Leadership is Knowing How to Ask

By:  Maya Hu-Chan, C-Suite Coach, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

If there is ever an opportunity to add in an eighth deadly sin, then I am putting my hand up to nominate assumption.

In my experience, assumption is already the #1 business sin; the destroyer of deals, the terrorizer of team dynamics – yet it continues to pervade businesses the world over and therefore ought to be at the very top of the list of behaviors to be coached and trained out of talented professionals.

One area in which assumption can most visibly rear its ugly head is in the coming together of different cultures and generations in a global team. In a global team you might find a Beijing-based Baby Boomer working, either virtually or physically, alongside a Parisian teammate from Generation Y – with both of them reporting in to a newly-promoted Generation X-er from New York state.

Although the varied skills and experiences of global teams can make for a vibrant and highly capable business unit; bringing together different ages, different upbringings and different sociological influences can also conspire to create a team which finds it hard to understand each other. This is something I call diversity tension in my book Global Leadership: The Next Generation.

I often find myself speaking on the subject of ‘appreciating diversity’ – which is the natural antidote to diversity tension – and the need to take a deeper look at the actions of the people you are working with.

At one recent global conference I was giving a keynote on how to build a global coaching culture. I was sharing the typical characteristics of different generations of employees and remarking on how different generations are often unable to appreciate the positives of each other and how important it is to understand and value colleagues of different generations for their contributions – however different to your own.

I was considering the impact that upbringing has on Generation X and Y employees compared to their parents in the Baby Boomer generation. Although, in many respects, the emerging generations are perhaps more naturally suited to global leadership, due to the impact of technology on their awareness of other cultures, music, news and lifestyles; different cultural forces in their upbringing still create differences in working style that the global leader must take the time to understand.

For example, during the speech I talked about the impact that China’s one child policy has had on a generation of employees. Known as ‘Little Emperors and Empresses’, what impact does the focused attention and resources they have enjoyed from their parents and grandparents mean for them as employees? Does it make them individualistic? Or does it make them privileged with expectations that can’t be met?

During a break in the conference, a young Chinese delegate came up to talk to me. She argued that yes, she and her generation were privileged but this focus of attention came with an equal pressure of responsibility, with no siblings to share it with. “We can’t fail, we are expected to live out our parents’ expectations of us,” she said. Compare this to the typical characteristics of a Generation Y worker in Western society who is perhaps more focused on work-life balance and you can see how a global leader with a diverse team will have to figure out two completely different ways of hiring, motivating and rewarding two members of the same generation!

Each generation and culture has something unique to offer and different ways of tackling challenges.  Yet it is all too easy for each generation or culture to assume that they are the best and others are less effective.

I was teaching an Executive Education class at a leading university recently and I asked the delegates to group themselves into their respective generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.

I asked each group what was important to them, what they felt they had to offer and, perhaps most importantly, what they wished other generations could appreciate about them and what they needed to be successful.

What was most striking about their responses was that, among the differences in working styles and approaches, there was a common need to be understood and respected. Each group felt there were too many assumptions made about their generation: ‘baby boomers are out of touch’, ‘the younger generation is lazy and too informal’ were comments they often heard.

Talented global leaders, with diverse teams, avoid making these broad assumptions and are intrigued by different perspectives, rather than threatened by them. They are also proactive in rooting out unhelpful assumptions held by others.

Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Take advantage of any opportunity to work within the rich tapestry of global cultures, generations and traditions that create your business landscape
  2. Listen to all points of view in your team, no matter how apparently different they seem from your own
  3. Remain open and curious about how other people think and operate
  4. Actively explore the differences between team members in order to increase understanding and strengthen working relationships, rather than letting them inhibit progress
  5. Make asking, rather than telling, your leadership style. Ask questions, ask for information, ask for ideas – and ask for feedback.

As the internationally-renowned business thinker Peter Drucker put it: “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”

By taking this open, curious approach, any diversity tension you find in your team will quickly dissipate – creating a powerful and truly global dynamic within the business that can deliver a tangible, commercial edge for you and your team.

About the Author: Maya Hu-Chan is C-Suite Coach with Executive Development Associates, in addition to an international management consultant, executive coach, and author. In 2013 she was rated one of the World’s Top 8 Global Solutions Thinkers by Thinkers50, and one of the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus. Harvard Business School has chosen her book Global Leadership: The Next Generation to be one of their Working Knowledge recommended books. She is also a contributing author to 10 leadership and management books.

Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego, California. She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world.