Today, together with Cathrin Leßlhumer, we will take a look behind the scenes of MDI Consulting. What is important in our digitalized world to successfully design management development measures? Are international projects more complex than national or regional ones? And what makes her laugh and gives her pleasure during her work? She answers these and other questions today and lets us immerse ourselves in her work as an MDI Consultant.
Today Elisabeth Oppenauer took some time for our curious questions about her everyday life as an MDI Consultant in a detailed interview. She addresses the challenges that digitization poses for the L&D sector and points out exciting developments that await you in this area in the future!
What does it mean to work as an international leadership and development expert? What are the greatest challenges that our fast moving and quickly changing work environment comes with? Today, Marcin Swierkocki, international HR business consultant will give us his insights into international leadership development and provides interesting answers to these and other questions.
Alexander Rehm has been working as an executive coach and leadership expert for many years already. He is originally from Munich but lived in Italy for a long time and is currently living in Switzerland. He works as a coach in both countries and knows the cultural differences between them. We talked to him about his work as an executive coach, the role of executives in the digital transformation and the future of face 2 face coachings.
You have lived in Italy for a long time and still work there as a coach today. Currently, you’re living in Switzerland. Has your work as a coach and the expectations of your clients, the executives, changed over the past few years?
Alexander: 20 years ago, coaching was not an issue at all in Italy. It was more the opposite: anyone who needed a coach was “sick” in the eyes of the others. Italian companies were usually very hierarchical and once someone made it to the top, the person was quite resistant to any “advice” or coaching. Unfortunately, this has hardly changed in many companies until today. Most of my clients work for international companies, therefore their leadership culture is obviously different. The reason for coaching is almost always a result from feedback, either directly from the supervisor or through 360° feedback. In that sense, my work has hardly changed, even though the expectation of me as a coach is going in the direction of consulting. Some clients are genuinely disappointed when I tell them that they cannot only get some advice from me about what they can do better. They actually have to work on themselves to trigger the desired change.
What is the situation in Switzerland, what differences do you see between the two countries?
In my opinion, the biggest difference between the countries is the attitude. In Switzerland, coaching is a perfectly accepted tool for personal development. I think that Swiss executives are more actively taking on further training opportunities than their colleagues in Italy. As a coach, you may have less need for explanation, but the topics are usually very similar.
A very general question: In your opinion, what are currently the biggest challenges that managers in Italy and Switzerland have to face?
Leadership has so many different aspects that answering that question could fill an entire book. Therefore, I would like to direct my answer to one topic – and that is the understanding of leadership especially in the context of differences between the generations. Nowadays, we have up to 3 different age groups or generations in a company. Very hierarchical structures and leadership styles are not up-to-date anymore. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a client who told me how difficult it would be to have a good friend as an employee. When I asked him why he thought so, he said that he would feel uncomfortable giving him instructions. So I asked him why he thinks that his other employees would like instructions. I think that’s when something happened to him…
Executive Coaching in digital times
We live in a VUCA world and digitalization has an impact on many aspects of our lives. In your opinion, how do you have to act as a leader to respond to this change? Is that an important topic for you in coaching?
What does digitalization bring with it? Change! Changes or rather the fear of it or even the refusal to face it is always a key issue in coaching. Therefore, I do not see a big difference to a merger, a restructuring, an adjustment of the business model, etc. Something I notice, however, is the lack of understanding, which opportunities the digitalization offers for the companies. It is not (more) about the replacement of the typewriter by a computer, but the integration of all digital possibilities in the business process. In my opinion, many internal but also external change managers should do a better job here.
Are you using many digital tools in your coaching and how do you see the future of face 2 face coaching?
My coaching is always a mix of face 2 face sessions and short virtual sequences. Often it is about keeping the client involved in the process and therefore, Skype or Zoom calls are the ideal tools. But I am a bit concerned about the large number of offers on the subject of speed or telephone coaching. What makes us coaches, is the ability to hear between the lines – and that is not possible without the perception of body language in my opinion. So I think that also in the future, coaching will be a good mix of digital and face 2 face coaching sessions.
Online tools can, of course, add some value to a coaching session but what makes a good coach is the ability to hear between the lines and this is not possible without the perception of body language.
You have worked in an international environment in sales and marketing for a long time. What was the reason to start working in the field of human resources development and specialize in leadership development?
At some point, everyone is wondering if this is it and what the reason is to get up every day. I was able to live out my passion for human development as the head of a European organization. The results were so encouraging that I – within the group – reoriented myself towards leadership development. The establishment and leadership of the company’s Academy inspired me to live my mission as an independent coach after many years.
Where do you see the biggest challenges in leadership development in the next few years? On the one hand for coaches, on the other hand for executives themselves.
Leadership development will (have to) go even more in the direction of personality development. Business schools like IMD in Lausanne or INSEAD near Paris have been recognizing this for a long time. They offer a good mix of management knowledge as well as best practice examples and intensive coaching sequences in their programs. In these sequences, e.g. the results of a 360 ° feedback are discussed in small groups. The coach has a rather moderating role here. The participants are taught coaching techniques based on current practical examples, which help them to strengthen their self-perception. I believe that all of us – leaders and coaches – will need to be even more flexible and willing to learn in the future.
Our interview partner
What are your favorite coaching topics?
Life crisis, leadership problems, the lack of (self) motivation, reorientation, location determination and difficult top managers who believe they know everything but still feel that something is missing.
What motivates or drives you in your job?
I have a strong need to work with leaders, to help them find access to their own issues and to keep them involved in the process. I want them to not only think about possible solutions but accompanying them with the implementation of those solutions.
Do you have a personal motto or slogan?
My mission is to support leaders finding their own purpose
What serves you next?
Why do I do what I am doing? What do I contribute and what is the point of all of this? Many of today’s leaders are asking themselves questions like this. In a time where everything changes so fast and nothing seems to be permanent, it is only natural to deal with such issues. Anita Berger is an expert when it comes to engagement and motivation. She told us why the question of meaning is such an important issue and why the purpose of a company plays a crucial role.
