Category Archives: Uncategorized

Smashing through the bamboo ceiling

Bamboo ceiling

Procurious, is a unique online business networking site specifically designed for procurement and supply chain professionals.

Dr Verghese was interviewed in ‘Smashing through the bamboo ceiling’ to discuss the processes and barriers that serve to exclude Asians or people of Asian descent from executive positions in Western-run organisations.

A provocative article that features some pragmatic strategies toward shattering the bamboo ceiling.



People and Projects Interview


People and projects

People and Projects Podcast with Andy Kaufman

Recently Tom was interviewed by Andy Kaufman to discuss the importance of cultural intelligence.  Tom and Andy discuss various scenarios from project managing global virtual teams in the U.S. and Germany to planning a visit to China and strategies for facilitating successful virtual meetings.

Click here to Listen

Bridging the cultural gap

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Watch Tom speaking at the Australian Human Resource Institute Conference 2015 ‘Bridging the cultural gap’.

Virtual Teleconferences for Global Project Teams


A recent project has prompted me to focus this month on the efficiencies of teleconferences.  Lack of agendas, side conversations, audible background noises, late attendees, accent and language difficulties; alongside poorly facilitated calls that seem to go in circles are just some of the everyday teleconference challenges.

Although teleconferences are not a new phenomenon somehow we tolerate the inefficiencies and frustrations that they entail.  Why is this?  Over time we become unconscious and unmindful of the bad habits and irritations that ‘creep in’.  We often accept them as ‘normal’ and for the most part we ‘switch off’ and allow apathy and stagnation to set in, without us possibly even realising it.

For many global project teams teleconferences are the most common meeting format.  They are a critical mode of communication where key decisions are made and everyday production, innovative and creative ideas are thrashed out. Something worth reminding ourselves of is that the success of teleconferences directly impact overall project outcomes, timelines and ultimately budgets.

Here are some simple reminders of things to be aware of when facilitating and participating in culturally dispersed teleconferences:

  • Ensure that the agenda has been circulated at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. It is particularly useful for those in other locations whose native language is not the language that the meeting is being conducted in.  This provides all participants an opportunity to plan what they will say or questions that they want to propose.
  • Be mindful. When most of the participants are in the same room it can be difficult for the remote participants to engage in the conversation.  They are not privy to the same group/room dynamic.
  • Remember that in some cultures people wait to be invited to speak rather than speak up whenever they have something to contribute. Be specific and invite people to speak at various intervals.
  • Ensure everyone identifies who they are before they begin speaking. Don’t assume that everyone knows each other.  It is not uncommon for offshore project teams to have new staff joining the team at different times. Maintain the practice of introductions at all meetings.
  • Use diagrams and visual aids where possible.  They can be of great benefit as an alternative mode of demonstration and explanation, especially for offshore teams.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding language, accents, dialects or tone, speak up. Let people know.  Chances are that they are having difficulty understanding you also.
  • Don’t confuse silence with agreement.  Take the time to ask each person one by one to give their opinion or share their concerns before making a consensus decision.

How does Behaviour Inform our Perceptions?


One of the challenges of working across borders is that certain behaviours and styles of communication and body language may not have the same meaning.

For example in countries such as Malaysia the etiquette for shaking hands is a soft hand to demonstrate respect; conversely in Australia a soft handshake can be interpreted as a lack of respect, sign of disinterest, weakness and insincerity. Our mental antenna goes up and we start to look for evidence to support these initial impressions. Are we going to find evidence to support our initial impressions? Most likely yes! The person more than likely will do or say something that will support these impressions. Our biases come to the surface. For example, at the conclusion of a meeting you may be thinking to yourself – “That soft handshake reinforced my initial perceptions. I knew I couldn’t trust him/her.” All of these interpretations can be made from a simple handshake.

I advise clients to not squeeze the hand. Often their response is “but you can tell so much about a person by their handshake.” Think about this for a moment. Is this a universal truth or is it culturally bound? When we interpret behaviours we tend to compare them based on our own cultural practices because we are familiar with them.

There are so many subtle cultural nuances. I had a coaching client from Nigeria who would ask me questions such as, how long do you look at someone in the eye, when does a look become a stare? Have you ever thought about this? My guess is probably no. Conversely, if you are in cultural environments where eye contact should be avoided, how would you know how much is too much?

In countries such as Australia if we go to a bar with friends and colleagues the norm is an unspoken assumption and practice of taking turns to buy the rounds of drinks. We don’t discuss this. It doesn’t matter if you are a guest or not, generally it is an equitable practice where payment of the drinks is shared equally. So imagine this scenario that was shared by one of my clients. He had an Indian manager visiting the Australian office. My client invited him out for a drink after work. My client brought all of the rounds of drinks and was annoyed and irritated that it wasn’t reciprocated. My clients’ internal dialogue was telling him ‘this guy is tight, not generous and has no sense of sharing’.   The following day at work he requested a report that wasn’t delivered on time. The thought processes of my client were, not only is he tight with his money, he is also unprofessional and unreliable. This example demonstrates how one misinformed behaviour can lead to inaccurate perceptions and interpretations. The perception of the Indian manager would have been ‘I am the guest, you are the host therefore you pay. I won’t offend you by offering to buy a drink, and when you come to India I will take you out and I will pay because you are the guest and I am the host.’

