Succeeding as a Woman Doing Business Abroad
Your phone rings. It’s the CFO. Suddenly you’re booking a flight to Qatar in three days for an important conference. Or you’re promoted to director of the Asia-Pacific region. You’ll be leaving for a ten-day tour of meetings in countries from Malaysia to Japan where you’ll meet your new staff.
Whether your trip is to one country or an entire region, the key to success for women doing global business is preparation. Take the time to understand the business etiquette and local customs of the countries where you’ll be working and your new professional relationships and responsibilities will go that much more smoothly.
Sounds obvious, right? Yet time and again business travelers make the mistake of arriving blind in a foreign country. As a woman, what is important to know before grabbing your passport and laptop and hopping on an international flight?
Let’s say you’re headed into Japan. Business culture here is much more hierarchical than in the States, which means you need to know the rank of associates to interact with them appropriately. Another consideration: the custom for reaching out to new contacts. In some countries, it’s acceptable to call them directly; in others, you should approach their assistant or have a local contact make an introduction. Don’t wait until your first meeting to find out.
Since many cultures have gender-specific standards for business etiquette, make sure your reconnaissance includes customs regarding women. Take your clothing, for example. Your business wardrobe may not be a big deal in Sweden, but that changes in the Middle East, where standards of modesty are stricter. And don’t assume customs will hold true across an entire region. In one country, showing leg might be fine while showing your shoulder is not, with a very different standard in a neighboring country.
Another important consideration: transportation. Street safety and rules regarding sharing transportation with men will vary. Find out beforehand the safest and most appropriate methods for traveling to your hotel and to meetings, whether it’s an arranged car service, a taxi or another mode.
Communication can be a particularly delicate area. Understand expectations regarding how meetings are conducted, who should speak first or most, who sets the agenda and how negotiations are conducted. If you’re used to blurting out your ideas in meetings or boldly expressing dissent, you may need to hold back or find a more delicate approach in some cultures. The last thing you want is to accidentally offend an important colleague or client – an occurrence that happens way too often in international business dealings.
At the same time, you do want to make sure that your rank is understood. It’s not unheard of for visiting female executives to be perceived as assistants or junior associates in some cultures, so always try to find an appropriate way to establish your credentials and authority — especially in countries where professional women are rare. One tip: if there’s a specific region you’ll be visiting frequently, print up special business cards in English on one side and in the language of that country on the other so there can be no mistake about your job title. Also make sure that your male colleagues are aware of any cultural gender patterns and don’t undermine you in public, even unintentionally.
Finally, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that socializing in other countries can be a minefield. In the United States, we might casually invite a visiting colleague out for some local sightseeing; that might not be appropriate in another country. While building professional relationships is always a positive thing, the parameters of “work friendships” will vary from culture to culture.
Ditto with protocol for dining and drinks. One good rule of thumb is to socialize in groups whenever possible. If you need to have a business dinner with a male colleague, invite others to attend – preferably women from that culture. And don’t be surprised if, in some regions, you’ll do business with men all day but be segregated at women-only dinner tables that night.
Remember, all of this is part of a valuable education that will teach you how to understand your new teammates and work with them more effectively. Doing business internationally is always an enriching experience for any professional woman. Do your homework and you’ll be considered a success both at home and overseas.