Luke, an American, and Theo, a German, are colleagues in a global company. Early-50s, experienced, successful, in leadership positions.
They decided to exchange positions for one year. It went well. Luke had a great year in Germany. As did Theo in the U.S. And their direct reports gained deep insight into the differences between how Americans and Germans lead, and want to be led.
It could have gone differently, however. Delegations often underperform or fail outright. How high would the costs have been with Luke and Theo?
ACT 1 – Job Swap
Luke and Theo are colleagues in a global company in heavy industry. They are in their early-50s, experienced, successful, and in leadership positions in a engineering organization. The both lead teams of roughly two hundred and fifty people.
Several years ago they decided to exchange positions for one year, a so-called job swap. Luke moved to Germany, Theo to the U.S. In the mid-2000s their respective companies – one American, the other German – had been combined. It was a major transatlantic merger. So both Theo and Luke were fairly familiar working with the other culture.
ACT 2 – Addressed cultural differences
In the weeks leading up to the job swap, there was a fair amount of speculation, even concern, in the German organization about having Luke as their lead for a year. They feared American-style management, which they believed to be defined by micromanagement.
As is often the case in the German-American space, much of what each side thinks of the other is based either on clichés or on hearsay or on limited, misunderstood and unreflected interaction with each other.
On the American side there was a good amount of familiarity with Theo, since directly after the takeover he had worked in an American-dominated part of the company. Unfortunately, that assignment did not go well for Theo. Apparently, he and his American boss did not get along all too well. But the Americans didn‘t pay much attention to that.
Immediately after Luke and Theo made their moves to the respective other country, I executed customized workshops separately with them and their direct reports. We focused on key topics such as communication, decision making, leadership, conflict resolution, processes philosophies, and customer approaches.
As is my method, we addressed the differences in approaches between Germans and Americans, enabling Theo and his team, and Luke and his team, to establish groundrules for the next year.
ACT 3 – Luke’s Year in Germany
Luke was able to modify his leadership style in ways which met the needs and expectations of his German direct reports. He scheduled less staff meetings, kept them to a tighter schedule, reduced the number of participants in the meetings, and gave his team the level of independence they felt was needed in order to do their jobs well.
In the workshop we discussed the American concept of management-by-walking-around, (MBWA) and why that is so critical to the success of American teams. Luke and I referred to Tom Peters‘ best-selling book In Search of Excellence from the mid-1980s.
We cited numerous examples in American culture – not just in business – where the leadership logic requires that team leads be in close touch with their people – their work, the atmosphere in the team, their problems and concerns.
As a shared logic, we explained, American team members expect their leads to be in constant touch with them. I then asked Luke‘s German team members to define their understanding of micromanagement. Luke and his team were able to come to an agreement rather quickly.
I recall being on-site one day and passing by Luke‘s office. His door was open. I peeked in without being noticed. With their backs to me and sitting at Luke‘s oval meeting table, I could sense immediately the level of trust between Luke and one of his key engineers.
Luke was listening carefully, sincerely. The engineer‘s body language signaled that he was relaxed, deeply involved in the subject matter, communicating clearly and openly with Luke.
It was only a quick snapshot impression, but I knew Luke rather well, what kind of person, therefore manager, he was. He cared deeply about his people. Months later I would hear several comments from the German team that they were thrilled with Luke.
„He‘s always there for any of us when we have a problem. Luke senses quickly when we need his help. We can go to him at any time with any issues, or he comes to us.“
ACT 4 – Theo’s year in the U.S.
Theo‘s year in the U.S. was no less successful than Luke‘s. In the workshop I customized for him and his team it was critical that the Americans understand the German leadership logic. They discussed, debated and decided over two very full days how best to work together.
I had them address the same topics as in Luke‘s workshop. Much was eye-opening for the Americans. Up until that point they had not done much thinking about the differences in leadership approaches.
In fact, in the early weeks it took some adjustment for the Americans. „Theo spends too much time in his office. He doesn‘t get out and work with the organization“, was a comment I heard several times. After relaying the feedback to Theo, he addressed it in one of his staff meetings. At the same time, I emailed my white paper on German leadership style to his staff.
Theo, and I in a handful of phone calls, reminded the Americans that when German management does not proactively communicate or get involved in the daily work of their direct reports it is a positive sign that the team is performing well. I suggested to Theo to lay out in his staff meeting when German management does, indeed, get involved at the tactical level.
On the phone to me, and in his staff meeting, Theo was very clear: „I get involved proactively if I am asked by my team or by an individual team member; if I see a problem which only I can resolve; or if there are structural barriers in the organization or in processes, etc. which need to be removed.
Otherwise, if my folks are performing well, the last thing I want to do is interrupt, distract or otherwise stick my nose in their business. My job is strategy; making sure that the general organizational parameters within which we work are supportive; and anticipating long-term problems.“
I recall very well an instance early on during Theo‘s year in the U.S. when his German approach to leadership did not meet the (perceived) needs of one of his direct reports. I was in the meeting. Jerry, one of Theo‘s top engineers, said: „Theo, I need your help. Whenever I have meetings on Project X, people from other organizations show up.
I don‘t know who they are or why they are present. They claim that their work is influenced by ours, but I cannot judge if that is true or not. And on top of that, they then bill us for their time. You need to talk to their bosses and get them to stop this!“
Everyone looked over to Theo, who was very calm, reflected for about five seconds, then said: „Jerry, what‘s the problem? It‘s your meeting. If you don‘t want them in it, just ask them politely to leave.“
Jerry was not happy with the response. He repeated the problem and his request that Theo get involved, as if Theo had not fully understood him. Theo smiled and replied supportively: „Jerry, just pull out the process on how we do design engineering.
It spells out very clearly how gate meetings are run, including who attends, etc. Just bring it to the next meeting, read it to those who you think should not attend, then ask them why they are there. If they don‘t have a plausible reason, ask them to leave.“
It was clear to me, after so many years in Germany, what Theo meant and where he was coming from. And it was also clear to Jerry and his other American colleagues. Nonetheless, it was equally clear to me as an American that Theo‘s response was not enough.
Sure it might all be spelled out in the process, but Americans expect their team leads to step up and fight for them if requested. That‘s what leadership means. Referring to a document is not leading, at least not from the American perspective.
When I communicated this to Theo he looked at me squarely in the eyes and said: „John, I can‘t spend my time running around bothering other senior-level managers with this kind of stuff (he used another term). Jerry needs to demonstrate a little backbone. He can do it.“
Theo had a great year in the U.S., as did Luke in Germany. Even more important was the learning curve that their respective teams went through. Both sides gained deep insight into the differences between how Americans and Germans lead, and want to be led. What they learned continues to benefit them long beyond that one year.
ACT 5 – The Cost of Cultural Misunderstanding
What if Luke and Theo had failed? What would have been the overall damage to the engineering organization had Luke and Theo failed in their leadership roles?
If they had switched back after six months? If productivity in their teams had decreased by 10%? If their respective organizations produced results suboptimal by 10%? Can you estimate those costs if this situation were in your own company?
Leading translatlantic Teams
Ok, let’s extrapolate. We assume that there are clear differences in how Americans and Germans lead, and want to be led. And that these differences have immediate and constant impact on transatlantic teams.
Look at you company. Estimate how many organizations – on different levels, and in different areas – involve Americans leading Germans or Germans leading Americans. Similar to Luke and Theo.
Then assume that due to cultural differences their productivity, and their results, are reduced by 5%. Estimate that cost to the company.