The coaching industry is undergoing major changes caused by topics such as AI, VUCA, and digitalization. A few years ago, when we had a leadership problem, we were hiring a coach who can help and the problem was solved. But it’s no longer as simple as that. Inge Simons is working as an executive coach and told us more about the changes within the coaching industry and why it is becoming more and more important to work with the individual in its whole team.
Laurie Santos is originally from the US but has been living in different European countries and the Middle East for several years. She is still working as a coach and trainer in Kuwait. She gave us some insights into the business world in the Middle East, the current challenges for organizations there and the view on international leadership development.
We are living in a world that is constantly changing. Due to the digitalization and globalization, we are much more connected, which has its benefits but can be challenging as well sometimes. John Livden works as a trainer, mainly in Norway, but as well with international companies. We talked to him and wanted to know more about the current challenges for leaders in Norway, the influence of the digitalization for leadership and development measures and his outlook on the future.
About the interview partner
John Livden works as an executive coach and leadership trainer. His passion is to work together with people and help them succeed. He enables people to discover their uniqueness and possibilities, inspires them to take charge and full responsibility for their own lives and help them grow into their full potentials as leaders/managers and human beings.
According to your opinion, what do you think are currently the biggest challenges for Norwegian companies when it comes to leadership and how can they master them?
John: I think that the biggest challenge is actually the gap between management and leadership. Managing the projects, the people and the organization takes up so much time for leaders. My experience is, that a lot of leaders really feel this pressure. There so many things they have to do and the thoughts they have in their mind. I think that one solution to this problem could be the implementation of new agile leadership styles, where the leadership tasks are not only with the leaders but also with other employees of the company. This has a lot to do with coordination and cooperation between people and the way they work together. Successful leaders should be able to manage the complexity around them and still find time to actually build relationships, to communicate and to be there for their employees.
You are working with international companies and leaders. What are the most important skills when working as a trainer on an international level?
I think you need to have a good radar. You can’t know everything because you are not native. You have to be aware that you are working together with people from another culture. Try to find connection points and try to understand the differences. And probably most important, always pay respect for their culture. Keep in mind that there could be cultural elements that are inhibiting the learning process which leads to conflicts. In this case, sometimes cultural differences can be a hinder for development. As a trainer and consultant, you have to be aware that you have challenge things from time to time. Make sure to know how to do this in a good way.
What would you tell a trainer who has her/his first training in Norway? Do you have any tips?
I think, when we are specifically talking about Norway, it is important to understand, that the Norwegian culture and the Norwegian working-culture is very different from, for instance, the German or even the Danish one. Actually, many people see the Scandinavians as one entity, but there are differences between Norway, Sweden, and Denmark as well. We should definitely be aware of this. It is really interesting to see the differences the way people make decisions, how they approach problem-solving, discuss and handle conflicts. For example, the difference in the overall picture between a Norwegian and a Danish, when it comes to a business setting is following: The Danish has a much more continental influence on their business style and is more business oriented, as well as a little bit more formal and hierarchical. Of course, we do have hierarchies in Norway as well, but we have a much more egalitarian view on the work life. The power distance between the managing director and the genitor often seems lower. This is as well a difference to Germany or Austria. They are much more formal in the way they are working and how they are addressing each other. But I think this will also change with generations. In Norway, we are very informal in general, also in the workplace. Some people can also experience it a bit rude, when you really meet in eye level and people speak their mind, in some cases more freely.
The working-culture in Norway is very different from, for instance, the German or even the Danish one. The power distance between the managing director & genitor often seems lower and the view on the work life is much more egalitarian.
The influence of e-Learning in leadership development
So you said that this informal/formal way of addressing will change with generations. We can already see many changes between the generations in companies. Keyword: digital natives and digital transformation. How do see this? How does the digital transformation influence the work life in Norway already?
I think, when it comes to the Norwegian society, we are in the middle of the shift. Sometimes I am a little bit surprised when I am working in Germany for instance, and see that they are not there yet. Online we are connected, this is the way we live. But this can be very stressful for leaders, who are for instance 50+. Much more stressful than for a 20-year-old, who is growing up as a digital native and who is working seamlessly with different online platforms and systems. For a leader who did not grow up in this digital time, it could be challenging. It creates some tension between the way how his/her generation is doing things and “the new way of doing things.” All in all, I think that in Norway, we are really getting along with the digitalization on all levels of society. Public services, social security, taxes, the medical system, etc. – everything is online now. It is getting more and more digital and people are getting used to it. When they don’t, this will be a real problem. I have been putting a lot of effort, also in my interest, to use more digital tools.
This is something you probably also see as a training and development guide. Are you using a lot of e-learning during your training?
It really depends. In this case, I am kind of more a “classical trainer” who loves one-to-one-interaction: physically in the classroom but also in some group-settings. I know, that there are more and more courses available on the internet. E-learning is a component in almost every company. Many companies have e-learning platforms for many different skills, not only leadership skills. Our business world is very digital already, all of it and I think we will see more of it in the future. Besides that, I think that you cannot rely on digital solutions at 100%. For me, leadership has a lot to do with who you are and what you do. You can learn the theory, you can study the method, you can have check-lists but you cannot substitute the factor of human leadership. Leadership development is very closely connected to personal development. It is also about a leader being responsible for his or her behavior, attitude, communication and the way they come across. You can read this in theory but basically, you need to do it in practical life.
So when we are coming back to e-learning, I think that you can study the theory with the support of e-learning but the human interaction is missing. I really embrace the digital shift and I see a lot of positive things and, as I said before, I think that we have just seen the start of it. But we still need the human element. You can automate things and use things such as artificial intelligence but things can go crazy if we leave leaderships just to algorithms. As a leadership trainer, team trainer and organizational development consultant it is very important to have this human factor. This factor is based on relation, experience and knowledge – theoretical knowledge is not enough. This is perhaps also the deviation between leadership as a technique and leadership as an art. There is no 100% right answer to this. It takes a person and a character. In my experience, the most giving leadership development programs are the ones, where we go so close to the person, the leader and where we challenge them on a very personal level. This can be quite deep actually.
