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Cross-border crossed wires – improve your international discussions

WORKING INTERNATIONALLY is often experienced as challenging and frustrating by today’s finance professional. Proven and trusted professional excellence driven by mastery of detail and structure frequently struggles to assert itself in a global environment characterised by high levels of uncertainty and complexity. So what does it take to be effective in this new world? Here are a few insights from my experience of working with finance professionals. 

One of the key logics underpinning internationalisation activity, interestingly, is financial – namely, cost management. As companies go global, they seek to find synergies (cost savings) across international operations with economies of scale and leverage of procurement power. At the same time they seek to make this synergy more transparent by harmonising financial standards, reporting processes and related IT infrastructure, thereby making it all the more manageable.

That’s the big picture. And such de facto centralisation quickly brings central and local personnel into conflict. Only the other week was I sitting with a client in his office hearing expletives roll off his tongue as he scanned the latest email from head office requesting figures ‘yesterday’. Direct and unexplained requests like this are intensely irritating, especially when they arrive without warning, claim priority over local tasks, and are sent from the keyboards of those who seldom respond with any thanks once the information is supplied.

Assuming a different mindset

The problem essentially lies in assumption. Technical specialists tend to assume priority of fact over feeling. Finance experts tend to be data driven and they tend to communicate in a data-driven way – direct, concise, deadline focused i.e. according to their own sense of urgency. Tip number one: be mindful – everyone is busy, consider local sensitivities to central financial reporting; keep communications respectful in the eyes of the receiver; manage feelings alongside facts.

Assumption can rear its ugly head in other more unexpected and, potentially, more dangerous ways. Take the case of a seemingly logical project objective to produce aggregated costs for training across European operations.

The problem was that ‘training’ and ‘costs’ meant different things in different places. In one part of the organisation, training costs included all costs connected to training. In another, fees for rooms were calculated and reported separately; there was no chance to provide accumulated figures within the local reporting system. In one country it wasn’t even possible to report the data centrally due to local data privacy laws. Frustration in this reporting project quickly gave way to suspicion, resentment and conflict. For finance specialists, figures often have the illusion of objective truth. Yet numbers embed organisational memory in quite surprising ways.

So what does all this mean for everyday life in the office? At one level it’s quite simple – be more explicit to avoid assumptions getting in the way. So when asking for data, say exactly what you want, why you want it, what you don’t need, and couch all this in a communication style that the other sees as respectful and professional. Note that this may not be possible to achieve always via email. And when receiving data, ask a lot of dumb questions to check your own assumptions: clarify what the figures really mean even when you think you know. Dig a little deeper, clarify whether one plus one really equals two. Of course, that means you risk appearing dumb. Perhaps that’s why people don’t do it.

Perhaps the greatest assumption that finance experts need to challenge is about work itself, about the nature of ‘job’. I’ve spent the last year with a major global insurer encouraging underwriters not to do their job. Sounds strange? Well, consider that writing an insurance programme for a global client probably involves around forty people – from relationship manager through broker to underwriter. What makes this chain of people across cultures and continents work is an attitude of responsibility – going beyond one’s own job and making sure that customer value doesn’t fall through the various cracks of separate roles and responsibilities.

‘Relationship management’

Finance experts need to become relationship and communication experts. They need to persuade and cajole across borders and remotely to get things done. The age of pure data is dead. And don’t forget. You have to do all this as a native speaker of English in a world of non-native speakers of English. You can’t even assume your language is understandable. The speed, linguistic wit and sophistication of expression which graces City of London offices can leave non-native speaker colleagues and clients irritated and cold, even mistrustful. They won’t tell you but they frequently tell me. The natives learn to speak their own language … internationally. Advice? Talk slowly. Talk simply. Talk less. Listen more. 

In many ways, none of this is particularly complex. The interesting thing is that in my training experience over the last ten years, the finance experts who could step into the shoes of their international colleagues were in a minority. Hopefully, as the world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent, such minority will soon become a majority.

Bob Dignen is co-author of Communication for International Business, published by Collins, out on 21 March. £8.99: more info at: http://bit.ly/CommsIntBus

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