ITL #317 Global requires local: from handshakes to bows and bisous

4 years, 9 months ago


Working in a demanding international in-house role presents an exciting mix of opportunities and challenges. Here’s a survival guide from the perspective of a VP Global Comms in one of the world’s top auto-makers. By Heather Chambers Knox.

It’s easy to say you’re working globally when you’re sitting in a corporate office marshalling worldwide resources or monitoring overnight press coverage from around the world. But it’s something else entirely to immerse oneself in another country’s reality, to adapt ideas and to drive real impact, especially if that means change.

It’s not possible to fully comprehend a market from quick trips or reports. Not everyone can move somewhere else (but it sure helps). The first step to being effective at international communications is openness. My current passport has added pages and is bursting with visas and out of room for stamps – yet I’m still in constant “learn” mode.

I’ve done several versions of working globally and will share some key learnings impacting the way I think about international communications today.

Note: I’m not going to cover technology adoption and channel differences between markets, as this is deep and the variables are many. There are good articles and agencies that provide excellent counsel on this. While parked for this article, it’s critical to understand local norms before you prescribe or take action on anything.

My background

A little up front background on me. I’m American, from the Northwest United States. In spite of a relatively insulated childhood upbringing and lack of internet at the time, I always loved learning about different people, customs, cultures and world events, and traveling with my family on vacations. As a high school student I was involved in an incident where my student bus was blown up by a Molotov cocktail in a Spanish border town, which shaped my choice of major in college.

Early on, I communicated about international famine and then went to China with the International Red Cross. I led communications for multiple tech companies on mergers and acquisitions in Ireland, Sweden and Germany, market entry in Japan, launched products and led press tours across multiple countries.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Paris for Microsoft to lead communications across Europe, Middle East and Africa that I really started to learn about global communications in a more intense (and humbling) way. Then, I moved back to Paris a second time to lead global external communications for a French automobile company. I work today for a Japanese company, where I’m based in the US but spending 50% of my time physically in Japan working with Japanese management. So my perspective about global communications “musts” is long but has evolved significantly in more recent years.

Tips and tricks

There are lots of tips and tricks for working internationally. But true learning is more in the margins. I can honestly say now I didn’t have a deep enough appreciation until I lived it for four things that matter a lot when working globally: history, principles of global trade and economics, the importance of language, and that America (or insert country) is not the center of the universe.

With all of what I’m about to explain, there are two big caveats. First, is people. There are always people more open, more creative, more accepting (or less) than the generally understood local stereotypes. You can’t substitute anything you read for meeting and building relationships with people.

Second is company culture. Especially when working in companies where institutional norms span decades (and even centuries) there are some truths in companies that aren’t about country, but are about something fundamental that has shaped the company itself – history, leadership, and even industry.

A startup culture in a given country may feel very different than a well-established enterprise. So you have to be careful about characterizing a country from one company experience.

Start with history

Whether trying to understand why certain multi-country reporting structures must be approached with caution, principles behind a union culture, a socialist economy mindset, consumer spending habits, why meetings are conducted in a certain style, or why there are so many public holidays on religious occasions, being savvy about a country’s history goes a long way toward credibility and avoiding a faux pas or outright fail.

Is it a country with a history of war with neighboring or faraway countries? Was it in our generation? Is it possible there’s residual resentment that colors opinions, perceptions of motive, willingness to believe or trust? Is it a country with strong roots in a particular religion?

History doesn’t always explain everything, but it can put the workplace, and motives, in perspective – and is important to understand in communications to avoid one-size-fits-all mistakes. It’s best to understand the basics before trying to influence organization structure, process, message tone or style, and even communication channel, stunts and audience targeting.

Principles of global trade and economics

A confession: Even as a career, business-minded communication person and admitted news junkie, trade and economics topics came with a certain level of white noise for me. My investor relations colleagues may be horrified that I didn’t really make the link in my day job to how trade and currency impacted my companies, paying more attention to policy topics around data privacy and protection, the hot communication topics of my tenure and role focus. While familiar with expressions like headwinds due to forex, it didn’t really permeate my daily thought process, and trade wars weren’t really making headlines much.

It wasn’t until I started working in the auto industry in the last few years that I fully woke up to the cause and effect of global trade and economics and their impact on our corporate narrative. Working for French and Japanese companies making up the largest automotive alliance in the world – with global supply chains and an industrial manufacturing footprint worldwide, importing components, exporting cars, and watching recent US policy gyrations on international trade, and Brexit – brought to the forefront the importance for a communications leader to internalize these fundamentals of global business.

Otherwise, it’s very difficult to advise on a strategy or storyline that can impact investors, partners, employees and ultimately consumers. Never has it been more important for communications professionals to double down on fundamental knowledge about how business works, at a time when world leaders are struggling with the balance between globalization and nationalization.

The importance of language – spoken and unspoken

I would never have known this if I didn’t speak French. It’s not enough to speak another language. English is the great default equalizer and in plenty of work environments one can get along in English. But the magic as a communications professional happens when you can communicate natively.

Not only are your hallway conversations different, but you begin to open a window into real conversations about work challenges and local life. There’s a trust bridge that is crossed when you can exchange about a parochial subject, in the native language, with native cues.

Yet my biggest epiphany as a nearly fluent French speaker in a very French company is that you quickly learn language is not the only thing that needs translation. Context does, too. It’s only by understanding the language as a basic, that as a communicator you understand real culture, nuance, a shrug, and can compare and contrast versions of documents, meaning, message, and truly localize for impact.

