6 Essential Principles for International Business Success

A heavy travel schedule this year had me reflecting on the nuances of language and cultural differences when working abroad. In 2007 the international aspects of my consulting business really heated up and now I'm lucky enough to work with clients in over 20 countries around the world.

Over the years I have developed some simple principles for myself and they still guide me today when I'm working abroad. I have made some mistakes, and taken many missteps, but I have also learned a lot about doing business outside North America. In all those trips, what has surprised me most, simply stated, is that business issues are all the same regardless of where I travel. My clients are struggling with the same fundamental planning and execution issues:

  • How do we add value?
  • Where do we want to be in the future?
  • How do we get there?

These are a few of the key principles I have developed along the way:

Don't assume that other cultures are homogenous.

From a North American perspective, it is natural to want to treat other countries as one big culture that is different from our own. For example, China has many cultures, languages and practices that vary from province to province. This assumption is not only culturally insensitive but will lead to faulty business decisions.

Don't equate English fluency with intelligence.

This sounds obvious on the surface but is easy to forget when a meeting is being conducted in English where English is the second language. Remember if someone's English skills are not very strong, chances are they speak more languages than you!

Don't gravitate to the best English speaker in the room.

In any country this will likely be a sign of disrespect. I found myself in situations where the most junior people at a meeting or a dinner had the best English skills...and the President spoke the least English. As a foreign business guest be aware how much time you spend with each person. I tell myself to forget about language barriers and think about what I would do in a client function in North America.

Don't be upset if people don't always speak English around you.

I have to admit, it used to really bother me when a room (or car) full of people were all speaking like I wasn't even there! Now I try to think about it from their perspective: if we had a visitor at a meeting here, would we all try to speak German? Just remember: you are visiting them, and the world doesn't always work in English.

6 Essential Principles for International Business Success

Do notice patterns and modify your strategy.

There have been times when I start think "whenever the French are involved, my projects go sideways" but that isn't really true and starts to become an excuse. Better yet, think about patterns or trends you have seen dealing with particular cultures and work modifications and mitigating strategies into your approach. Don't Stereotype!

Do above all, stay true to your ethics.

As a traveler you should try to experience the local business practices and culture as much as possible, but the old adage "when in Rome, do as the Romans" only works to a point. Seasoned business travellers all have stories of dos, don'ts and watch outs. We all know someone who has been entertained a little too much by a client the night before a big sales presentation. I myself have firmly said no to a client when a fun night of Karaoke in China ended with an offer that conflicted with my values.

I hope these can help you avoid some pitfalls on your next business trip!