So would you agree that e-Learning is more an add-on and can be used for theory or as a follow-up?
Yes, it can be a real add-on. Also in my consultancy, I have an online platform, where we communicate, share things and thoughts, where I can show videos and so on. But this is something in addition to the personal contact and the group exercises.
How do you think that this will be in the future?
I think it will definitely change and we will probably see much more of the digital tools and the digital way of making learning opportunities like virtual reality. Of course, this is something positive. But I also think that we can lose ourselves in being human beings when we just rely on the digital things. Leadership is very practical and it happens in real life and in real life situations, where you cannot control what is happening between people. So there will definitely be surprises and it takes a character to be able to do that.
So all in all: What do you think will be the biggest changes and challenges for organizations, for leadership but also for the training and development industry in general?
We are living in a dynamic world, in which the demands of the employees will be different in the future. The younger generation won’t be willing to work every day from 9 to 5. This generation wants to be more flexible. Therefore we have to find much more flexible solutions and this flexibility leads to complexity as well. For leaders, it will be more difficult to control the work of their employees and to keep an overview. If you are giving the people more freedom, you are losing some control you traditionally had as a leader. This had been a very huge change and I think we have only seen the start of it. This is one example of what will change in the next years. So it is important to create a company culture, where flexibility is a big part of it. But it is important as well, to be able to be one unit, one company, one organization. Many leaders have already lost and will probably lose some of their formal power and structural power, so what will there be left? Leadership will be more about the relationships, the communication, the flow of things and much more. Leaders have to make up a new mindset and that requires much more agility and the ability to drive in a world that starts to work quite differently than it was in the past.
What serves you next?
Diliana Docheva, Ph.D., works as a facilitator, consultant, speaker and development guide for more than 25 years. We talked with her about international leadership development, why it is important that managers have to let go their personal control and involvement in every decision, and about the currently biggest challenges for companies in her home country Bulgaria.
What are the major differences between leadership development in European countries and countries in the Middle East? Are there actually really large differences as one would think? We talked to Laurie A. Santos, who is originally from the US but was living in different European countries before moving to Kuwait for about 7 years. She gave us some interesting insights into leadership development and coaching in the Middle East.
Nataliya Sergiyenko is working as a trainer for more than 15 years and is focused on providing business-trainings for multinational companies. Last year, she left her home country Ukraine and moved to Texas, where she is continuing with working as a trainer for sure. We asked her about her training experiences in the US, the differences to Ukraine and the skills you need when working as an international trainer.
What is it like to work as an international training and development guide? What are the biggest challenges of our time for companies – in Bulgaria and in general? Diliana Docheva talked with us about international leadership development and gave us insights into the development field in her home country Bulgaria.
About the interview partner
Diliana Docheva, Ph.D is working as a facilitator, consultant, speaker and development guide for 25 years already. She is passionate about the need for ideas-age leadership and all topics connected, like strategy execution, innovation, redesign, engagement and much more. She believes that life should be an adventure and inspiration. Her role as a development guide helps her to live that because you never stop exploring and learning to help others, learn and develop. Her personal motto? If there is a way, I will find it. If not, I will create it.
“The royal crown is heavy” – why managers have to let go their personal control and involvement in every decision
What are currently – according to your opinion – the biggest challenges for organizations in Bulgaria?
Diliana: The common challenge is the control paradigm that often holds managers and organizations back. We have this saying in Bulgaria that goes “the royal crown is heavy” which implies that the person on top is to bear the burden of all responsibility, decisions, fire fighting etc. That leads to micromanaging and loss of effectiveness. For example, many companies still control work hours, instead of work productivity and goals achievement. Big, especially international companies, must overcome bureaucracy and start empowering people. There is no other way to be fast, innovative, and utilize the talents.
Some other companies, managed by their founders, face the challenge to transform their management. It is natural that is contra-intuitive and difficult for such founders whose entrepreneurial spirit and personal qualities led their companies to success. Just what brought you there is not enough to hold you there. They need to let go of their personal control and involvement in every decision and operation and need to adopt another role.
Organizations whose managers rightly use and organizational culture as a control mechanism and lever for results, are far ahead of others in attracting and retaining talents, engaging people and build loyal customers.
“Nice to have” or a strategic factor of success: How do you experience that organizations in Bulgaria view (international) leadership development at the moment and how will that be in the future?
The companies I was privileged to work with for decades are aware that this is a crucial success factor, so they seriously invested in that development. I foresee that soon, those companies will focus on developing leaders on every level, not just managerial level. The role of a team as an organizational structure is getting even more important.
I wish to believe that more and more managers will give up on “I know it all” attitude and will be more open to learn together with their teams and associates.
You are a trainer for many years already. According to your experience: are there any differences between development measures in Bulgaria and other countries in Europe?
For 25 years in fact. Frankly speaking, I do not name my colleagues and myself trainer but facilitator, guide or consultant 10 years already. The role is different. Our role changes from trainers to guides and helping minds. I’d not say there are significant differences just one that for sure applies to companies I work with. They would not go for ready-made solutions. They want tailored, even unique programs to address their unique challenges and opportunities and development needs of their people. Also, we are not quick to trust everything that comes from abroad, especially from the other side of the Atlantic.
Speaking the same language is not enough – what you need when working as an international training and development guide
What is most important when working on an international level? What skills does it take to be an international training and development guide?
Most important is to truly love this job as every time there is a new challenge. It is important to love, to learn and do your homework before every project no matter how well you know your subject. You must be very attentive and flexible. As well, you must be very mature as a trainer. I believe trainers have two independency levels to reach. First is to be independent of the natural need to have people to like us. I’ve seen many trainers entertaining participants to receive a good evaluation after the training. But we are there to help and teach, which often means to challenge the participants, to provoke, to ask difficult questions or to give straight feedback. The second level is to be independent of a training design. This is the maturity and skill to change the original design to meet the needs of the group.
What are the typical challenges when working on an international level? Can you think of any challenging situations you’ve experienced? What are your tips?
