The future for MBA graduates is clear. Regardless of the country in which they build their careers, they will come into ever closer contact with foreign markets. It may seem obvious, but as companies go global it is the employees, not the organizations, who do the grunt work. They are the ones managing teams, forging networks, resolving conflicts and conducting negotiations. For a company to succeed, those who work on its behalf must be able to operate effectively abroad.
Business schools recognize this, at least in theory. Most try to prepare students for leadership positions overseas through study-abroad programs, international consulting projects or immersion trips. Students emerge with a general grasp of how business gets done in other countries—how the Shanghai Stock Exchange differs from the Deutsche Börse, say, or how deals are structured in Tokyo as opposed to in London. But they do not come away with the ability to perform effectively in foreign cultures. This requires something that I call “global dexterity”: the ability to adapt your behavior when faced with cultural norms very different from your own. It could be anything from how to pitch a company to an investor, how to motivate employees or how to give performance feedback. In many cases, these norms aren’t just different, they require behavior that is far outside one’s comfort zone. This makes adaptation a challenge.
An American MBA graduate I spoke to was surprised by how uncomfortable and disingenuous he felt in trying to adapt to the German style of providing performance feedback. In Germany, people are much more direct and to-the-point. He felt awkward and overly blunt compared with the softer American approach. What’s more, he was anxious about getting it right. When pressed, he admitted he even resented having to adjust to this style in the first place. His MBA prepared him to do business, but it did not prepare him for the on-the-ground relationships he would have to navigate on foreign soil.
So what can business schools do to help students both understand cultural differences and use this knowledge in real situations? The first thing is to bring them closer to the challenges that they will grapple with in the real world. In medical school, doctors are not only presented with hypothetical scenarios, they work in realistic simulations and then with actual patients. In the same way, through practical training, we must imbue students with the global dexterity to feel comfortable in a variety of settings.
In my class on managing across cultures, I ask international students to choose a situation in America that lies outside of their comfort zone, such as networking, interviewing or making small talk. (The local students get separate opportunities to develop their own cross-cultural abilities.) With the help of an American mentor, students master the new cultural rules through discussion and role-playing. Then they practice this new behavior in real-life situations, such as at networking events or job interviews. Immediately afterwards they write a diary about their experience. Finally, back in the classroom, we debrief and discuss ideas for navigating unfamiliar situations and coping with the challenges of cultural adaptation.
The key here is that students are not learning about cultural differences in an abstract way or vicariously through a case study; rather, they are experiencing it in reality, awkward silences and all. This, I believe, is the only effective way for students to succeed.
Global leadership is clearly on the agenda in today’s business schools; it is hard to find a school that does not tout itself as “global”. But are we really producing MBA students who will be effective wherever their careers take them? If our future business leaders are not taught how to rise to the challenge, then the companies that they work for, lead, and create will not be able to, either.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).
Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.