with the nuances of your client’s background the better. Of course this includes studying about the various sub-cultures you may find in the country of origin.
  2. Know thyself: Only if a coach is fully aware of her own culture will she be able resonate with people from another.
  3. Context trumps content. Look at the context as the container of the client/coach relationship. Just imagine a cup that represents the framework of the relationship. If this cup has a crack, any content you’ll pour into it will eventually seep put through the crack. There are no templates you can use with your coachees. Every client is different. So defining what the relationship will be like, is critical for success.
  4. Some see this as optional, personally I make it mandatory: Once you built good rapport, have a written agreement that states how you will work with your client. Call it framework, contract, or Code of Honor: It helps to keep each other accountable.
  5. Trust the process – your coachee’s and your own.

Eventually, cross-cultural coaching can bring great benefits to your organization. However, you really want to make sure to select the right person for the job – a specialist coach who can help clients with their challenges on the job, and you should also take advantage of the opportunities within the coaching relationship itself to achieve this goal. Smart executives have started to realize this and now make the choices that will bring the desired return on investment from a cross-cultural coaching relationship.

Learn more about our Global Leader Coaching program here or email me.

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!

One thought on “How coaching across cultures isn’t your typical corporate leadership development program

  1. Reblogged this on New Perspectives! and commented:
    Christian, as always: Very much agreed. I would go even further: Real value is gained from a coaching that combines Executive / Business Coaching aspects (leadership, strategy, structure, change management….) with cultural and transition aspects. To get the whole picture and to avoid a too limited focus. Goal is: Including culture into the big picture. And I agree: Only very few coaches are up to this. I love this combination!

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