My tip is the saying “expect nothing (you are used to), experience everything with an open mind. The main challenge is remembering that knowing the language doesn’t mean knowing the culture. The thing is to understand people.
One very challenging situation was when I conducted a seminar in Ukraine in the Russian language. The program was designed in Germany and – for me personally – was very logical and practical, and I’ve delivered it successfully in other countries already. Soon after I started I had a feeling that I am losing the participants. I decided to stop and make a short funny exercise to figure out what is wrong. What came out was that the main concept on which the whole process in the program was based is absolutely not acceptable, even unthinkable in Ukraine. No chance to follow the program as designed. So, I had to redesign the whole program ad hog to supply them with the skills the company needed but in Ukrainian way.
“Knowing the language is not knowing the culture – the thing is to understand the people”
International leadership development is a lot about intercultural awareness and empathy. For a training professional doing a module of a leadership program in Bulgaria: To what shall he/she pay attention and what are your tips of success in order that the training is really beneficial for everyone?
It is important to design a dynamic interactive seminar with lots of activities and discussions. A certain way to lose people is to show hundreds of slides. We also love to discuss which makes the timing tricky. Often it is truly difficult to stop the discussions, so if a trainer runs out of time, I’d suggest shortening the presentation, not to stop a discussion. Do not expect participants to be on time really. If the topic is not interesting people leave the training mentally and do their own stuff. In fact, a couple of times I’ve witnessed people leaving physically a seminar, led by a foreign trainer when they are not engaged. Also, you should expect that dinner lasts for hours.
Development measures in times of digitalization
In times of the unstoppable digitalization – do you think that classroom trainings will vanish completely at some point and how do companies in Bulgaria cope with these changes?
Training yes, classroom no. For a long time already, many programs in Bulgaria are blended or e-learning. At the same time, despite participating in such programs, people need to get together, develop ideas, create, discuss and synergize. Ideas is the key word here. Knowledge and information are everywhere and readily available. Even without e-learning or blended learning programs, people could learn. Businesses need ideas to progress. We already don’t live in a knowledge but ideas-age.
When I started training business in Bulgaria in 1993 I think I was the first, I had to explain to prospects what “training” is. Most of them were hesitant to consider such service because their employees have university diplomas. Then there was a training boom. Now, my clients need provocation, room for new ideas, help to reinvent or renovate their businesses or solutions to the challenges they face. There are no ready-made solutions. There is an ocean of information, models, and tools and a need to help navigate through them.
Certain skills, for sure, will be needed and such training will be provided by internal trainers. That applies to “must skills” for a company or job. Beyond that to put everybody in the same training program to get the same competence set is a management of failure. The management of success is to develop the individual talents of every team member.
Which role does the digitalization in general play in Bulgaria? Is the country/its organizations “ready” – what do you notice?
As everywhere,digitalization speeds up everything, makes everything very transparent, processes more efficient and it also redefines some jobs of course. I think Bulgaria is very much advanced in the digitalization shift. Many businesses are already digital. Thankfully, this might be because of the generations of brilliant IT specialists we have, and successful start-ups who led the way. Technology has always been playing an important role in Bulgaria. Although many organizations are yet to align their management systems with digital reality.
According to your opinion: What will be the biggest challenge for the training & development industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
It is to move from WHAT knowledge to deliver to HOW people are to apply it to their specific situation and to WHY to do so. We also clearly see two trends. One is the increasing need for individual consultancy, not coaching but consultancy. The second is the need for projects aiming to transform the whole organization. So, both the challenge and development of our industry will be to align one-to-one services with massive programs for hundreds or thousands of associates. This will require lots of collaboration and teamwork among consultants. As the need for deep expertise in certain fields is evident as well, I am confident that we consultants will work in partner networks where every partner contributes her expertise and we benefit the synergy of collaboration. The age of big franchise-based companies with rigid programs is over.
What serves you next?
South Africa is also called the rainbow nation and is famous for its beautiful landscapes, wildlife and the warm hospitality of the people. But: the country has a rough past and uncertainty and intercultural conflicts are still noticeable. We asked Gerard Le Sueur, MDI Training & Development Guide in South Africa, about the challenges for organizations, the digitalization and the importance of leadership development in the country.
Laurie Santos is originally from California but moved abroad in 2006 and had been living and working in Africa, the Middle East, and different European countries since then. For about 7 years, she lived and worked in Kuwait and still has many customers there. We wanted to know more about the (cultural) differences between the Middle East and Europe and gain some insights into leadership development in Kuwait.
Insights from the United States and Ukraine. Nataliya Sergiyenko is working as a trainer for more than 15 years. Last year, she left her home country Ukraine and moved to Texas, where she continued with her work as a training & development guide. We talked with her about the differences between those two countries when it comes to leadership development, digitalization & more.
Interview with leadership expert Nataliya Sergiyenko
What are – according to your opinion – the biggest challenges for companies in the United States and Europe?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge in the US is to become client oriented externally and internally. Probably, the US is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to “organizing activities” and processes, especially online. The organizations in the US have tons of information about their clients – if you buy food for your pet for instance – they take your telephone number and email. You buy show tickets online – give them names, addresses, telephones etc. But at the same time, they never make use of it and never ask you what type of pet that you have in order to sell you something else or to strengthen their customer relations. Just a few of those companies try to make a real contact with the customer. We had an experience like this. A month after we bought a new car, the car company gave us additionally a 30-minutes session in order to help us understand how to use all the electronics inside the car. The lady from the company, let’s call her the instructor, was following her procedure. After a while, I forgot the questions which I wanted to ask and didn’t’ buy some additional electronic devices which I really wanted to buy in the first place. Why? Because nobody asked me what I really wanted. In USA they do not offer reprogramming services of car electronics after the car is sold. The car company would win if they would have it in the procedure – “make a contact with a client, ask him/her questions about the needs” and give him what he wants. At the same time, sure, this is a subjective point of view of a newcomer to this huge and rich country.
