Think Globally, Communicate Locally: Proficiency in Global Business Communication

Tips for effective global business communication beyond the bounds of the home office, country or culture. 

The capacity to communicate is primary to positive interactions and connections with others, both in and out of the workplace. As such, numerous books, articles and blog posts abound with tips for effective business and leadership communication. global business communication, global leadership developmentWhen communication “goes global” and moves beyond the bounds of the executive’s home office, country or culture, there is even more to consider. Effective leadership communication globally calls for simple messages, delivered consistently and with sensitivity to local business customs. It also calls for conveying information free from bias and assumptions, and listening in that same way. Creating a local network to help with cultural understanding, and all the while maintaining connection to important networks at home, round out the toolkit necessary for success in global business communication.

Develop Clear Messages

For every leader, creating clear messages about your vision and strategy is critical. Business leaders needing to convey key messages globally, or in another culture or language, also need to make sure those messages are both in sync with corporate goals and understood in diverse environments. Testing messages with trusted colleagues, particularly those who understand the local culture and values, is helpful. Keep the messages simple, and then use them consistently and frequently in written and verbal communications.

Leave Assumptions at the Door

There’s a reason self-awareness is first on our list of attributes for successful global leaders. Knowing who you are, warts and all, is fundamental to effective interactions with others. In particular, watch out for subconscious opinions and biases. Check your assumptions prior to a communication, and surface those of others over the course of the discussion. Particularly in a new or foreign environment, let the spirit of inquiry come before advocating your point of view.

Align Messages Across All Communications

When working and leading in a different culture, following up verbal messages in writing not only reinforces the message, it leaves less room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Conversely, following up written communications with verbal conversations and presentations provides a way to check for understanding and determine where more clarification if needed. Some interesting points regarding the importance of reinforcing verbal and written communications, particularly for global leaders:

  • Leaders report that more than 70% of decisions are made in writing.
  • The International Association of Business Communicators states that leaders use e-mail 83% of the time to engage employees and foster productivity.
  • A recent Accountemps survey concluded that “the ability to effectively convey a point verbally and in writing can be a key predictor of leadership potential.”

Make sure to learn the protocols for written communications such as emails and letters in the locations you are addressing. Reach out to the legal department and colleagues for help, and have someone read them for language and etiquette until you become comfortable.

Build Basic Language Capability

You don’t need to become fluent in a new language, but learning the basics of polite communication can go a long way toward demonstrating that you want to understand and be understood in your new business environment. Even simple phrases such as ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ can show your interest in being connected and working collegially in your new office and country.

Watch the Jargon

In both verbal and written communication, avoid jargon, metaphors and cultural references, even those used back at headquarters. Such phrases may not translate well, and only confuse or even offend, rather than clarify, your communications.

Master Time Zones

Whether scheduling a phone call with one person or a web meeting with many, make it a habit to know what time it is for the participants. Even better, know how that time fits with local customs and culture. Better yet, encourage people in different parts of the world to be responsible for each meeting, to avoid always scheduling them according to the same pattern. Finally, always specify the time zone in communicating the meeting time. This simple act is often overlooked and, as a result, a source of confusion.

Nurture Networks

Be proactive about building a new, local network but don’t lose your connection to important networks at home, especially at headquarters. Maintain important relationships at homeby scheduling regular calls to stay connected with what’s happening in your personal and professional networks. Send them photos or small gifts that reflect your new cultural surroundings to connect them to you and your new home. Stay connected to corporate headquarters. Schedule regular visits well in advance, and make sure to get on the calendars of colleagues and senior leaders ahead of time. Engage people visiting from headquarters. Ask corporate guests to schedule well in advance, and extend invitations to key associates for visits over the next 12-18 months. Ask visitors from headquarters to speak to your teams about what’s going on at corporate or in their area of responsibility, and introduce them to your local colleagues and direct reports. Finally, make sure to take your visitors somewhere meaningful in your new location, like a place that only the locals know and treasure.

Become Proficient in Leading Global Meetings

If you are not already experienced in conducting long distance meetings, there are good on-line programs available to help you get started. Having a knowledgeable associate guide you through your first several sessions should help allay nerves or concerns. Other key aspects of global meetings to keep in mind:

  • Consider simultaneous translation in the beginning until participants are comfortable with your style and enunciation.
  • Repeat important messages.
  • Speak slowly without jargon.
  • Ask people to summarize what they have heard.

Be Patient with Yourself

Know you will get it wrong many times over, so learn from your mistakes and move on. Cultivate a local mentor, someone who you trust to be a sounding board and provide insights into the local culture. *** Galina U. Jeffreyprovides executive coaching with a particular focus on high potential women and leaders taking on new global responsibilities. She has held significant roles in major corporations and has lived and worked internationally, both of which she draws on in her executive coaching. As senior leader at The Forum Corporation, she worked with Fortune 500 companies around the globe, and developed and led the Asian market based in Hong Kong. Prior to joining Forum, Galina was a Senior Vice President at BayBanks in Boston. Image courtesy of chanpipat at

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