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Leadership Coaching Towards Intercultural Competence In Africa — A Case Study

Written by: Barbara van Heerden, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


It was my privilege to coach six C-Suite executives from five different African countries in meeting the completion of my PhD. In this article, I wish to share the results of the coaching initiative and the direct business benefits that were realised for three of the six participants. I will cover the case studies for the remaining 6 candidates in my next article.

I will commence by creating a context. I was working as a Programme Manager for a large South African Financial Services conglomerate at the time of doing this research. The conglomerate wish to remain anonymous and will be referred to as FinCorp in the article. The research participants will be referred to by their roles in the conglomerate within the countries in which they were based.

All the participants had to engage with the multi-cultural team in FinCorp Africa Holdings regarding consolidation of financial results, formulation of business strategy and annual business planning. Furthermore, everyone had to engage with FinCorp PLC regarding strategic issues, as well as alignment with the global operating model. Please see diagram below for clarity

Meet the Leaders, Hearing Their Voices

In this article, I share the participants’ experiences of the cross-cultural coaching programme over a 12-month period. I present three of the six participants' feedback using a different colour to distinguish each of their voices from my own. I have highlighted their key learnings, the achievement of coaching goals and the direct improvement in the realisation of business benefits.

1. Financial Investment in Zimbabwe: Gentle Strength for Turbulent Times

This client was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of FinCorp’s investment company in Zimbabwe. He works in a multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary team in Zimbabwe and reports to a black male Zimbabwean, who was the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a group of FinCorp companies that were based in Zimbabwe. The investment company is one of these companies.

He also worked with colleagues from FinCorp in South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Kenya, and from FinCorp’s Global holding company based in London in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, he interacted with key stakeholders from outside Zimbabwe in terms of investment opportunities, including countries such as Ghana.

From the first coaching interview, I found him to be a gently spoken, careful, open, honest, hardworking, and ambitious leader. He displayed many of the characteristics of people from a high-power distance, high context for communication and collectivist culture. As we join him on his learning journey, we shall see that, while he displays qualities of gentleness and humility, he plays a significant leadership role in FinCorp in Zimbabwe and, in fact, in FinCorp internationally. The information shared is based on the feedback received from the concluding interview after 12 months of coaching.

Firstly, I have learnt formal awareness of cultural issues. Sometimes we are consciously aware, other times subconsciously aware and other times unconscious of cultural issues. For me, awareness of cultural issues levels the playing field. The cross-cultural coaching programme created formal awareness of many of the cultural issues in the context in which I live and work. Coaching broadened my awareness to be open all areas of cross-cultural leadership.

I enjoyed the few academic articles you had sent me regarding cross-cultural issues. The coaching programme has sparked an interest in research done in this area, and I am much more aware of articles about culture in the business journals I read. Furthermore, I am increasingly aware of cross-cultural issues relevant to the business I lead. If coaching hadn’t sparked my interest, then I believe I would be operating at a lower level of effectiveness. I now believe I won’t get ahead without this new knowledge.

I have experienced the generic benefits of leadership coaching. I have enjoyed having a coach as a thinking partner, discussing leadership development beyond cross-cultural issues.

A thinking partner lends a different perspective about management, leadership, talent management and general leadership issues. I see the coaching programme as providing foundational leadership coaching with a specialisation in cross-cultural elements.

The coaching programme has enabled me to look at cultural differences and people in Africa in a different light. I was surprised to learn that the personal experiences I was having in working across cultures, such as sometimes feeling mystified, frustrated or feeling I had failed, were akin to the experiences of others in cross-cultural engagements. Before coaching, if I had a bad cross-cultural experience, I thought the poor interaction reflected negatively on me. I have learnt it is not I, but rather cultural differences that lead to bad experiences or misunderstandings and conflict between the parties.

In cross-cultural interactions, I can now reflect on how I have handled the interaction versus the other people in the interaction. I now believe that I was not doing too badly at all, and in some cases, in past interactions, I had instinctively done the right thing. I believe I have acquired new ways of improving interactions during a cross-cultural situation. I believe I have added new skills to my repertoire as a leader.

The highlight of the coaching programme was the ownership of the time. It’s my time. I have many meetings in my calendar, and this was the one meeting which was focused on me, and where I could have time to focus on myself, my development, have a thinking partner and garner support. These sessions have been special to me, and this has been time well spent.