American companies have to start putting more effort in their customer relationship management and not only collecting information about their customers
For Europe, as it consists of so many different countries, I wouldn’t be able to name one distinctive challenge for the whole continent. But I can talk about Ukraine – the country of my origin, which becomes more and more being the part of European Union. The biggest challenge for Ukraine is to allow young, well-educated, ambitious people to grow professionally inside their own country. For the last 3 years, nearly 4 million people left the country to work abroad.
Ukraine is perceived as a country with well-educated young people especially in the field of software development. One of my clients for instance – a software development company based in Lviv – is growing rapidly. The company has probably now more than 5000 employees. Their customers are mostly situated in the USA. They try to be so much internal customer oriented, and try to create and save their unique culture to attract and to retain talents.
“Nice to have” or a strategic factor of success: How do you experience that organizations in the USA and Ukraine view (international) leadership development at the moment and how will that be in the future?
It is still a question – how much leadership is an inborn trait, and how much one can learn to be a leader. Let’s suppose that anyway some characteristics are inborn and some characteristics the environment supports, based on the values of the environment. In the US – right from the elementary schools and further – they try to teach and support respect, honesty, loyalty and the ability to follow the rules. And this is great! At the same time, there are many situations where you should speak up, demand higher standards, and reveal yourself. You should not be afraid to be different – this is important if you want to be a leader. Just remember famous American leaders – Martin Luther King with his “I have a dream” speech. Or Steve Jobs who was crazy demanding high standards on everything his people were doing.
“Nice to have” for the US organizations – they should support their people to go beyond the expected rules and procedures. Probably, what I’ve seen in the US, many companies work on stable markets. To go beyond, it’s about changes and development. But if you do not grow, one day the market will kill you.
How is the situation in Europe? Well, the amount of international business headquarters situated in Europe is tremendous. When they operate in their home countries – which again are stable markets – the leader is a person who is able to support the status quo. When these companies go to the growing markets – they need another type of leadership. The challenge here is to manage the transfer from a stable environment while to a flexible and changing environment. “Nice to have” is to stop trying multiplying strategies and approaches which worked for them in the past. The future is different.
Working as an international trainer – the challenges and the skills you need
What is most important when working as a trainer on an international level and what skills does it take?
To be flexible. Be able to follow before leading. To develop your “sixth sense” – research cultural differences, be attentive and to be sensitive enough to adapt your training to the group you are working with. Once I got an advice from a local taxi driver in Uzbekistan – do not make any critical comments – any at all. It worked, the group blossomed for me like a wonderful lotus. On the second day, they were ready to help each other and give confrontational feedback.
Can you think of any typical challenges and maybe think of some challenging moments you’ve experienced during a training?
Cultural differences, “the training traditions” and different languages, especially the idioms, are the most typical challenge for me. One American group I’ve worked with used so many idioms that I can still remember some of them. For instance, they said their company had to “reinvent the vows”. Usually, when people marry they give each other “vows” – promise to love and take care. So, their 50 years old company had to look at what they promised at the start, and, probably change something to answer the needs of their current customers.
What can help as a trainer is to prepare the slides of the flipchart with written rules and tasks if English is not the first language for the group. My MDI colleagues are doing a wonderful job creating some Power point slides with a vocabulary list in case we give a group some sort of bright metaphors or stories with unusual or uncommon words and terms.
And then there is also a difference of the room set-up between different groups. Some training groups prefer to sit around a big table with their laptops. Other groups are ready to have an open space training without any desks inside. Psychogeography (the location of people and subjects in the space) influences a lot of the training path.
How much does the digitalization really influence the training industry?
In times of the unstoppable digitalization – do you think that classroom trainings will vanish completely at some point? And according to your experience: do you think that e-learning solutions are more developed in the US than in Europe?
I do not think they “vanish completely”. But in the nearest future, a huge part of the training content will be digital. It is the same tendency for Europe, the USA and for Ukraine, as well. Sure, Ukraine has fewer resources for it to happen quickly. But in Ukraine, we are highly oriented on gamification of such sort of digital education, especially in IT companies.
How does the digitalization affect the training industry in general? Which changes/processes are happening at the moment and do you think that companies are ready for this change?
Right now we as training and development companies/specialists need to develop a new set of skills and competencies. Briefly, it is the ability to create useful and engaging digital content. It’s much more being a scenario writer. We need to be able to understand what picture we will put on the screen. Well, probably we need to learn from Hollywood now.
According to your opinion: What will be the biggest challenge for the training & development industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
The world changes faster than the industry. In order to survive and win, the training industry has to learn faster than the other business world. To learn faster doesn’t mean to run quickly. It means the training industry has to find a creative way of doing it. This is the main challenge.
About the interview partner:
Nataliya Sergiyenko is working as a trainer for more than 15 years and is focused on providing business-trainings for multinational companies. Last year, she left her home country Ukraine and moved to Texas, where she is continuing with working as a trainer for sure. Why she loves being a trainer? “I love to learn. On trainings, participants share their unique experience and knowledge. We have a lot of WOW moments”
What serves you next?
Laurie A. Santos is originally from California but moved abroad more than 10 years ago and was living in different European and African countries before moving to Kuwait in 2009. She was working there for 7 years and is currently living in the Netherlands. We talked to her about leadership development in the Middle East, how the situation changed since she started working there and the differences between organizations in Kuwait in Europe.
South Africa is famous for its cultural diversity, the warm hospitality of the people and an impressive wildlife. Although, the country doesn’t have an easy past. Intercultural conflicts are still noticeable in many different situations. We asked Gerard Le Sueur, who is working as a trainer for more than 20 years, about the current challenges, “African leadership” and the differences to Europe.
Darko Tot is trainer at MDI and has already more than 10 years of experience in leadership development. When he started working as a trainer, development measures were more seen as a punishment than a benefit for the person. We talked with him about how the situation looks like at the moment, the biggest challenges for organizations in Serbia and international leadership development in General.
