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What Eating Lunch in India Taught Me About Leadership

Crawford Market, Mumbai, IndiaCrawford Market, Mumbai, India
Crawford Market, Mumbai, IndiaPhotograph by Peter Adams—Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What’s the key to great leadership?” is written by Julie Freeman, global head of marketing and communications, consulting, and enterprise solutions for Tata Consultancy Services.

Leading across cultures in a multinational company requires sensitivity. Good leaders work hard to understand the attitudes, customs, beliefs, and values of the distinct groups of people they lead. But advice about how to introduce a distinct group that works for you to your culture is scarce.

Onboarding programs can inculcate standard operating procedures around the globe and human resources departments can set expectations about universal values like integrity. But such efforts address corporate culture only. How do you get employees up to speed on the culture of a key market that is far away and almost wholly unfamiliar?

That was the situation I found myself in when I joined Tata Consultancy Services five and a half years ago. Because North America is the largest market in the world for consulting services, I was based in the U.S. Meanwhile, my team responsible for executing marketing programs was located in India.

Differences in the business cultures of North America and India show up in large and small ways alike. One of the biggest differences is in how marketing itself is regarded. In India, the all-encompassing, relentless marketing that you find in North America is rare. Or consider a small difference like lunch. In my experience in India, lunch is for eating, not for doing business over or skipping altogether. But when in North America, I might eat at my desk between phone calls, take a working lunch with an agency, or gobble an energy bar en route to my next appointment.

You can tell your people in other parts of the world about such differences, but I believe you need to show them too. That’s why early in my tenure, I began bringing individual members of my team to North America for stays of 10 days or so. I picked them up at the airport, accompanied them when they checked into their hotels, and began the next day with a working breakfast. Over the course of their visit, they shadowed me through my working day, joined in meetings with marketing agencies, and attended meetings with our partners.

Because even small cultural differences can add up to big differences in business results, no nuance of your culture is too small to expose to team members. For example, in North America’s cell phone–saturated environment, where executives and managers aren’t tethered to their desks, I take it for granted that people may not even see a computer monitor in the course of a working day. That surprises members of my team, who spend all of their working hours at their desks. And it makes a big difference in the execution of digital marketing programs that must work seamlessly across computers and cell phones.

 

You might also learn a thing or two yourself. Just as water is invisible to fish, your own culture may be largely invisible to you—the most ubiquitous and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

For instance, until members of my team made me acutely aware of it, I didn’t realize how distinctly different our treatment of family matters appears from afar. In the U.S., unlike in India, we rarely stay home from work and allow children to miss school simply to celebrate family birthdays together. When our parents or grandparents pass away in this country, we are usually back to work and school within a matter of days—far different from practices in India. And unlike in India, we rarely take significant time off from work when family members become ill.

All of these things that seem natural are in fact highly arbitrary matters of culture. And when you see them through the eyes of an outsider, you become a better leader of all the people who work for you, near and far.