It is useful to have a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable raising certain conversation topics but communication and cultural awareness and knowledge can be improved immensely when people can pluck up the courage to raise the uncomfortable, awkward conversations.

The questions that we need to be thinking about are:

  • How can I develop flexibility and cultural agility?
  • How can I learn the important behaviours and values of the cultures that I am working across?
  • How can I understand what are the things in my culture that are important; and what impact do they have when I am dealing with people of different cultures?


Global Work Attitudes


‘Decoding Talent’ is a recent study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group on the global workforce of today. It is an interesting study in terms of decoding and understanding the emerging global attitudes toward work and a global overview of what makes for a contented employee. Over 200,000 people from 189 countries participated in the survey.

One of the findings that I found most interesting was that on a global scale there is greater emphasis on intrinsic rewards rather than compensation.

The top 4 rankings for happiness on the job were:

  1. Appreciation for your work
  2. Good relationships with colleagues
  3. Good work-life balance
  4. Good relationships with superiors

One of the key most basic and crucial factors in these top 4 findings is the requirement for high levels of trust, sophisticated communication skills and strong relationships. For any global organisation this indicates that there is a very real demand for cultural intelligence across all aspects of the organisation, particularly in terms of leadership.

Understanding these preferences is key to talent retention and maximising the current workforce. Some questions that this research should pose for leaders are:

  • How do you provide culturally appropriate feedback and appreciation of work to individuals or teams that you may manage remotely?
  • How do you as a leader foster the establishment of good relationships with your cross-border teams?
  • How do you monitor these relationships, enhance them and aid them when there is conflict and misunderstandings?
  • How do you manage the expectations of a good work/life balance for your globally dispersed teams? For example if a team consists of people based in New Zealand, China and the U.S the perceptions of work/life balance will be diverse.
  • How are relationships established and maintained with superiors in your organisation? How do your leaders manage their cultural preferences for communicating with subordinates when they are leading across cultures?

Studies such as this are a great source of useful data to begin reflecting on current strategies, particularly in terms of talent development, retention, recruitment and key motivators. Some of the insights that are generated extend to what are the future challenges, are current operating models and resources adequate to cope with current and future demands.

Communication Technology and Culture


How does culture impact the effectiveness of communication platforms and apps?

One our Cultural Synergies staff members shared with me a recent article in BRW that reviewed a new app called BLRT. Her interest was piqued since it is an app that has been created with one of the key design requirements being the ability to convey messages, verbally and visually, just as you would in person but without the need to be in the same time zone or location. The app captures voice and gestures and is specifically designed for communicating across different time zones and improving collaboration. As she was describing the app I began to think about how innovative we continue to be in terms of designing and creating new ways of working and communicating across cultures, and also some of the traps that it can inadvertently lead to.

While apps and telecommunication software such as BLRT, Skype, Face Time etc. are all welcome additions to our lives and useful tools for communicating with each other; arguably they still don’t necessarily help us to improve our culturally intelligence. In fact there is the possibility that sometimes they could lead us toward a false sense of our true cultural understandings and knowledge. Accessibility to these platforms is cheap, easy to use and allows us to have cross border conversations at anytime.  Here is my point – even with our constantly evolving telecommunication options, the chances of cultural misunderstandings i.e. missing subtle cues, such as the reason for a seemingly one-way conversation, body language, how our messages were really understood etc continues to persist. While there are clear benefits to working and communicating with these constantly evolving and improved forms of technology, I contend that it doesn’t necessarily translate that we are becoming more culturally aware.

Some useful factors to keep in mind when you are communicating via these technologies are:

  • Be conscious of the speed at which you are speaking. Voice modulation, pronunciation, accents, use of colloquial language etc. all influence how your messages are being received
  • Pay attention to the quieter participants and invite them to speak
  • Summarise what is being said regularly
  • Demonstrate your understandings by paraphrasing the important points to ensure that you have understood the message
  • Spend some time making ‘small talk’. This is invaluable for really getting to know and understand others and in building trust and improving relationships
  • Pay attention to body language, it will help you to understand what is not being said
  • Spend a moment after your conversations and reflect on the success or difficulties that you encountered and seek to understand why they may have occurred and learn from them.

As working across time zones continues to increase we need to regularly remind ourselves that culture will always be a feature that needs to be given the appropriate attention that it demands – this will never change.