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?
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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?