Sandy’s Story: Three Small Intercultural Moments That Almost Sank Her Leadership Journey

Cranberry’s Expat Executive Network provides extensive real life experience to help guide through the journey to becoming a successful expat exec.  These stories are constant reminders that we should be diligent, proactive and self-aware in moving into a new country with new responsibilities, a new team and enormous expectations.  Following is a story from one of our members highlighting the importance of tone, tenor and grace when taking a new position.  

Sandy is a Senior Group Product Director working in healthcare in Kyoto, Japan. She has been working there for about 13 months and has reached a point where she feels “moderately comfortable”, in her own words, managing her team.  The team consists of 12 local Japanese professionals. Her team interactions started awkwardly as Sandy was new to working abroad. She had specific instructions for the assignment. Sandy had been sent there to achieve three simple (and horrendously huge, ambiguous) things:

1. Change the business culture to match the company’s HQ in New Jersey, USA
2. Upskill the individual team members to be able to work more effectively with HQ
3. Choose and groom her successor

Once Sandy achieved these things she would go home. She was given 2 years to accomplish her goals.

When Sandy accepted the overseas assignment, she had just completed the most productive and successful years of her career. She was riding a crest of invincibility.

She knew what needed to happen and she knew how to make it happen…in New Jersey.

In New Jersey she would simply share the objectives with her team, break them down into actionable sub-sets and assign duties. The team would respond well.

She soon found out: This is Kyoto. This is not New Jersey.


Tiny Impactful Moments: The effects of intercultural disconnect

Now, 13 months into her expat leadership career, her team was not performing well enough against her big three objectives. To her credit, she spent a weekend away in serious reflection on the past 13 months and tried to pinpoint the moments where she could have done better. This reflection concluded that a few key interactions had produced “slowdown moments” that both confused the team and reduced alignment to goals.

Her reflection enabled her to distill the problems down to several key moments that caused issue. Here are a few:

1. “I’m going to give you some very direct feedback.” Sandy reflected on one conversation with a lower-performing direct report where she had decided to “lay the ugly facts on the table.” She appreciated this approach from her prior bosses so she figured it was the best approach now. With Sato-san, Sandy said “Look, we work well together, don’t you think?” Sato-san nodded yes. “I want to give you the gift of direct feedback…here’s where I think you can improve…” and Sandy listed three key areas Sato-san needed to improve upon. Sato-san, being a professional Japanese businessperson, was used to receiving negative feedback more indirectly, with subtle, diplomatic language and tone. Sandy’s words were distressing and Sato-san immediately began to think that his time with the company was nearing an end. He had never received such direct feedback before. Sato-san’s behavior changed almost immediately. He became more tentative and pushed decisions that he should be taking to Sandy. Sandy, in turn, noted that Sato-san’s productivity (and thus the team’s) began to wane. Clearly, this one moment of naked feedback, welcome in some other parts of the world, had created a huge issue. In Sandy’s reflection she noted that it took almost 4 months for their relationship to return to normal

2. “Why don’t you come over to my house for dinner.” Another key reflection involved her own leadership style. Sandy was successful in America by befriending her subordinates and creating safe, cozy interactive space in which to work. Often this included family outings with her reports or intimate dinners with her colleagues and their spouses. While working with Katsumi-san and Miko-san, Sandy decided to try and gain favor with her new reports by inviting them to her home for dinner with her family as a way of building bonds and trust. She felt it was a wonderful idea. She asked both Katsumi-san and Miko-san into her office and said “I want you both to come to my home to share dinner with me and my family. It will be fun!” Katsumi-san and Miki-san looked at Sandy with a blank stare and said nothing. Sandy pushed a bit, “What do you both think?” Both of them looked a bit shocked and politely declined stating “Perhaps we can go to the izakaya for a drink and a snack.” Subsequent interactions were more subdued and “all business” than before. Sandy realized she had created discomfort within two very valuable team members.

3. “I totally disagree with you.” With another direct report, Kato-san, Sandy had developed a good professional relationship. Sandy felt very comfortable with Kato-san and they interacted well in meetings with the broader team. After the first few months Kato-san became extremely quiet and almost sad looking in meetings. Sandy reached out to a colleague and asked if there was something amiss. The colleague reluctantly shared Kato-san’s feelings. In a meeting a few months before, Sandy had heard Kato-san describe a process he wanted to try. Sandy wanted to challenge the group to think a bit deeper so she smiled and said “Sato-san, I disagree with you,” as a way to show the team the effect of positive disagreement and deeper iteration of ideas. This backfired terribly and quietly. Kato-san, from a more hierarchy-driven business culture, felt that Sandy’s comments were detrimental to the team and quite embarrassing. Sato-san had quickly become reticent to share his ideas for fear he would be called out again. Sandy came to realize that the candor with which her own culture accepted disagreement as a way to find a better answer was instead taken as a disruption in harmony and indeed an inappropriate interaction in public.

Sandy’s reflection was paying off.  She found solace in the fact that these types of mistakes were experienced by expat leaders all over the world.  She identified the gaps between her own intercultural norms and those of her colleagues. With self-awareness and a few minor tweaks to her communication and engagement style Sandy reaped the rewards of a higher-functioning team, greater alignment and more smiles.


Reaching out to get help is not a sign of failure…indeed, it is a sign of good self-awareness and a good plan.  Reach out to us today at for a free consult. 




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