What Its Like For Women Leading International Teams


Ellen Sheng

March 8, 2016

While there’s plenty of room for improvement in opportunities for women in leadership in the U.S., it’s not unusual anymore to see women in senior management positions. That’s not the case in some other countries, particularly in parts of Latin America or Asia, and for women leading teams in these places, there can be more challenges.

Management consultants usually give solid non-gendered advice to executives working with colleagues overseas. For example, it’s good advice to be culturally sensitive, foster good communication, and get to know teammates as people. But for women managers, there’s an additional dimension that is too often ignored.

Establishing Authority

When Catherine Chou, currently a senior manager at tech company Salesforce, was tasked with starting up a new team in Costa Rica, it quickly became clear that she needed to do something to be taken seriously. She and a male colleague who reported to her were interviewing candidates together, yet when male candidates came in, they would just talk to her male report and refuse to make eye contact with her, assuming she was support staff.

“It was very hierarchical, but once they know your title it worked out,” she said. After this happened a few times, she started introducing herself by title to let them know she was the boss.

“You can’t be perceived as too nice because that’s seen as weak.”

Mohini Malhotra, an economist who was previously a manager at the World Bank working in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe, emphasized that it’s important to establish authority early on.

“You can’t get too friendly with staff and can’t be perceived as too nice because that’s seen as weak,” she said.

She relayed one instance when she was working in India for the World Bank and needed to establish a working relationship with a senior government office. The official asked for X, Y, and Z to be done by Friday. She complied but meanwhile some political agenda shifted things and he decided he didn’t want that anymore.

“So he called me and started yelling on the phone,” she recalled. “He thought he could bully me because I’m a woman and I’m a brown woman,” she said. Stunned, she calmly said “when you’re ready to have a grown-up conversation, give me a call,” and then hung up.

It could have gone badly, but the senior official respected her for that and they had a great working relationship from then on.

“By hanging up I established that I’m up to it. It was a huge eye opener but you can’t be too nice and don’t tolerate [nonsense],” she said.

Establishing authority and your place in the hierarchy can also play out with seemingly small things. During packed meetings, make sure to get a seat at the main table. “If your rank merits you to sit at the main table, don’t go to the back seat. It sends a message about your place in the hierarchy.”

Depending on the country, something as innocuous as getting yourself a cup of tea or answering your own phone can lower your rank or authority. In countries such India or China, there are staff members specifically appointed to make and serve tea to employees. It may feel uncomfortable to ask someone else to do it for you “but you need to establish your authority and hierarchy and your authority is easy to establish if you stay within your hierarchy,” said Malhotra.

“He thought he could bully me because I’m a woman and I’m brown.”

These small cultural signifiers can take on even more significance when considering race. Malhotra, who is of Indian descent, said she found Indian men were a bit more accepting of Caucasian women in leadership roles, but found it a bit harder to accept a woman of Indian descent bossing them around.

Getting Support

In additional to asserting authority, it’s also important for company management to be aware of the possible challenges women face. Chou cited one example in a previous job when her office sent over a junior female employee to train employees in India. When she arrived, she wasn’t given car service or anything else previous (male) trainers had gotten during their visit.

“In hindsight, she should have had a senior level person introduce her so as to send a message that this is a person that is representing U.S. senior management and is to be treated accordingly,” she said. It would have been helpful as well to make sure the female employee has a senior title and support from the head office.

The same goes for companies that try to promote local women to management positions in countries such as India or Costa Rica. U.S. managers need to be aware that male employees may find it harder to accept a local female manager than a U.S. female manager. People will challenge her more and for her to be successful, she’ll need support and coaching.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for women leading global teams is that while it’s important to be aware of cultural differences, it’s even more important to be aware of the hierarchy and how it’s perceived. Melissa Lamson, an intercultural consultant who has worked with companies such as SAP, LinkedIn, Ikea, and Porsche, said for women working in a culture that’s more hierarchical, it’s important for move away from more collaborative management styles.

“It’s the leader’s role to come back and ask them if they need help. Not, if you need help come ask me,” she said.

Having worked with many women in executive positions, Lamson noted an archetype for successful women. Though an unpopular notion, appearances matter and it’s important to be elegantly dressed while also calm and friendly but not too “huggy or warm.”

“This is the reality. Men have the privilege of not worrying about that so much,” she said.

Ellen Sheng is a writer focused on business and finance who has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and Forbes, among others. Formerly based in Hong Kong, she’s now back in New York and can be found on Twitter at @ellensheng.


This article was written by Ellen Sheng from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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