As I became increasingly aware of cultural issues, I have reacted differently in cross-cultural situations. In cross-cultural interactions prior to the coaching programme, I would react negatively to people and sometimes think they did not know what they were doing. In some instances, I thought people were being ridiculous. I would think I had understood the person, and then when they behaved in mysterious ways, I would become judgmental. As a result of the coaching programme, I was able to look at the situation or issue from the other person’s point of view. I now take a step back before I react. I am more open, increasingly aware of difference and have become increasingly tolerant. I look at the cultural issues as a challenge, rather than blaming myself for being inadequate or pre-judging people and writing them off. A lot more often I put myself in the other person’s shoes. This behaviour is leading to a deeper understanding, and I therefore, respond more appropriately and take increasingly more effective actions. I am also surprised that these activities do not necessarily slow me down.

I understand what people are saying with a cultural backdrop. When employees say they can’t come to work due to sick children or ailing parents, I understand at a deeper level the cultural meaning of these relationships for people in a high-context and collectivist culture. I am responding to employees in a more meaningful way. I understand what is important to other people, and instead of judging them or being dismissive or impatient, I can demonstrate increased understanding.

I am reaping the benefits of improved relationships with my subordinates. As a result, I am less judgmental, more understanding and therefore more effective as a people leader.

I used to think South Africans were rude. I’ve come to be a lot more tolerant of the way people express themselves. I have been working on a business deal for some time with two Afrikaans men from South Africa, and two local Zimbabweans. Initially I found the Afrikaners to be very rude, aggressive, and abrupt. I thought: ‘” These are not good guys”. After coaching I approached the local Zimbabweans and asked them what they knew about these guys. They assured me that they were in fact good guys, but that was just the way they expressed themselves. After coaching I understood them much better. Without this new perspective about my Afrikaans colleagues, I could have walked away from the investment deal which is still on-going and a good business deal for both FinCorp South Africa and FinCorp Zimbabwe.

In summary, I understand my own culture better and am increasingly developing increasingly effective relationships with my subordinates inspiring followership. I am also understanding colleagues from other countries better and instead of walking away from business deals in frustration I am learning to appreciate difference and stay engaged to acquire good investment business for Fincorp in Zimbabwe and South Africa. In essence, I am an increasingly effective business leader.

2. From the Shores of Lake Malawi

At the start of the coaching process, my client was the Acting Chief Executive Officer for FinCorp Malawi based in Blantyre. She is a black Malawian woman and works in a multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary executive team in Malawi. During the coaching process, a black Malawian man was appointed as the permanent Chief Executive Officer of FinCorp Malawi, and she resumed her role as Chief Operating Officer, FinCorp, Malawi.

She regularly interacts across cultural boundaries with colleagues in the FinCorp Group from South Africa and Zimbabwe. She also participates in annual strategy and business planning processes and works alongside colleagues from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Swaziland, Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

I believe that cultural issues really impact on the way we carry on business. I have observed that people display very different cultures in different areas in Malawi. I believe Malawian culture is very conservative and this leads to tension across society.

The Northern region of Malawi has a matrilineal cultural orientation, while the central and southern regions are patrilineal. In matrilineal cultures, women take a leadership role in the family. In patrilineal cultures, leadership, and heritage pass through the male line.

Leadership roles from these two cultures are therefore different. In a matrilineal society, if the chief has no offspring of his own, the chieftainship will pass to the male children of the chief’s sister.

This was my first experience of coaching, and my expectation was that coaching sessions would be like mini training sessions. The experience of coaching has been a surprise to me. From the first session, I learnt coaching was not about theoretical issues. You generally asked me about the culture in Malawi. This stimulated me to think about cultural issues as I had never thought It was a journey for me to increase my self-awareness about cultural issues, including cultural dimensions in a business context. Furthermore, coaching conversations have made me aware of the need to consider how another person might feel or think, and that someone else’s perspective might legitimately differ from my own. The entire journey was about me learning about myself.

I believe that because of the coaching programme, I have developed both reflexivity and intercultural competence as leadership competencies. I would sit and think about how I could apply what I was learning. One of the coaching goals was to learn to prepare for meetings, and particularly culturally sensitive engagements, in a different way. Reflecting on cultural elements of engagements prior to these interactions helped me be better prepared in general.