Leadership Training and Coaching in the Middle East – Insights from long-time trainer Laurie A. Santos
Working as a Coach and Trainer on an international level can be challenging and needs a lot of intercultural awareness and empathy. What else does it take to work with people, especially leaders, from many different countries? We talked to international leadership expert Laurie A. Santos and got some interesting insights about international leadership development in general and the differences between Europe, the US, and the Middle East.
About the interview partner
Laurie is originally from California but moved abroad in 2006 and had been living and working in Africa, the Middle East and different European countries since then. She has been working as a Corporate Coach & Trainer for more than 15 years and is currently living in the Netherlands but still working on an international level. Her favorite thing about being a development guide? “What I love most about being a development guide is working with the “tough” participant because they force me to test our tools, our tips and techniques, and as such, they help us coaches/trainers prove over and over again that coaching and training do actually work more than anything else.”.
Being a leader in Kuwait – the situation back then and now
What are currently the biggest challenges for organizations in Kuwait or the Middle East in general?
Laurie: In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for organizations in the Middle East is actually growing too fast! In the last 9 years in Kuwait and throughout the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), there’s been a lot of development. However, the planning is not always so sound. It is often seen that a number of wonderful businesses get started in Kuwait but unfortunately don’t last so long because the planning behind the business is lacking or not well-thought out. Kuwaitis will even say, “We are great at ideas but not so good at execution.” One of the reason’s Dubai has made such a “dent” is that they have a victorious vision and within that vision are benchmarks and immensely well-thought-out planning. Additionally, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are using the European Foundation for Quality Management’s Excellence Model as an ongoing framework to insure well-thought out and well-constructed implementation of the vision. It often feels a bit more like Kuwait is “flying by the seat of their pants” when comparing to Dubai.
You moved to the Arabic Gulf in 2009 and lived there for 7 years. What was your first impression when it comes to leadership development?
When I first arrived in Kuwait, I was in awe. But, keep in mind, I had literally just gotten off a plane from Angola where I had been living and working. So when I arrived in Kuwait, I definitely knew I wasn’t in Africa anymore! At that time, when I first arrived, I could immediately feel it was far more organized and developed than Angola as the roads were in good condition, there were huge skyscrapers and lots of malls, restaurants, and boutiques. I entered Kuwait as a consultant for a publishing company. They sent me and my colleague to complete a country report on Kuwait regarding its current status in the world after the Iraqi invasion and thus, I interviewed hundreds of leaders in both the public and private sector—which gave me such a great way to learn all about Leadership from a very “boots-on-the-ground” perspective.
In answer to your question: regarding my first impression about leadership back in 2009, I definitely thought Kuwait needed more female leaders back then. But: let it be known that at the time, they had a female Minister of Education and three female members of parliament. Additionally, in 2009, there was quite a lot of strife between the private sector leaders and the government leaders as private sector leaders felt that the Kuwait government stifled their growth by placing a lot of “red tape” on projects which required permits and permission. Many private sector leaders indicated that they had been waiting for the government to grant permits and the like for 10-20 years. As such, many of their foreign (Western) partners had backed out of deals and left Kuwait (many of these foreign partners were from the U.S. and U.K). Thus, at the time, there was a lot of negativity in the private sector. When I would interview leaders from the government, it was quite different as they were more positive, upbeat and outgoing but honestly, I could see they had it “easy” in their jobs. My impression was that the ministries needed to be audited, streamlined and updated and I still feel the same on this issue present day. Considering Kuwait sits at the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, I do feel they still try to maintain that “neutral” stance and due to this position, they aren’t as forward-moving as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Kuwait has all the potential in the world to be as impressive as Dubai but holds itself back and a lot of this is due to cultural and religious differences within its community itself along with its relationship to Saudi Arabia. It should be noted, however, that Kuwait has been investing a lot of money in Training and Coaching programs for the past eight years. They still have a lot of work to do with respect to realizing that Training and Coaching is a process and not an overnight “fix” or “cure” to problems, as well as not just a mandate but can actually benefit leaders and organizations for the long-term.
How did you experience that organizations in the Middle East view (international) leadership development and how did it change since then?
There are definitely more female leaders and more woman in the workplace now than when I first entered Kuwait in 2009. It used to be, when I consulted or conducted trainings, I’d often be the only woman in the room. Last month, I conducted a 5-day training for a government institution in Kuwait City and there were actually more women participants than men. That was the first time that I had that happen. Additionally, the vast majority of the woman in my training rooms for the past four years have been and still are uncovered. It used to be that all of my female participants were covered so I do feel we are experiencing major differences among the women in Kuwait with respect to their own values, traditions, and culture. The Kuwaiti millennials have a lot to do with this newfound openness. It used to be that a lot was “hush-hush” and never spoken about (this could be even something as small as asking how a family member is doing) but these days, the Kuwaiti millennials talk about everything rather openly. This has been quite shocking for even me when I return to Kuwait now. However, it’s quite refreshing and promising because I feel this openness is what good leaders are made of and can prevent a lot of the bottle-necking that Kuwait has suffered in the past with its prior leaders and development. Many millennials, however, have expressed that they do indeed suffer due to their open mentality and that they feel there is still a very authoritative style of leadership in their country. They feel frustrated as they bring back wonderful ideas and education from the West and hope to implement this learning in their Kuwaiti organizations but they feel “stamped out” by their older, more authoritative bosses and leaders. As an outside consultant, I do see this, too, and hope the millennials remain persistent.
Cultural differences in the Middle East, Europe & USA
You are originally from the US but you were living in Europe before moving to Kuwait and currently living in Europe again. What are the major differences between leadership development in European countries and countries in the Middle East?
Great question! I often don’t see much difference which may sound a bit funny yet it feels very true from me. Currently, I reside in The Netherlands and my husband is Dutch. Prior to living in Angola and Kuwait, I was residing in Spain and for a short while in Portugal. Why I say I feel a lot of the leadership style is similar between Europe and the Middle East is because it feels a bit antiquated and slow to move when it comes to innovation, technology and change. It often feels like a lot of resistance and defensiveness with even subtle suggestions of modifying something compared to the US.
