Saying what we do

Sunday 10 February 2013

by Steve Flinders

Hi I’m Steve Flinders and I’m following on from my colleague Bob Dignen who kicked off our series of posts on issues covered in our titles in the International Management English series last week.

Last week I was doing a TIP debrief by phone with a man who is about to set out on a high profile international career. TIP is The International Profiler, a tool designed by Worldwork in London to help people reflect on the competences and behaviours we need to exercise when we work internationally and which I find very useful both for myself and for the people I coach and train.

This man – let’s call him Lars – has quite a lot of international experience already: he can speak three languages fluently and can get by in a couple more; he’s studied abroad in two different countries; and has done an internship in a third. On paper he looks like an excellent candidate for the kind of work he’s going to do in a mainly expatriate setting in the future.

And yet what really interested me about him – apart from his multilingualism, which made me rather envious – was that he found it quite difficult to say what he had learnt from each of these rich experiences in his life so far. He did say that he thought he was quite flexible but found it difficult to give me any examples of when and how, in an international environment, he had behaved flexibly. Indeed, he sometimes found it quite difficult to step back from and describe his behaviour and the impact it might have on foreign partners at all. So I was left with an impression of intuitive competence rather than an articulated expression of that competence, and this led me to reflect on the importance in international settings of what my colleague Jeremy Comfort has identified as ‘mindfulness’ [i], an ability to step back from oneself and observe what one is doing and to reflect on one’s behaviour and the impact it is having on others.

I think, from what Lars told me, that he quite often does the right thing when working internationally. But not only is he not able to say what he does (either in English or in his own language – I checked) but he doesn’t really know what he does: in other words he’s not mindful, or not aware of the situation and his role in it.

Why should Lars make the transition from acting reflexively and intuitively to acting reflectively? Some people might regard this as an intrusive challenge to their sense of self, of their sense of their own personal identity, of their authenticity. But I think one strong reason for saying that Lars should make the transition is that he will almost certainly be a manager one day and one of the very important roles that managers have to play is to develop their people – which means in the environment in which Lars is going to work, to develop them for international roles as well. Putting it simply, if you don’t know what you do and you can’t say what you do, then you can’t tell others what to do.

Describing soft skills is an unfamiliar challenge for many of us – can you describe your communication style, for example, and how you adapt it to fit different contexts? – but being able to do so is an important management skill. So my advice to leaders and would-be leaders working internationally is:

1  Know what you do. Observe yourself. Be mindful.

2  Say what you do. Describe the skills you exercise to others. Get their feedback on what you describe.

3  Tell your people what you do so that they can learn from you and develop the skills for themselves.

I think good leaders do this and so I think reflecting, articulating and communicating what you do is an important part of becoming a better leader. One of the main aims of Leading People [ii] is to help people do precisely this, in English.

[i] See The Mindful International Manager by Jeremy Comfort and Peter Franklin, London: Kogan Page, 2011, ISBN 978-0-7494-6197-3

[ii] Leading People by Steve Flinders, Delta Publishing and York Associates International Management English series , ISBN 978-1-903085-67-5

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