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Berlin Brief

The Other Cross-Cultural Leadership by David Slocum

August 14, 2014

One of the great assets of any global academic or training program is the national, regional, social or economic diversity of its participants.  In its still relatively young EMBA program alone, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership has enrolled participants from over 50 countries.  At the most basic level, that diversity helps individuals to expand their individual networks and to join (or deepen their place in) a global community of creative professionals.  Another positive outcome is the enrichment of the learning of individuals from different markets around the world through the sharing of experiences, insights and challenges.  More specific to the creative communication industries, which are undergoing extraordinary transformation, diversity among participants enables greater access to specific tools and strategies for navigating changing technologies, customer and client relationships, and business models.

Facilitating the exchange of experiences and fostering the professional relationships among participants is a key responsibility of executive programs.  Ordinarily, this includes teaching major approaches to ‘cross-cultural leadership’ as part of the EMBA curriculum.  The research, tools and models for understanding conventional national and cultural differences remain vitally important to the success of creative leaders.  Many of these are more widely familiar:

•    High- and low-context communications, anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s classical approach to understanding how much or little implicit knowledge is required in different cultures to communicate information effectively.

•    Key dimensions to cultural interactions, identified through longstanding research by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, and including Individualism/Collectivism, Feminine/Masculine, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence/Restraint, and Long Term/ Short Term Orientation. (Fons Trompenaar’s succeeding model of national culture has seven related dimensions as well as five orientations for the ways in which people dal with each other.)

•    Richard D. Lewis, the founder of the Berlitz language schools in East Asia, Finland and Portugal, whose model focuses, in simple terms, on whether those in given countries or regions pursue individual tasks using linear or sequential logic, focus on relationships and pursue multiple tasks simultaneously, or follow strategies that seek solidarity and harmony.

•    Perhaps most ambitiously, the GLOBE project conceived by Wharton professor Robert J. House (and building on Hofstede’s model), offers both an inventory of nine cultural competencies and six specific leadership competencies that vary across ten societal clusters.  These include charismatic vs value-based, team orientation, and participative leadership.

Taken together, these approaches convey the complexity and richness of communication, interaction, and, especially, leadership in a world still demanding of profound sensitivity in thought and action to social, cultural and national differences – that is, to an early twenty-first century world that is anything but flat.

Yet another aspect of diversity among creative professionals is not so often addressed: the diversity of roles and professions among those who increasingly are drawn together to collaborate.  In the traditional creative industries, for example, everyone does not have the word ‘creative’ in their title.  Amir Kassaei, the Global Chief Creative Officer of DDB, the advertising agency, uses the helpful label ‘creatively minded’ to include those without other formal validation but who still contribute to creative activities.  Australian researchers Peter Higgs and Stuart Cunningham advanced the idea of a ‘creative trident’ several years ago, breaking out employment in creative versus support activities in creative industries as well as creative occupations in other industries.  In their recently published collection, Creative Work Beyond the Creative Industries (Edward Elgar 2014), Greg Hearn, Ruth Bridgestock, Ben Goldsmith, and Jess Rodgers argue for greater attention to the third group of workers employed in creative occupations or contributing creative services outside the traditional creative industries.

In a world where cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams are not only increasingly the norm but looked to as a source, in their very diversity of perspectives and experiences, of original thinking and innovative work, the challenge for leaders is to recognize and yoke together such differences successfully.  Just as leaders need to mindful, attentive and sensitive to the different communication and leadership expectations and norms existing across geographic borders, in other words, so they should be attuned to the attitudes, perspectives, and expectations about working together brought by different kinds of creative professionals and practitioners.  Just as Brazilians are sensitive and adapt to different ways of working together with those in Singapore, to take on example, writers need to be sensitive and adapt to the different ways of working productively with programmers.

Effectively combining differing technical expertise, aesthetic preferences, and mental models has long been at the heart of creative business.  The tension – for some, a paradox – between the chaos of creativity and the order of business or management has not only been a challenge to be overcome but a source of the ‘creative friction’ (to use Michael Eisner’s words) needed to generate fresh ideas.  A ready historical example, drawn from the ‘creative revolution’ of the 1960s in the advertising industry (as well as others), involved surmounting the ‘great wall’ between creatives and suits without losing entirely the productive opposition it represented.