A simple example is: In most organizations in the US, employees are either paid weekly or every other week. It is rare these days to see employees paid monthly. I’m from California and even government employees are paid bi-monthly with the exception of State of California employees who are paid once monthly. But, federal, county and city officials are paid twice monthly. The same as in Europe goes for Middle Eastern employees: they are also paid once monthly. There are a lot of studies that describe the benefits and advantages for both organizations and employees of being paid twice monthly (or more). But: in my experience, European and Middle Eastern organizations close their ears and are not open to hearing why. I’m often greeted with the comment, “That’s how we do it here in Europe.” Returning to live and work in Europe in 2016, well, I had thought it was going to be very different than my 7 years in the GCC. I didn’t expect it to feel so similar!
Companies in Europe and the Middle East often stick to their old habits and are not as open to new ideas and methods like companies in the US
Another surprising experience has been the pre-judgment that many Europeans have against Americans. I actually think that this has been the most curious or alarming experience since returning to Europe. I don’t remember these stereotypes feeling as strong back in 2007 as they do now. In the States, we don’t have experiences of people saying straight in the face of another, “You do this because you are from this country.” In fact, if one does that, well, there are lots of negative consequences. But here in Europe, Europeans have had no problems saying straight to my face, ‘We don’t like Americans. We find them fake, superficial, and over-the-top.” Thus, I feel cultural sensitivity and tolerance is lacking at least between the countries I’ve been working between since returning to Europe. I’ve mostly been working in Belgium and The Netherlands since returning here in 2016. I often feel that Europeans say these things because they feel we Americans don’t have a culture. In my humble opinion, being polite, courteous, and empathetic are actually core cultural values that mean a lot to us Americans.
One more reason I feel the countries I’ve been working with here in Europe have such a similar feeling with respect to leadership in the Middle East is that they are small just like Kuwait. Therefore they have a focus on teamwork and team-building. Kuwaiti cultural is built upon helping the other, being supportive of the other and doing things together.I don’t feel that’s any different than Belgian and Dutch culture. Dutch culture, for example, has such a strong focus on not showing off, being equal, and having a sense of consensus. Kuwaiti culture has something called “Diwaniya’’ which very special and intrinsic to its culture. Diwaniya is usually a weekly, open gathering, in a leader’s home, whereby, folks come together to discuss business, network with each other, as well as to talk politics. They all sit together (usually on the floor), and if you walk into a Diwaniya, you won’t know who the actual leader is because it has more of a team or consensus “feel” to it.
So you’ve been working in different countries on four different continents. What do you think is most important when working as a trainer on an international level and what skills does it take to be an international training and development guide in general?
The most important thing to do as a trainer is to always, always, always research the company, the participants and the culture you’re going to work with prior to the training event. I really believe in understanding as much as you can (as a trainer) about the company culture, the culture at large, and the dynamics between the participants and their leaders before entering the training room. Having this information beforehand safeguards the trainer from losing their neutrality and sense of objectivity. It’s very easy for a trainer to be pulled into the drama or negativity of the participants if they aren’t careful. I believe doing the above-mentioned research beforehand keeps the trainer focusing on the course objectives while still maintaining sensitivity for the overall culture and employees’ situation.
The skills it takes to be an international trainer and development guide in general: Risk-taking, decision-making, creative problem-solving, and facilitating. I’m a certified coach, facilitator and trainer and one of the things I truly value is not consulting when I’m giving a training. Participants want us to give answers but the truth is, that’s their job. A good trainer asks open-ended questions and allows time for the participants to work things out themselves. Furthermore, we are not representatives of the companies that the participants work for. That’s why we must be careful not to provide answers because we could present conflicting information from what their company would provide. Thus, I truly believe neutrality is key and to remember that we are not there to “fix” anything. We are there to provide possibilities, options, opportunities, new tools and to inspire them to reframe perspectives.
It’s also important as a trainer and coach to constantly re-educate ourselves. Every year, I put myself through a new training and/or work with a new coach. Thus, I can always remember what it feels like to be the participant or “coachee.” Additionally, the new techniques, tools, tips and resources we gain by participating in continuing education keeps our work as trainers and coaches, fresh, current, provocative, cutting-edge and fun. I often attend others’ trainings to watch how a trainer handles a tough participant or how they open their trainings. The amazing insight I gain from other trainers is priceless. It helps me never grow bored of this work and I feel my participants can relate better to me because I can relate better to them, especially if I was recently a participant in a course myself. That sense of empathy that we can transfer to our participants is priceless and I feel we can cultivate that empathy and deepen it by always being a student ourselves. Ongoing education gives us as trainers so much: new tools, better techniques, and new ways to deliver the same type of information over and over.
Constantly re-educate yourself and participate in different trainings as a trainer is very important – not only to learn and experience new tools and methods but also to know what it feels like to be the participant or “coachee”
International leadership development is a lot about intercultural awareness and empathy. As a coach and trainer it is very important to have an intercultural sensitivity. How was it for you moving to Kuwait in the first place?
My experience as a coach and trainer has been absolutely wonderful in Kuwait and the Middle East. I think because when I first entered the GCC nobody was doing what I was doing. I was so lucky! I had been trained as a Co-Active Coach back in 2002 in California and this type of work was really not being done in Kuwait at all when I first arrived. So, bringing this work into workshops, with individuals, and in trainings, well, to be honest, it’s why and how I ended up staying in Kuwait so long! I was actually only supposed to be in Kuwait for 3-6 months. Then word started spreading like wildfire about my style of coaching and training that I just couldn’t leave! And, my name started going around the whole GCC because, for them, this style of coaching and facilitating was so unique, new, fun, engaging, and they felt the immediate growth. I really was and am blessed to have entered Kuwait when I did. I’m really grateful I’ve been able to offer this work and still continue to get to go to Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar to deliver courses.
Are there many differences between Europe and the Middle East when working as a Coach or aren’t there as many as someone from Europe may expect?
