Q&A: Sunita Sehmi: “Local people have different needs and challenges to expats”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 25 May 2016

Executive coach and founder of Walk the Talk on how misunderstandings in the same language create barriers

Sunita SehmiManaging a team of expats from all over the world can be a big enough challenge but if you don’t get things right at a local level first it can be a whole lot harder. Making sure everyone understands what you’re talking about even if you think you’re being crystal clear is an important first step. Sunita Sehmi, executive coach and founder of Walk the Talk, spoke to People Management about how to lead a team of people from all over the world.
What kind of problems around managing global teams do people come to you most with?
Misunderstandings. Very often, it’s because there’s so many types of English spoken in the room. Maybe the person in charge is a native speaker, a Brit or Australian, and then there are different levels of second or third-language English in the group.
 
We did some research into this, about how it impacts your career. People with lower levels of English who couldn’t make the same jokes or understand metaphors find their career suffers. Last week, I was at an organisation with a leader from London and I was counting how many phrases he used that I wondered if local people would understand. He’d say things like “what’s going to cut the mustard?” How can you understand that if English isn’t your first language?
 
There needs to be more cultural training for native speakers about their speech and how to really be aware of what’s going on in the room – not to assume everything you’ve said is evident when it’s not. It sounds powerful when you are using acronyms or certain buzzwords that only you or a particular group know. It creates an inclusion. But that’s assuming that everyone is on the same page as you and knows what you’re talking about. But you should check in with everybody and make sure they understand.
 
Is there anything leaders in the Middle East do well when managing global teams?
Yes, it’s very much about community and inclusion. They talk a lot about ‘we’, they use ‘we’ a lot. It’s an extended community feeling. In my experience, the team leader is like a father to his group. They can deliver tough messages, but certainly have a paternal side. There is definitely this warmth in the team where you speak and you’re heard. The boss may not do anything with it but you’re heard.
 
Do you think staff and leaders feel more comfortable in a rigid hierarchy?
I think so. Some of the multinationals talk about having a flat organisation and if you are a head of department you can go talk to one of the directors if you have an idea. But sometimes you encounter the problem of too much praise not being a good thing.
 
Because it reflects a family structure in the Middle East, the head is often seen as a mother or father, so nobody will go against the father. If you were a child, why would you, they care for you. You’d be biting the hand that feeds you.
 
Before managing a global team how important is it to get it right locally first?
The biggest mistake a leader can make, wherever they are in the world, is that they don’t find out what’s going on at a local level. You need to use that initial period when you’re coming into a new place to observe and be aware of what’s going on. It’s almost like data collection. Local people have different needs and challenges in their lives to the expats. That knowledge is golden for the leader.
 
There are more examples of multinationals not paying attention to local problems but organisations of all sizes can be guilty of that mistake. What you end up with is a kind of neo-colonialism and we need to be careful of that.