Busting 5 Myths about Cross-Cultural Coaching

Once in a while we invite guests on The Culture Reflections Blog and ask them to share their experience of crossing cultures. We also follow this idea on Christian’s podcast series, The Culture Guy. The goal is to showcase which concepts other experts in the cross-cultural field use to serve their clients and how they approach their work.
This first guest blog is from Susan Salzbrenner, CEO of Fit Across Cultures. She helps athletes and teams succeed internationally. Here she outlines the benefits of coaching – a topic which is at the core of our work.
Please reach out to us if you would like to suggest a future guest blogger. 

The coaching industry has been booming for decades. The variety of options for every possible situation can make even the most optimistic individual wary. Life coaches, performance coaches, personal coaches, leadership and executive coaches, transformation coaches, cross-cultural coaches… you name it, we have it. Today we’ll be busting five myths that have blossomed around cross-cultural coaches.
The coaches that focus on supporting individuals that navigate across different cultures and complex, diverse environments on a regular basis. The expectations in regard to what a cross-cultural coach can offer vary quite heavily. “First timers” (a.k.a. First time expats or professionals taking on their first global role) are typically less aware of the challenges and difficulties in regards to crossing cultures, and therefore don’t know why they should use a cross-cultural coach. But even experienced international business professionals shy away from working with a cross-cultural coach for one of the following reasons.
Let’s bust them one by one, shall we?

1) Working with a cross-cultural coach means I am incapable to figure this out on my own

The most common misperception of working with a coach is the feeling that you are failing and therefore need help. Clearly, there is a misunderstanding here between a coach and a therapist. A therapist works with clients that are suffering, and typically looks into the past for patterns/habits to fix. A coach, on the other hand, sets the stage for the future and supports you in being the best version of yourself. A coach serves as your accountability partner and someone that supports getting you from your current reality to where you want to be.
Particularly professional with international responsibilities or on expatriation feel that they have to “prove themselves” to headquarters. Taking on a cross-cultural coach to walk through important decisions and global leadership questions feels like cheating. But it is vital to understand that what has worked previously and has gotten you to this position, might fail you abroad.
Sure, your management is testing your adaptability and success factor in an international setting. That doesn’t mean that you have to choose the “swim or drown” principle. It’s about demonstrating cultural intelligence (CQ). Reaching out to a cross-cultural coach shows that you have the first ability of CQ: self-awareness.


2) Your coach will fix all of your problems

What a nice thought! But hiring a coach and investing in your development does not mean that all problems and frustrations will instantly disappear. Interestingly, cross-cultural coaches especially have to deal with this burden of clients thinking that having a coach means they will no longer walk into any cultural faux-pas. Today’s global business environment calls for a more differentiated understand than the “kiss, bow or shake hands” type of rules. Instead of learning dos and don’ts, you should focus your energy (and the money you are spending for your coach) on developing awareness, knowledge and behaviors that help you efficiently and successfully navigate across cultures and complex situations. Learning from mistakes is inevitable, but much more effective and reflective with a cross-cultural coach’s input and expertise.

3) Your coach will become your new best friend abroad

When you are in a foreign environment and deal with situations that can bring out the most impatient version of you, making friends and creating a social network is often way too far on the list of things to do. Quite conveniently, you are disclosing your problems and frustrations to your coach every week. But don’t mistake this open, trusted space for friendship. Your cross-cultural coach is a professional, just like you in a business setting. Successful cross-cultural coaching makes it necessary to look at attitudes, perceptions, cognitive patterns and motivations. But coaches should not be mistaken for friends, or else they lose the vital perspective of an observer, a third party. They can certainly serve as access points to local information, but so can your colleagues or neighbors. Regard your coaching relationship as a professional one to guarantee success. Once your coach becomes your friend, it is time to look for a new cross-cultural coach.

4) Your cross-cultural coach will be your culture and history guide

Cross-cultural coaches are often perceived as walking guide books. Ask them anything and they will rattle off the history, food, politics and latest business trends of the culture in a split of a second.
Not exactly though.
While cross-cultural coaches definitely have a deepened understanding and awareness of how all of these elements play a role in shaping the culture, their main responsibility is not to cite from the Lonely Planets of the world. A coach’s impact lies in helping you decipher where your biggest cultural gaps are and how you can bridge them. Cross-cultural coaches guide you to apply your talent and expertise with competence and savvy to any local (business, team, national) culture. But don’t consider it the umbrella-holding, walking in front of you touristy type of guidance. It is rather a constant nudging and questioning that follows you around to get you where you want to go. If you want to learn about history and local culture in general, your coach will certainly be able to point out a few good books and events.

5) Your coach will burden you with more work

When your plate is already full and you are on the verge of overwhelm, the last thing you are looking for is adding another task. Entering a coaching relationship may feel like an extra burden. But an experienced cross-cultural coach will actually help your productivity and effectiveness abroad because you are tackling the underlying root causes for delays, frustrations, team misalignment, etc. Your coach won’t take the plate out of your hand (see myth #2), but s/he will help you stack and hold it differently. Your focus and perception will shift and give way to a clearer strategy and process when dealing with invested stakeholders from different cultures. Now that’s a “burden” you should certainly take!

If you are still in doubt about your decision to work with a cross-cultural coach, then here is a final tip: Ask some of your more senior colleagues what they wish they had done differently when starting their first global role. I’m willing to bet many of them will say that they should have taken more time to understand the local market conditions and culture before jumping in.

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About the author: Susan Salzbrenner is an organizational psychologist and intercultural trainer and coach. She works with (future) global leaders, professional athletes, and international teams that navigate a complex, global (and often virtual) environment. Her specific focus lies on achieving the full individual potential by utilizing the benefits of diversity, building an inclusive organization and succeeding in an agile, fast-changing 21st century. The Germany native has lived and worked in six countries on four continents, traveled to many more, played a bit of basketball along the way, and is now based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter. And listen to her Podcast.

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