A document simply translated or a phrase simply tossed out could gravely lack context. At a minimum, ask questions that address this possible gap beyond strict translation. Would you be this direct in your message natively? Is there a hierarchy in play to be aware of that impacts quote attribution, or even approvals?  If learning a language is impossible for you, then at least attempt to learn phrases, customs – handshake or kiss; one, two or three? Should I address someone by “Ms, Mr” instead of by first name? Should I bow and if so, how much? To whom?  This will help loads with relationships you build, as your experience adds up to give you better instincts.

America (or insert your country) is not the center of the universe

Second confession of this piece: in spite of my international openness, I did have a bias that America knows best. Maybe some tech industry arrogance here too. We are the pioneers…and all that.

But then I worked in France, where France felt like the center of the world, to everyone around me. My way wasn’t the “right way” or “best practice” but simply an option, and sometimes scoffed at as the “American” style (which I admit I sometimes apologized for).  

Renault, my French company, actually does zero business in the US, which forced me out of my familiar domain, leading me to teach theoretical knowledge and figure out how to drive change, with local context in mind. My mission to modernize our function required that I draw on strengths from what I’d learned in digital and social, collapsing silos, developing strong corporate messaging that could be adapted by local markets, but the approach was different. Technology adoption was different. Even the value proposition to the team had to change.

At the same time, issues were very local. And the way of dealing with them, very local too. I had to be patient, pace change, and in some cases learn new ways of working that were locally acceptable. What I might have called old school was actually locally effective. Using radio. Print. Flyers. Reader boards. At the end of three years, the way the team works is a beautiful weaving of global and local.

Now, working for Nissan, a Japanese company, feels very Japan-centric when I’m in Tokyo, and even while there’s a distinctly different, more American culture in the US HQ in Nashville, and the US market is the company’s largest, words like “nemawashi” (process of socializing ideas in advance of an official meeting), “kaizen” (continuous improvement as opposed to disruption) influence the way of working inside the company.

Communications has content and format appropriate for Japan and headquarters context, and other for non-Japanese markets. To succeed for these global businesses, requires a dose of both – home market expertise, while adapting to outer market requirements as appropriate to influence key stakeholders. We as communicators have to be nimble, understand how to bridge the internal footprint and the outside world, understand what that means from a resource-needs perspective, and bring that perspective to the table.

Lastly, as a bit of a non sequitur, everything I knew about global communications changed when I went to China with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance venture capital team to visit tech startups. China absolutely flattens ways of working, communicating, buying, selling, influencing unlike any other market. From policy to technology pervasiveness, it’s China First. If you ever want to truly test your brain about global communications, go to China – it will force a reset of everything you thought you knew! I wrote a short piece on LinkedIn about my trip here.

In summary, working globally can be simply on your business card or mean conference calls during the dinner hour, but I highly suggest going deeper – as much as possible. It doesn’t just mean racking up air miles, it also means finding ways to go local, and doing more homework about the influencing factors.

With the world we live in becoming inextricably connected in every way, there’s never been a better time to learn, immerse, connect, grow and diversify your knowledge and relationships. You’ll be richer for it personally and your communications results will be undoubtedly better too.

Road warrior/global communicator hacks

  • Ask questions. Of your hosts, of HR, of your colleagues and professional community.
  • Know your audience and where you fit – is there a hierarchy? Is there protocol? Is it a forward climate – speak your mind openly, nuanced, or later? How should you greet someone you’ve met for the first, second, tenth time? Does it change?
  • Study local norms – from clothing to volume of your voice to the border between professional and personal and who picks up the lunch tab – do some “presearch”.
  • Learn some keywords – if you don’t speak the language, work on some ice breakers. It will do wonders for your early relationship connections.
  • Know your country, learn your history - know who and what you’re dealing with. OECD and WEF have good snapshots for quick data on social, demographic and economic drivers in countries
  • Get a wifi hotspot – this will save you money and headaches, from mapping to coverage gaps.
  • Check your mobile international plan – critical for saving money on data, and avoiding lack of international service for voice.
  • Bring your own shampoo – hotel products can’t be depended on and bad hair days just feel bad.
  • Go for a run. If you’re a runner, don’t leave your shoes behind. Even a short run in a new place can tell you a lot about what life is like as the city wakes up at dawn.
  • Don’t forget your chargers, adaptors – make a list and check it twice!
  • Don’t rely 100% on your phone – you will undoubtedly be stranded on a street corner with no cell coverage. What’s your backup plan (screenshots, old fashioned map, courage to ask a stranger)?
  • Take local transportation – It can be scary but do it; your first step to societal learning.
  • Eat local food – be brave. Food often tells a story. Find out what it is, and be open. And take a few granola bars for those times in between.
  • Get the money code. Find out if where you’re going is cash-centric or cash-avoidant. This could matter a lot when you don’t have a certain app or can’t find an ATM.
  • Have fun! If you can stay over weekends or holidays, or of course relocate for a bit, do it! Go out for drinks with locals. Attend a festival. Talk with strangers. Meet fellow road warriors. Go to a dinner party. The world is our oyster, and we are fortunate as professionals to be immersed in it!


The author                                                                                                             

Heather Chambers Knox, Vice President, Global Communications, Nissan Motor Corporation.



[email protected]




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The Author

Heather Chambers Knox

Heather Chambers Knox, Vice President, Global Communications, Nissan Motor Corporation.

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