I applied action-reflection learning to one-to-one cross-gender engagements, which are always sensitive in Malawi; as well as to meetings within FinCorp Malawi; meetings with external stakeholders in Malawi, such as government officials; and to cross-cultural engagements in FinCorp South Africa. Because I felt better prepared, I believed I was able to recognise cultural conflicts that arose and was able to deal with them more effectively during the engagement. Greater reflexivity and cultural sensitivity have increased my ability to safely navigate the cultural issues present in multi-cultural and cross-cultural engagements. This has improved my confidence as a business leader when working in a multi-cultural setting.

The highlight of the coaching process was the business planning process during 2011 for 2012. In the past, the experience has been painful, difficult, stressful, and it sapped my energy. The key cultural sensitivity related to leading the multi-cultural, gender diverse team in Malawi to focus on business planning; and to garner diverse views and opinions towards completing a business plan, the results of which should be reflective of the executives’ and business teams’ combined views and opinions. It was necessary to navigate the often-submerged cultural sensitivities without offence; or undermining the power structures of the collective.

The most significant cultural issue related to getting input or feedback about business issues and strategic direction from the executive team. Business planning requires robust discussion, the voicing of diverse opinions and inevitable conflict.

All parties are required to participate in discussing difficult business issues openly and directly. Malawi is a high-context, high-power distance, collectivist culture. Malawians in general are extremely conservative and respectful. Giving open and direct feedback is culturally taboo, especially if that feedback is required by a superior; or may cause disharmony in the group; or may result in loss of face to someone in the group. As a result, it is difficult to know when someone from Malawi does not agree with you. This very subtle form of disagreement often leads to apparent agreement, followed by non-compliance, albeit in a very respectful way.

We were better prepared for business planning, in that I started involving everyone early in the process. I created a psychologically safe space for everyone to argue their approach through laying ground rules for open and direct sharing of views and ideas. I created a framework where everyone could contribute without fear of censure. There was sufficient time and space for everyone to agree where time was devoted to obtaining consensus.

As the business leaders for the business planning process the CEO and I went out of our way to include individual people; people were asked what they thought personally. I prepared well in advance, so there was not a big rush and a sense of incomplete output. As anticipated, the team in Malawi were uncomfortable due to cultural sensitivity in high-context, collectivist and high-power distance culture, but the result was good anyway.

The process was still stressful, but not as painful as in previous years, where I was up half the night trying to perfect the figures and data. The result was good and has been slightly refined by FinCorp Africa Holdings. In the past, the holding company had made many changes, whereas this year very few changes or additions were made. The FinCorp Africa Executive team even remarked that Malawi has done well.

3. The Exceptional Expatriate: A South African Xhosa Leader in Swaziland

This client is a Xhosa-born South African male who at the time of the coaching programme was working as an expatriate in FinCorp Swaziland. His role was that of Chief Operating Officer (COO) for FinCorp Swaziland and he reported to an expatriate Namibian CEO based in Swaziland. He also worked with South Africans from FinCorp Africa Holding Company based in South Africa. He had 10 direct reports, five of whom were Swazis based in Mbabane, Swaziland, and five team members based in Cape Town, South Africa. He was based in Swaziland but frequently commuted to South Africa. At the commencement of the coaching programme, he had been working for FinCorp in Swaziland for over a year.

It was during my student days that I started to acquire a culture that was different to the traditional Xhosa culture I had learnt during my childhood. I believe that it was during my years working as an assistant to the Financial Director in FinCorp South Africa, that I strongly adopted the FinCorp business culture in terms of all business interactions.

The coaching programme was a big eye-opener for me. The coaching conversations regarding cultural issues have helped to explain some of the behaviours I was seeing in Swaziland which had previously mystified me. The coaching programme helped me to deal with these cultural differences more effectively.

During coaching sessions, we discussed various options as solutions for dealing with apparent cultural conflict between myself and my team. One of the solutions generated was to empower the team in Swaziland to become solution generators instead of problem fixers. This was about recognising and rewarding people who raised issues and problems and came up with solutions for the benefit of the team (collective). This was one of the actions I implemented that has yielded good results.