A similar struggle with the tensions arising from teaming those with different professional or aesthetic languages, perspectives and expertise has also long existed among creatives themselves.  As eager as were the first adopters of Bill Bernbach’s revolutionary coupling of art and copy, finding success in work together wasn’t easy or straightforward.  The very first team of art director and copywriter, the legendary Bob Gage and Phyllis Robinson, whom Bernbach took with him from Grey Advertising when DDB was founded, were enthusiastic about the new model but often struggled with its implementation.  As committed as the two were, their interactions, which were meant to be shaped by constructive conflict, were often bruising.  But they ended up producing exceptional and, often, timeless work.

To extend that example to the present, many are calling for an expansion or other re-constitution of the core teams in advertising.  For some, it should be ‘art, copy and code.’  For nearly all, there is a reckoning that some version of an interdisciplinary, cross-functional or hybrid team adds value through its combination of multiple points of view, beliefs, and experiences.  Copywriting, design, digital, and production, even planning and strategy are among the familiar roles typically mixed and combined in hopes of generating the best creative outcomes.

Looking beyond marketing services or brand communications, the value of recognizing different skills, experiences, and mental models appears in even sharper relief.  Contemporary design and architecture firms, for example, regularly integrate a wide range of experts to help shape their work.  At IDEO, cultural anthropologists observe human behavior, kinesiologists study bodily movement, mechanical engineers contribute to the exploration of how physical solutions might be crafted.  Foster & Partners, one of the world’s most renowned architecture firms, likewise employs a full array of professions, including acoustics specialists, aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, and visual or plastic artists. 

Of course, there is a crucial balance to be struck here – and also a risk to be acknowledged and averted.  Even as we identify individuals as belonging to certain groups or professional cultures in order to be more sensitive to their needs and wants and well-being, we take the risk of viewing them one-dimensionally, simplistically.  The writers do this and the digital guys do that.  Even with the best of intentions, we may reinforce or fetishize categories of professional work or culture out of proportion.  As with national or regional cultures or sub-cultures, we may stereotype unfairly. Individuals are not simply one thing or, despite a professional skillset or mindset or pedigree, alike in many ways.

Put differently, it is not only a matter of recognizing and coordinating different skills or knowledge or perspectives in developing creative solutions to business challenges.  Rather, the deeper task and responsibility of leadership is to understand that individuals with apparently different professional skills or technical expertise have often developed through very different experiences.  Their conceptions of what teamwork is, what successful outcomes or IP rights should be, how creativity relates to business, indeed their beliefs about and attitudes toward authority and the free market and are all also potentially distinctive.  Ultimately, the mental models and what management scholar Tarun Khanna calls the ‘contextual intelligence’ of those approaching creative work from different professional perspectives warrants closer and sustained engagement by leaders.

That is the basis of the other cross-cultural leadership.  The cultures and sub-cultures – that is, the shared attitudes, preferences, beliefs, and values but also common actions – of different kinds of creative workers deserve more attention.  The more leaders recognize and remain mindful of those differences, and of the multiple creative contexts brought to bear by their increasingly varied creative talent, the better they will be able to guide and enable the rich diversity of teams and organizations toward accomplishing shared goals together.

The challenges faced by leaders of creative teams and organizations only continue to increase as markets grow more complex, traditional relationships are transformed, and the skills of workers become more varied.  Everyone brings distinct tools, skills and knowledge, often from across disciplines and functions, which need to be integrated in working together on a task or project. But perhaps even more importantly, everyone also brings different expectations, mental models, and solving problems together.

Among the guiding tenets of effective creative leadership today are ongoing self-reflection and self-understanding and the central importance of forging a vision and purpose around which creative teams and businesses can rally and work.  Increasingly, as leaders bring together disciplines, functions and technologies to generate better and better creative solutions for clients and customers, those leaders also need to be more attentive and adaptive not merely to the skills brought by diverse creative workers but their different beliefs, intelligences, and ways of working.

Such attentiveness and adaptability has the makings of a new alliance or social contract between creative talent with different attitudes, experiences, and expectations.  It also presents an immense opportunity for creative leaders willing to understand and engage more fully the many distinct creative cultures represented in their teams and organizations.

David Slocum

Faculty Director
Berlin School of Creative Leadership
  +49 (0)30 39 88 96 99