Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 23, we chat to the remarkable Charles Brewer, the Group Chief Executive Officer at Pos Malaysia Berhad. Charles has had extraordinary experience in the industry, especially in numerous leadership positions. Charles once held the CEO position at Canada Post, Click and Connect, DHL e-commerce in Singapore, Mara Xpress, and DHL South Africa.
With this impressive list of global achievements behind him, there’s no one more qualified to coach us on how to be a leader to anyone, in any environment.
In this episode, Charles teaches small businesses how to think globally, approach international expansion, and be the leader that your team needs. We also discuss how to overcome cultural barriers as a leader in a foreign country, and how to adapt to different environments and cultures in a way that will strengthen your team.
Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Charles Brewer on YouTube, Spotify, Listen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.
Authored by Charles Brewer, Group Chief Executive Officer at Pos Malaysia Berhad.
You could be a CEO for 10 years but still fail as a leader the moment you move to a different country. While many leadership skills are universal, it’s essential that you can adapt and adjust your management style to the team and environment around you. Otherwise, you won’t be able to maximise your team’s success. After decades of leading various international teams and working with globally recognised corporations, I’ve learnt how to adapt my leadership to any environment and culture while remaining true to myself and my leadership values.
Approaching cultural barriers
Cultural barriers can be one of the hardest hurdles to overcome when expanding your business internationally or working in a different country. If you tackle these cultural barriers correctly, they could be the key to your success. I was originally from the UK before I made the leap to work internationally. After spending over 20 years working in different countries all around the world, I can confidently say it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. From being CEO of DHL Express in the Philippines, Malaysia, and sub-Saharan Africa, to even founding my own company in Singapore, leading teams in all sorts of environments is what energises me. I haven’t looked back since I started working internationally – I’m currently enjoying living in Malaysia as the Group Chief Executive Officer of Pos Malaysia Berhard. Who says you need to quit your job or retire before you can travel the world?
People often ask me how I coped with moving to various continents that spoke other languages, had wildly different societies, and thrived in different work cultures. After all, Asia and Africa were a significant jump from the UK, both in terms of distance and culture. My first piece of advice is to not think of these cultural barriers as a tedious challenge you’re forced to deal with. Instead, think of them as opportunities for you to explore the world, learn, and grow both professionally and personally. It’s vital that you make the effort to understand the environment and the people you’re working with. Otherwise, you risk being a poor leader, which can be detrimental to your company.
One memorable example of this happening to me was when I first left the UK to work in Malaysia. I was blown away by the work ethic of our Malaysian team. As a new Managing Director of Global Customer Solutions in a new country, I was working longer hours during my first few weeks. I came to the office bright and early before standard work hours, yet the rest of the team were already sitting at their desk! When I left the office at 6 pm, or sometimes later, the team would also be there working away at their desks. This was a stark difference to the UK, where people would be ready to leave work as soon as it hit 5 pm. I marvelled at how committed and hardworking my team was and mentioned this to one of my friends on the managing team. My friend told me that in many Asian countries, employees like to demonstrate their work ethic by arriving at work before their supervisor and leaving only after their supervisor leaves. As a result of not fully understanding Malaysian work culture, I had unknowingly created longer working hours for my team under the assumption they always worked that long. It’s crucial to understand your team’s culture to create an optimal work environment which supports a happy and successful team.
Thinking globally for small to medium businesses
If you’re a small to medium business owner, you may not have seriously considered expanding your business overseas. Whether or not international expansion is on your radar, the skills from managing teams in global environments will be valuable for everyday business operations, even for your local business.
When I started managing teams overseas, I became acutely aware of the power of diversity in the workplace. It’s no secret that diversity of thought leads to a more successful team, but it can be easy to forget when we’re busy running a business. Working with teams of different cultural backgrounds had an unbelievable effect on the way I viewed our work, company, and world. According to research by McKinsey, diverse teams have been found to result in higher financial performance. To avoid organisational conformity and lack of innovation, diverse teams are essential.
I’ve talked about the importance in making an effort to understand the culture of an international team. The same principle applies to your team at home. Studies have shown that workers feel a disconnect with their leaders when their leaders are out of touch.
I’ve found that I learn the most about my team and their work when I’m out on the field with them. Whether it be spending time in warehouses, various parts of the office, or anywhere else your team members work, regularly being on the field with your team can help you understand their situation more and become a better leader for them. It can also help you identify areas of the business that can be improved, things your team is struggling with, and the areas that are doing well.
Are you a small to medium business that wants to take the leap and expand internationally? Many small businesses hold back from international growth due to concerns about language barriers, cultural differences, and tackling a new business landscape. Many businesses first expand to countries that speak the same language and share similar cultural habits, which are often neighbouring countries. This eliminates the need for translators and reduces communication barriers.
Simply speaking, the same language as another country doesn’t guarantee success. Conducting market research is important even when expanding your business interstate, let alone internationally. Make sure you conduct research about the countries you wish to expand to. Learn if there are places where you can make and sell your products or services in the country, what you’ll have to do differently, and if you can logistically and financially expand.
Core leadership values are universal
Leading teams from different countries requires adaptability, reassessed habits, and new modes of thinking and communicating with your team. Despite needing to adapt my leadership behaviours to suit other cultures, I have never contradicted my personal values in doing so. Adapting your leadership style to other cultures doesn’t mean changing who you are. My leadership values are the same no matter where I go.
In every leadership position in every country I’ve worked in, my core goal as a leader is the same – to help my team be successful by exciting, energising, and helping them. No matter where you are in the world, it’s clear that leaders set the rhythm of the organisation. They drive the company’s culture through their behaviour. To me, being a leader isn’t about having the most power or telling people what to do. It’s about being a vessel that will help my team thrive and be the best they can be. This is the mentality I take with me to every country I work in.
Another of my core values is seeking feedback and ensuring my team is comfortable with providing constructive feedback. Understanding the team’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial to excelling in any field. If you’ve worked abroad, you may know that in some parts of the world, it’s uncommon for employees to raise concerns about their managers. I experienced this while working in Asia. As a result, I strived to create an environment where my team felt comfortable to give me feedback. The thing that makes you a great leader is being aware of your weaknesses and managing your limitations. This prevents them from negatively affecting the people around you. Constructive feedback is imperative to uplifting your business.
Walking the talk is another universal principle I take with me when leading any team. Your behaviour and your attitude as a leader shapes your organisation’s culture. As an example, I want my team to know that I’m approachable, happy to help, and here to listen. Even during my busiest periods, I strive to make time for my team member’s concerns and needs. If a junior employee emails me asking to discuss their career, I’ll make time for it. If I were to reject these requests, I’m not practising what I preach and I risk damaging the company’s culture.
The world is beautiful. When it comes to working overseas or expanding your business internationally, you have the opportunity to appreciate and respect the cultural and environmental differences you encounter. Regardless of where you work in the world, it’s important to hold onto your authenticity and the universal leadership skills that will effectively lead your team to success.