I implemented check-ins during team meetings. This has enabled me to pick up additional information about how people were doing and what the key issues were. Check-ins have also helped to build relationships with people from Swaziland, which is important for me as the executive leader in this culture.

At the beginning of the year, people thought I was a scary monster. I was always the bad guy.

There was a big difference now in the team’s response to me. I am now concerned that I might be too open with my team. I am starting to get weird requests for help. People are discussing personal and family issues, as well as business issues with me. (This is typical of a collectivist, high power distance and high context for communication culture.) This was good, but quite a change from where people would not discuss business issues at the beginning of the year, never mind personal issues. The Swazi team is more comfortable in discussing issues with me. I feel they are seeing the humanity I display.

In my own development previously, delivery was based on my own technical delivery and competence. I have been transitioning from being a specialist to managing the delivery of a team. During this year I had to learn to let go of wanting to do everything myself. (This is arguably one of the greatest transitions anyone makes in their career. To achieve this shift in such a multi-cultural context is increasingly complex).

I had to learn about empowering the middle leaders to manage. I’ve been forced to delegate and learn to manage a team’s delivery. I had to learn how to divide my time. I have learnt to let go and observe, coach and empower my team. This was one of my coaching goals. I believe the coaching programme contributed significantly to achieving this goal.

In this year’s recognition programme, I was one of the judges. All the line leaders who reported to me were nominated. My line leaders have been recognised and praised for initiatives that I have generated. I was pleased about the recognition my team was receiving. I am proud of the good things my team have achieved. In the past, I would have been more worried about the credit coming to me and would have been really upset if it hadn’t come to me.

I believe I have developed intercultural sensitivity and competence, and this will help me to work anywhere in the world. I feel that owing to the cross-cultural coaching programme I have a head-start in the FinCorp executive mobility programme.

The coaching process was good. As the coach, you were good at taking charge of the discussion. We would start a discussion with a broad issue, and then as coach you would guide the discussion to the cultural orientation framework, or other frameworks and models, and then narrow the discussion further towards various options to reconcile cultural differences or consider different behavioural approaches for business effectiveness.

I appreciated your straight talking. There were no ‘holy cows’ in coaching. You have not been afraid to ask me how I might contribute to certain situations and issues that I raised. I appreciate the honest feedback. Despite the straight talking, coaching sessions were a safe space to raise and discuss issues that could not be discussed with other people for fear that confidentiality would not be maintained. There is a high level of trust between myself and you.

You demonstrated integrity. You also shared ideas and frameworks to assist in resolving some of the cultural and leadership challenges.

The coaching programme has been wonderful. I feel I was very fortunate to be part of the programme, and great value was added. When I received the original email about the programme, I was not sure what it was all about, but I feel that the value has been very good.

It has opened my mind in terms of not being judgmental, but to rather ask why people responded the way they did. I have learnt to take time to understand and to come up with increasingly effective responses. I also feel that the coaching programme came at the right time. At the beginning of the year, I was very frustrated with the Swazi culture and deeply mystified about some of their behaviours. Things in Swaziland had been very strange, but now I feel I have the tools to succeed.

4. In Conclusion

From these case studies, three clear patterns emerge. Firstly the use of a simple cultural orientation framework was useful in helping these leaders to understand the nature of culture as a construct and how this effects our worldview, feelings and hence behaviours. Once awareness of culture and its differences was created the leadership coaching helped each leader to get to grips with their own cultural orientation. It is interesting that this knowledge increased leadership effectiveness within their country of origin. Finally, the leadership coaching helped them to deal with different cultures in cross-cultural engagements with direct business benefits in all three cases

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Barbara van Heerden, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

“Coaching is change management one person at a time”. Jenny Mc Nulty. Regarding coaching, she specialises in business leadership coaching but can work within any organisational context. Her personal passion is leadership coaching to equip leaders to effectively lead multi-cultural and cross-cultural teams. She follows a strengths-based leadership coaching model that enables leaders to harness their strengths in such a way that their weaknesses become insignificant. She successfully concluded of a PhD in Leadership Coaching Towards Intercultural Competence in 2016. Working across cultures is often seen as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be explored. She is also an experienced programme and change manager. She has led large-scale programmes in corporate South Africa over the last 25 years and has worked in seven different African Countries.



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