Cross-cultural consulting: can you export good governance?

Take Away Line

Consulting across boundaries has many joys and some pitfalls.  Some of the models and idea do not translate well; others do.  Recent experience in working with a group of NGO leaders in Russia suggests that the four areas where intervention can be most useful and appropriate are at the sector policy level, skills training, certain online services and consulting to build the capacity of local consultants.

Management is Management.  Right?

Consulting across borders is normal these days.  International organisations and NGOs, large transnational corporates all worship at the same alter of Global Good Management.  OK, there might be some local inflection here and adaptation to the ways they do things in Austria or Zambia, but management is management.  Correct?

Whether it’s as simple as I’ve just suggested or not, the same cannot so easily be said of consulting on corporate governance, be that in relation  to international organisations or local non-profits.  For a start, each jurisdiction has its own company and non-profit law which underpins expectations placed on boards and their directors – or non-profits and their board members.  Secondly the burden and nature of regulation varies from place to place and each country has adopted its own governance codes, be they for the corporate or the non-profit sectors.  And there are the usual differences, in terms of culture, language and tradition which drives so much of how things are actually done.  But still, good governance practice is still more or less universal, isn’t it?  Let’s see!

To Russia with Love

Last year, I had the great good fortune to run a ‘Master Class‘ in Moscow for an NGO umbrella body, for about 25 Russian NGO leaders.  Working through an interpreter and with my materials pre-translated into Russian, I was able to launch forth, preaching the good news gospel of ‘Universal Good Governance‘.  My group was great and many had travelled a long way, at least through one of Russia’s nine time zones if not two in some cases.  They listened; they engaged; and they challenged. But fundamentally, it slowly emerged, many were doubtful.  ‘You mean that in England, you do that stuff that you’re talking about: clear roles, appraisals, board reviews, open recruitment, training, etc?’  Not in all cases by any means, I was able to reply, but the principles are pretty well accepted.’  ‘Wouldn’t work here: if the boss didn’t want to listen to the board, he wouldn’t.’

I was lucky to have within the group a man who’d worked with corporate  and voluntary boards in both Russia and other countries including the UK and who was able to argue that my extreme Westernism was not so far from the current reality.

Of course, in the consultancy game, this is often how change works.  For some audiences, you have things to say which take them forward a little because they are ready for change and in other cases, perhaps you sow seeds that may take time to germinate.  For some in the group in Russia, I felt I was operating towards the sowing seeds end of the scale.

Exportable Services

So, were I to face a similar situation again, what would I offer?  [In fact, this is more than of idle interest as such a situation may well crop up again.]

Unless you have the language and you are well acculturated as well, you can’t easily consult in a facilitative way to many local and national NGOs.  It seems to me there are three areas of potential intervention.

Firstly at the level of policy, it is possible to work with others locally, whether they are within sector infrastructure bodies, government or local consultancy practices, to help frame effective policies for that jurisdiction, including (if necessary, with legal support):

  • Codes of good governance practice
  • Model constitutions for (e.g.) non-profits
  • Guidance on a range of matters such as the roles and responsibilities of board members or on conflicts of interest
  • Advice in how to source and select appropriate board members based on succession planning, skills analysis, etc.
  • Advice on how to review boards and appraise board members’ performance

Secondly, at the level of training and development, it is quite possible for a foreigner to run certain training sessions and master classes to challenge existing approaches to doing things, on any of the above listed topics, drawing deeply from their experience in other countries.  As in the Russian case of my experience, some participants may be ready for it, while others may not.

Thirdly, and arguably most usefully, consultants may helpfully partner with local consultants to help them extend their consultancy offer into these areas.  Consulting to the consultants may be a great way to build capacity, extend services for mutual benefit and stimulate each other in ways that may be unexpected.

Finally, it can also be possible to offer, possibly adapted, any services, particularly online services that may be of value in a third country.  For example, an online governance benchmarking service could without too much difficulty be translated and adapted for use elsewhere and have quite an impact.

Avoiding pitfalls

Cross-cultural consulting is fun and challenging.  It is increasingly normal and of value.  But there are pitfalls which need to be considered, particularly where there are differences of legislation, regulation and work culture.  But there are ways to overcome these challenges,  while respecting local values and, at the same time, challenging received wisdom.  In a good way.

Debating Points

  1. What’s your experience of cross-cultural consulting?  Any additional pitfalls (or joys)?
  2. What would you add or challenge in the list of policy areas that may be exportable?
  3. To what extent do you agree with the four areas proposed as the best pinch-points for consultants to work in cross-culturally?

About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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