As a business coach, I work with clients across the globe. Many are at the apex of their careers, occupying senior roles in large, international organisations and to them, working cross-culturally comes naturally! One of the many reasons I love my work is because working closely with these clients on their career journey means I get to take a peek inside this colourful global kaleidoscope – it’s exciting, and it’s the future.
‘A growing number of people in the world have embraced globalisation and actively seek opportunities to live, study and work in other cultures. They have been shaped by new opportunities, technological realities and personal choices that have configured their lives. They are the Global Cosmopolitans.’ Professor Linda Brimm, author of Global Cosmopolitans: The Creative Edge of Difference.
One such client I have the privilege of coaching is Virginie Hollebecque, now VP & MD for Western Europe and Middle East at Ciena. (A US owned technology leader and innovator). To capture some of Virginie’s wisdom, advice and stories about her experiences of working globally, she has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions and share them with you:
★ What’s it like working globally?
I lead a very multi-cultural team across 15+ countries in EMEA. Managing so many cultural and social differences isn’t simple – especially coordinating across language barriers, different management styles, locations and not to mention time zones! (thank goodness for technology…..) However, the value extracted from these interactions is extraordinary.
It’s summed up best by my mantra – a quote from Walter Wriston: ‘The person who figures out how to harness the collective genius of an organisation is going to blow the competition away’.
I would like to think that by working globally, I am doing my bit in harnessing our collective genius.
★ How many languages do you speak?
I am fluent in French and English. I used to speak German pretty well, but it’s not like riding a bike! You have to practice every day to keep up-to-date with language colloquialisms and nuances. I started my career working for a German company and guess what? English was used all the time!
★ Is learning languages important for doing business in a global market?
Actually this may surprise you, but I am a true believer that not speaking the languages leads to better, active listening and clearer, more direct communication. For example, Sheryl Sandberg explained how Mark Zuckerberg learned Chinese, however, when he was chatting to Chinese employees he couldn’t understand all their nuances so they had to communicate very directly and get to the point – which actually made their communication more authentic.
I am constantly working on my pronunciation and use apps like ‘eTalk’ to help me. I have a strong French accent at times and words like ‘Focus’ can get me into trouble if I don’t pronounce it correctly – which matters when doing a presentation to hundreds of people!
★ What’s the most challenging thing about working with a company with a different culture?
I’ve worked for US based global companies for most of my career and I enjoy representing the ‘European’ voice within these organisations. The biggest challenge is making sure your voice is strong enough and you are trusted amongst senior leaders. Only then will you be heard and be able to make the right decisions for your local market.
Working with Ciena makes it easier to be effective cross-culturally because it’s embedded into our DNA. Ciena has a strong inclusion agenda and has an organisational culture which is inclusive of everyone regardless of race, sex, colour or background. I feel this really gives us a winning edge over other businesses and it gives us all a strong sense of team work and collaboration.
★ How has coaching helped you overcome some of these challenges?
Coaching has helped me to develop confidence and a growth mindset – having great chemistry with my coach has been a really important part in achieving this. It’s been a steep learning curve for me because I am very passionate by nature and coaching has taught me how to still be authentic yet also balanced to increase my impact.
It’s also been invaluable having a native English speaking coach because my delivery has improved and I know my messages are now clear and properly understood.
★ What advice do you have for anyone who may be working with a culture that’s new to them?
Be curious! Spend time understanding the culture, learn from others – they are the experts in their culture, and create trust.
One of the ways you can do this is by building your own ‘eco-system’. When I start working with a new country, I join local institutions such as think tanks, I meet with local business people as well as clients and this gives me a much rounder, unbiased and enriched understanding of their culture.
★ You must have learnt a great deal about different cultures in the course of your career – have any surprised you?
Working in the Middle East is very different than Europe. Business is conducted through trusted relationships and it’s really appreciated if you go to their country and take your key people with you. They have a real sense of hospitality and like to show this! It’s worth knowing that a handshake in the Middle East is as good as a contract.
What has been the biggest surprise for me is the way my work has influenced how I educate my 2 daughters. I am so proud of how genuinely curious they are about the world and how eager they are to learn about new cultures. It gives me hope that they will be Global Cosmopolitans of the future!
Huge thank you to Virginie for giving us an insight into her global world – I hope this blog helps you in your world, wherever you are!
Yvette Jeal is an ICF Certified Executive Coach with 20 years’ corporate experience. She works with C-Suite, Board Level Executives, Directors and emerging leaders in the UK and internationally. Her clients include major organisations in finance, banking, aviation, engineering, healthcare and legal sectors.
To find out more about how Executive Coaching can help you in your career – get in touch and contact Yvette at: