Vive la Difference - consulting abroad

Written by  Brian Browne
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You’re a consultant and find yourself on an overseas assignment. What could go wrong? Quite a bit! Here are my three simple suggestions to help make the assignment go a little better.

During my time as a consultant, I have worked ‘abroad’ on a number of occasions for periods ranging from 3 weeks to 2 years. The locations have included Milan, Paris, Munich, Stockholm (and even Glasgow and Edinburgh).


In all of those places, the working environment, the social mores, and the means of ‘getting things done’ is different. It changes from place to place and no matter where you come from, when you are working in a new location, it is best to understand and embrace those differences.


This is especially important for a consultant. Typically, but not always, a consultant comes in to provide expertise, to enable change, or just to act as a skilled temporary resource. Rarely does a consultant have any line management authority and so any ‘getting things done’ by others in an organisation relies on influencing and soft skills.


Suggestion No 1- work out what works!


Consultants are usually proud of their soft skills: developed over years, decades for some of us, honed to perfection to thrive at multiple clients with a range of differing set ups and ways of working.


I have discovered that influencing skills in one culture may not work in another. My take on working in Italy, for example, is that organisations are far more hierarchical than in US or UK companies. A smaller number of key people hold a greater influence, so identifying and working with this group is essential to getting things done.


From my experience in France, the old cliché holds good that decisions are made outside the meeting room, and then the team ratifies these decisions at meetings. It is the norm in France to spend a lot of time and effort going through issues with participants before meetings.


Another example of what doesn’t work is to plan activity over the summer. In most mainland and Scandinavian countries, the end of July and whole of August really are as dead as Christmas week in the UK or Thanksgiving in the US. I remember turning up at our banking client in Milan on the 1st week of August to find virtually only the security guards in the building. Everyone else just assumed we wouldn’t be there but would be basking on a beach like them. Yet I have seen experienced UK teams set themselves up for failure by planning important milestones in August.


Suggestion No 2 – learn the language and use it!


Hang on though; I thought that in many international companies English is the ‘company language’. Why should I bother using any other language?


My experience is that meetings held in someone’s second language means problems arise. The company has hired employees with the expectation that they speak English and in many roles where that need is not common, fluency ranges from perfect to not so good. Several situations can conspire to create cock up potential when you hold meetings with a few English consultants and a number of non-English speakers in an international company:

Firstly, pride means that people don’t like to show that their English language capability is less than perfect. I don’t often remember being asked to repeat things yet remember gazing on many blank faces. It doesn’t help that many companies in their annual reviews mark on international communication skills. Nobody in that environment is going to speak up if they sound poor in English or keep asking people to explain.


A revelation occurred to me towards the end of an 18-month assignment in Italy when I had picked up enough Italian to understand, yet not enough to speak. We started having meetings in Italian with me responding in English. The difference in the meeting dynamic was incredible. People whom I thought were either a bit sullen or ineffective suddenly became engaged and positive contributors in their own language.


I’m currently working in Paris and have used the same tactic. While my colleagues regularly accuse me of speaking French like a Spanish cow, meetings are far more effective in the native language when there is one English person with a whole group of French people. Although, I admit, this is only practical if you are likely to be working somewhere for six months or more or already have a grasp of the language.


Suggestion 3 – Enjoy the experience


When working long hours in a strange place it is incredibly easy to fall into the habit of being a Nobby No-Mates and just doing a metro, boulot, dodo – as the French say. Working then just seeing the inside of your hotel room.


If you’re in Milan, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels or anywhere just make the most of the experience.


Learn the language. Get to know the local people. Don’t stay in the business sectors.


Personally, I’ve made great use of an app called ‘Meetup’ – and no, it’s not a dating site! – to join a whole load of evening French conversation circles. Not only has this improved my French for suggestion No 2, but also it’s an exposure to the culture and helps to develop soft skills to use in the work environment.


There are plenty of other things that you can do to enjoy the experience. For example, I have discovered there are many tiny evening theatres in Paris; or you could try a cookery lesson or join an evening walking tour.


So in summary, when you are consulting in a foreign location: enjoy the experience, refine your international soft skills and work with the local culture and norms.