Around the World in 80 Ways: 4 Tips for Leading Global Initiatives

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Credit: Flickr user Dave77459, under Creative Commons license

Picture a map of the world. One large enough to walk on. Go to your hometown and place a pin there. Now, identify the locations of where you have conducted research, and where you have collaborators, friends, and relations, and place different coloured pins at each of their locations. Take some string and link everyone together. What do you get?

My bet is that most of us will weave a pretty tangled web. If you were to walk from one end of the map to another, it would be hard not to trip. The Leopold program may be focused on North America, but our networks are global.

Leading change is hard at the best of times, but doing it across different cultures, communication styles, and time zones can be especially challenging. There are just so many opportunities to trip up. Words, for example, can mean different things to people from different parts of the world. The word “science” in North America is usually taken to refer to the natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics. In continental Europe, however, the word “science” is closer in meaning to its Latin root, scientia, or “knowledge,” and so is taken to mean any discipline that creates knowledge, whether it be the natural sciences, the social sciences the humanities, or even the arts.

This may seem a trivial example but it can have important implications. In 2010 I helped found an organization called the Global Young Academy, which has as its primary mission “to be the voice of young scientists around the world.” Obviously, the definition of science is crucial here, because it determines which disciplines will be represented as part of the GYA and on whose behalf the organization speaks. For the record, while there was much debate among the 60 or so individuals at the founding meeting, we settled on the more inclusive definition of science as “knowledge creation.”

Definitions aside, my time with the GYA has taught me a lot about working and leading effectively across different cultures. Here are a few of the things I have learned along the way*:

  1. How you say something matters as much as what you say – In North America we tend to be direct and blunt. We say what we mean, mostly, and we think this is a good thing because it reflects values such as authenticity and openness. However, being too direct can be interpreted by some cultures, in Africa and Asia especially, as being tactless and undiplomatic. Lacking directness, of course, can seem manipulative or fake. Effective cross-cultural communication starts by acknowledging these differences exist and then finds effective ways to move the conversation beyond them.
  2. Listen to what others are saying – It seems trivial but it is remarkably hard to do, especially if you are like me and tend to interject when you come across an idea that is particularly intriguing (I call it building on an idea, my wife calls it interrupting). The thing is, what you find so interesting may not be the message your partner is trying to communicate, so when you interject too much you run the risk of not actually hearing what that person is trying to say. So bite your tongue a bit and let them say it.
  3. Acknowledge that you’ve been listening – Thank your interlocutor for sharing their thoughts and paraphrase back to them what you heard them say to indicate that you’ve understood their message. Use phrases like “What I hear you saying is…” or “Is what you meant….”
  4. Identify and work towards common goals – There is nothing quite like a common goal (and a deadline) to focus everyone’s attention. Identify what you are trying to achieve early on, and spell out the steps needed to get there. You want everyone pulling in the same direction, not going in circles or working at cross-purposes.

Getting to the last point is the most challenging and the most rewarding. One approach we use at GYA meetings is to provide a semi-structured opportunity, involving small group discussions and lots of note-taking on white boards, to identify the challenges and obstacles faced by our members in achieving excellence and impact in their work. It takes a few minutes for people to warm up but, when they do, the scene turns into something like the “Airing of the Grievances” (remember the Festivus episode from Seinfeld)? However, there is deeper value here: it gets people talking, it gives them an opportunity to be heard, and, more practically, it often identifies a series of cross-cutting issues that we can work on over the next year. In another post I’ll discuss some of these issues and what we’ve been doing to address them.

Navigating the tangled web of intercultural differences that come with working in a global context can be hard and, at times, frustrating. But the pay-off can be great. The challenge is to turn the tangled web into a rich tapestry. These four simple tools can, in my experience, go a long way towards improving communication across cultures and building a global team.

*With the help of a training session in intercultural communication and conflict management provided by Dr. Hanna Milling. You can see examples of her excellent work at

Rees Kassen, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Professor and Research Chair in Experimental Evolution at the University of Ottawa and Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy.

3 thoughts on “Around the World in 80 Ways: 4 Tips for Leading Global Initiatives

  1. Great post, Rees. Given that I want my science to be impactful to people whose decisions affect our shared environment, I don’t pay much attention to journal impact factors. The science is just a means to and ends, rather than an end in itself. Given this perspective, I find the “social” piece of what I do — the listening, the trust-building, the development of shared understanding — is often the most important part of my work. On a previous post, Kate Knuth shared “relationship before task,” but I often find myself putting “relationship before product.” I use product here in a narrow sense (e.g., datum point, paper), because of course a strong, lasting relationship is a very significant product.

    • Thanks, Lisa. I love the idea that a key product of research excellence could be relationships. This is key, of course, because trust is everything when it comes to decision-making in multi-stakeholder settings. Makes you think of yet another dimension that is hard to capture in metrics of impact or excellence, though!

  2. Well done Rees- this is a really helpful post. It had me smiling and taking notes! I’m going back to read Kate’s post..and chew on Lisa’s comment. All wonderful food for thought…and practice. Thanks!

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