You know what I’ve noticed about working in Kuwait versus Europe? The Middle Easterners are actually more willing to ‘get crazy” in the workshops! They are way more willing to take chances, to stretch themselves and to throw their comfort zones out the window. I’ve found that here in Europe, the participants have been far more reserved, shy, timid or possibly feel ‘too big” to do this crazy exercise or that crazy activity. Here’s where I see the difference: In the Gulf, it’s okay to stand out, it’s okay to shine. Fellow Middle Easterners love and support great, big-thinking ideas. Here, at least in my experience, in Europe, there’s some “narrative” that if you have a great idea and share, you’re arrogant or showing off. In coaching, we call this “collusion.” There isn’t a correlation between having a great idea and showing off. Sure, it depends on how the idea is presented, but if an individual is simply sharing an idea and offering it to the group as a whole, this is a gift, not arrogance. So, this is one of the most massive differences I can see and feel between the European cultures I’ve been working with and the Gulf.
I think we would believe that the differences between European and Middle Eastern cultures would be that the Middle Eastern cultures would be more conservative in the training courses than the Europeans. However, in my experience, it’s actually been the exact opposite way around. I’ve experienced the Gulf participants to be more open, outgoing, engaged, interactive, willing to risk and stretch themselves than the Europeans I’ve been working with. It’s actually been quite stimulating for me both professionally and personally. Initially, it was quite challenging to return to Europe and experience this as I did not expect this difference at all. The great news is, however, that I am enjoying exploring and finding new ways (to stretch myself!) to appeal to the European participants to help them have radical growth (in their way) in the training and coaching courses
“Invest in Rest” – Typical challenges when it comes to working on an international level
Let’s talk about the challenges of this job. What are the typical challenges when working on an international level?
One of the typical challenges I have faced is working a lot and not getting enough rest while traveling internationally. It can be tough having to be at the airport so early, then arrive super late in the country where I will be teaching and then have to get up super early the next day and teach a full day or a full 3-5 days after all that travel. That may sound simple but it is one of the major perils of being an international trainer. Trainers often feel they are invincible and can “go, go, go,”. But: we must remember just how much energy output there is when dealing with a room of 10 or even 100 people. There’s a lot of stimulation of our senses and we must always be focused. That focus can only happen with getting good rest and practicing great self-care. I’m a major proponent and advocate of “Always Practice What You Teach”. So, if you’re a trainer who teaches your participants to drink a lot of water, mediate daily, take nature breaks, and go to bed early so you don’t have a lot of stress, then you as a trainer better be doing those things too!
Can you think of any challenging situations you’ve experienced and give us some tips how to handle them?
The most challenging scenario I can present to you happened to me last year. I got a last-minute request over the Easter holiday to fly from Amsterdam to Kuwait City to give two separate 2-full day trainings through a university for one of their major banking clients. I’ve been working with this university for a long time and have been serving their banking client for equally as long. We had a very wonderful, successful relationship. Although the request was super last-minute, I agreed to accept the trainings and had to create the course material over my holiday. (I was in sunny Spain when the university made the request and thus was working in my hotel room to get them the course material by the next day!). Two days later, I was on a plane back to Amsterdam. The following day, I was flying to Kuwait City. The flight was delayed into Kuwait City and once at Immigration, the entire computer system went down and I was stuck waiting to get my visa until 4 a.m. I arrived at my hotel at 4:30 a.m. and needed to be up at 6 a.m. so I could arrive at my training room by 7:15 to set it all up. I called my coordinator from the university to explain what had happened and asked if I could actually start the course an hour later. This was the first time I had ever made such a request. Honestly, I was nervous to do so, but I figured I’d ask just in case because I knew I literally had no sleep due to the events the night before. My request was declined and ultimately I became very ill during my week in Kuwait. I managed to conduct all the trainings without any problem and on-time but sadly, I truly suffered from extreme illness due to no rest.
The message: Many companies and coordinators feel trainers are super-heroes and they forget we are human. Ask for what you need, set boundaries, and choose which courses to teach wisely. Looking back, I should not have accepted those courses in Kuwait because I was on vacation at the time when I received the request. It meant that in less than a week’s time, I was on 6 flights. My tips are to really evaluate your schedule, know how much rest you need, and if a coordinator can’t cooperate with your requests, it may not be the training for you. As freelancers or independent trainers, we often feel we should or must accept every assignment because we feel we need the money. Be careful of this mind-set! My tip is to ask yourself: Am I operating from desperation here? Or, am I operating from inspiration? Am I taking this assignment because I feel I can help others develop, evolve and grow (including myself) or am I taking this solely for the money? If you’ve answered that you’re feeling desperate and the focus is more about money, my tip is to decline the training. We, as trainers, are messengers to help the other grow and should be operating from an inspired place. If we operate from desperation, the assignment may turn out to be a rather negative experience as mine was above.
Individuals who wish to enter the training industry must always accept its realities. In that, it’s fast-paced, may require long days, long nights, not enough rest, and that it isn’t always easy with every participant. In other words: It’s important to advise newcomers to the Training industry that it isn’t actually always the fun, awesome, dancing and parties we tend to see in social media. Despite this, if we always keep our focus on sharing how it’s truly meaningful, transformative, and deep, we will always maintain our credibility and be able to facilitate that immense growth participants crave. And, with that credibility, we have longevity.
What serves you next?
South Africa – the rainbow nation! The country is famous for its beautiful beaches, the impressive wildlife and the warm hospitality of the people. It doesn’t have an easy past though. The environment is unstable and there are many intercultural conflicts. We talked to Gerard Le Sueur, Development Guide at MDI, about the current situation, the challenges and the future of the training industry in South Africa.
In 2003, when Darko Tot, started working as a Training and Development Guide, participation in trainings was seen more as a punishment than an opportunity to improve and develop. But how has it changed since then? How do Serbian organizations view (international) leadership development at the moment and how will that be in the future?
How to succeed with leadership trainings in Greece. Soitirs Karagiannis is a trainer with more than 20 years training and consulting experience. He worked in Greece, the wider Balkans and the Czech Republic. We asked him: what are the differences between development measures in Greece and Austria? What are the typical challenges in the training and development industry? And what will be the biggest challenge for this industry in the next 5 to 10 years?