Coming to Australia is often a dream come true for many executives and their families. After all the climate is fantastic, the beaches are clean, food is world class, the political environment is stable and generally the move is the first step in an international career!
Executives coming from English speaking countries ‘should feel right at home’ according to the ‘Aussie twang’. Those who originate from Western countries naturally expect that leadership styles will be similar to those at home. Finally executives that are moving within their own company or organisation naturally assume that they already know the system, so it’s simple. They are smart people so what can be so hard? Right? Wrong!
Jonathan was a successful executive based in Western Europe in a global pharmaceutical company. He had already worked in two leading pharmaceutical organisations and helped set up the affiliate in his own country, which had phenomenal success in its first five years of trading. He felt successful and indeed all feedback he had ever received was positive, validating his impressions of himself as someone who could lead well. He, his pregnant wife and their two daughters arrived to sunny Sydney, eagerly looking forward to their new adventure. Various problems with accommodation clouded the initial month after arrival but were eventually resolved. The on-boarding program with the organisation did not happen so Jonathan just did what he did best – he eagerly ‘got on’ with the role.
Roll on six months…! His team did not want to work with him; two people resigned and he received a formal complaint against him resulting in the HR department having to conduct an investigation. Fearing the worst, the HRD asked our team at the edge to help.
When Jonathan met his coach for the first time, he appeared dejected, shocked and almost a broken man. He had never experienced such a bad start in any previous job. He did not understand what was happening; he was smart enough to understand that in an international context if he failed in the assignment in Australia, his international career would be limited to countries similar to his own in Western Europe.
Essentially – bad news. This understanding, coupled with his wife who had just given birth and was not coping in her new transition was placing huge pressure on Jonathan to perform… And he no longer felt he knew how to do just that.
Luckily for Jonathan, his immediate manager – also an expatriate executive to Australia understood this and offered support. A six months’ coaching program was arranged and subsequently extended to twelve months. Clear expectations were set up front, including learning to lead in an Australian context, regaining trust with his own team, contributing more to the Australian leadership team and delivering on specific KPI’s relating to his function. It was also made clear that unless these were achieved, his position in Australia would be untenable. Jonathan developed trust with his coach and they met every three weeks for structured coaching sessions in a face to face environment.
The coach immediately noticed that Jonathan was extremely concerned for his wife and family. He was suffering from the ‘unhappy wife, unhappy life syndrome that many expatriate executives experience. The reality of moving to a new country is, that it can take up to two years to settle into normality. The person undertaking employment finds it easier because they automatically have people around them at work. The spouse at home – often the wife, is left to her own devices and to make new friends. In his case, his wife also had recently given birth and had no immediate family support. She resorted to calling Jonathan every two hours at work to debrief the latest news on the baby.
With the support of his coach, Jonathan encouraged his wife to reach out for local ‘mother group’ support which, once established alleviated her need to contact him so often. He also arranged his work schedule so that he could arrive to work later in the mornings (after 09:30am) in order to take care of his two other children, thus allowing his wife to focus on the new baby.
Now… Australia. There are very few countries in the world that are as ‘sport obsessed’ as Australia. Where else would every kind of team ball sport be referred to ‘a footie’, whether it is actually soccer, rugby league or actual football? For someone coming from a non sporting environment this is really confusing! Having something to talk about at Monday morning meetings becomes very limited if one does not understand their sport. More importantly if you don’t know where to get that information from you are really at a disadvantage!
Jonathan soon learned that if he wanted to be able to ‘talk sport’ he needed to read the Daily Telegraph to be fully up to date every Monday morning. Furthermore, given where his office was located, his local Australian colleagues were likely to follow rugby league and not union, as was the case with his manager. So, not only reading the paper was important but picking which sections of the sports pages in particular to read before meeting specific colleagues, became a much used strategy. Jonathan soon became a sports expert, even if he never understood what it was really about.
Subsequently, he stated that the biggest learning during this time was the importance of using local interest and knowledge at the beginning of speeches or simply at the start of a Monday morning meeting. “It helps set the tone of the day”. Finally everyone loves an ‘Aussie barbie’. Jonathan quickly discovered that the quickest way to make friends was to invite them to his house for a barbie, as opposed to waiting for invites. He did not necessarily need to know how to cook as tradition has it, that most male attendees will take over the barbeque cooking even if not asked!
He invested in a Beefmaster four burner… and fired it up – often!
Jonathan had invested many years previously studying leadership and was, understandably confused as to what was not working for him. It turned out that he had inherited a dysfunctional team so therefore not all the issues could be said to be caused by him. Taking accountability for one’s actions was not a known concept in the team. Having said that, he had not taken time to understand how leadership translated in different cultures. Just because Australians speak English as proficiently as anyone from London, does not mean they want to be led in a similar way.
With the help of his coach, he explored the subtleties of leading in Australia. He discovered that gaining trust by showing your credibility is important. Listening to concerns builds bridges, as does having a strong vision of where to go to in a business sense and why the team is going in that direction. In one session he told his coach he had realised that Australians do not put leaders on a pedestal but leaders have to earn that respect from their followers. When they do, Australians are happy to willfully back their leader.
He also learned that a mixture of being friendly, firm but fair, seemed to be the ideal potion. Over time Jonathan tried many different techniques that helped him get closer to his team. He also replaced some of the less helpful members of the team and hired new members.
Slowly he began to regain confidence. His new hires turned out to be spectacularly good and helped the overall team take shape. Some wins by his department were openly celebrated, giving a sense of momentum that spurred Jonathan on. At the leadership level, he discovered his voice and spoke up more often, sharing ideas from his overseas experiences. It transpired that when relaxed, Jonathan possessed a wicked, dry sense of humor, much admired and enjoyed by his colleagues. As he gained more confidence, he became funnier!
His function became the guiding light for the whole organisation, also undergoing a cultural transformation. The following year this function won an ‘Inspire award’ for the most inspiring team in the organisation. After a subsequent merger, Jonathan grew his department by over 150%. At regional levels he was acknowledged as being the most successful leader in the organisation in the previous year.
Jonathan has since been promoted to a head of Central Europe role based upon his leadership success in Australia
Jonathan has since been promoted and heads up a regional role in Eastern Europe. He was offered the position based upon his leadership qualities. He is a man that always could lead, he just did not know how to translate his skill into a different culture when initially arriving in Sydney. The near shame is that his career was almost about to fail and the organisation would have lost a great leader. Thankfully that did not happen. Upon his departure, Jonathan left a strong, fully functional leader and had contributed enormously to the local organisation.
He showed them what he had alright. Great leadership!