Lead with love and other lessons in managing across cultures

Written by Ann Francke Tuesday 12 May 2020
COVID-19 is affecting people and organisations in many different ways. How do managers lead with cross-cultural sensitivity?
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with two CMI Companions who are accomplished leaders of global service businesses: Tamara Box, EME managing partner of Reed Smith, the global law firm; and Rebecca Robins, global chief learning and culture officer for Interbrand, the brand consultancy. Our agenda was: how to manage the Covid-19 crisis cross-culturally.

Begin with R

We all now know that ‘the R’ – or rate of transmission – is critical in managing the Coronavirus, but Tamara and Rebecca reminded us of other R’s that are just as important: relationships, for example, as well as reset and re-entry, reputation and resilience and risk. Here are their thoughts on how to handle them.


As service businesses, relationships are the foundation with clients and colleagues. These have grown much closer as a result of the crisis. “The impact of having a strong relationship focus means you get in there in the weeds with them in a crisis,” says Tamara, “and it really brings that to the fore and enables you to be a partner in trying to address the issues.”

Rebecca agrees, adding that strong relationships across her global network of colleagues meant that they were used to working in global collaborative teams.

This has made staying close to clients remotely “the easiest part – like flicking a switch.” She cited an example of a creative client workshop that resulted in their team having virtual drinks and dinner. “But how do we stay close to each other and our clients in new ways?” Rebecca asked, highlighting an increased need for innovation in keeping relationships fresh.

Reset and re-entry

Both Rebecca and Tamara believe the crisis will reset ways of working and that this is long overdue. “Don’t talk about exit strategies,” says Rebecca, “let’s talk about re-entry plans.” She believes that we had reached a place before the crisis where we were due a reset in how we work, and “radical re-evaluation of what we truly value and why.” As no one business or brand will get through this on their own, it’s time to create a “much deeper, more meaningful manifestation of what collaboration looks like.”

Tamara mentioned some of the practical changes this may bring: “Will we travel so much? Will we expect so many face-to-face meetings? I think the answer is no but… that leads us to a place of greater opportunity… We now have proof that you don't have to be in proximity to be part of a team… And that leaves us with a huge opportunity to see more collaboration, greater diversity in our teams but without all the costs associated with it.” Tamara believes office footprints will shrink, and more people will be able to work and live further apart.


Now's the time to innovate and invest in reputation, says Rebecca. Interbrand has been measuring the strength of brands over the past two decades, and has shown that strong brands fare better in a crisis -– but only if they invest wisely. Great brands grow strong from within. “People are your intellectual property, your culture, absolutely everything.” How you treated your people during this crisis will be “one of the truest testaments to what you did or didn't do.”

Rebecca spoke about how their new under-30 ‘Next Generation Board’ had mobilised at Interbrand in the first week of lockdown; Tamara mentioned achieving her 2030 digital transformation goal “in one weekend.” Cultivating and drawing upon the resilience of your culture will be paramount in boosting your brand reputation and survival. But it’s just as important to invest in the right direction – invest in technology and in helping people become more comfortable with it, advises Tamara.

There is no risk rulebook

Managing risk requires careful thought and, sometimes, trade-offs. Particularly in global environments there will be different cultures and ways of working. Liabilities, too, will vary in different parts of the world. There are bound to be trade-offs and tensions. “The difficulty is, how do you protect your business on the one hand from the liability, and on the other hand from failure if you don't get going again?” says Tamara.

There are no “bright lines” or simple solutions, says Tamara; it’s all about understanding your business and your people and where their risks are. “Which risks you need to take for the good of your people and your business, and which risk you shouldn't take.”

Culture comes in many forms - listen to and learn from all of them

Company cultures come in many forms. Geography also brings different perspectives. Tamara and Rebecca have both benefited from seeing how their colleagues in Asia handled the crisis ahead of those in London and the US. Different occupations also have different cultures – in creative design, for example, people may not be used to working remotely.

In learning how to cope in a crisis, we should respect, understand and engage with all such differences.

For both Tamara and Rebecca, their own organisation’s culture has been defining and important. “We’ve been doing a lot of listening and learning,” says Rebecca, “but I do think the resilience of what I have seen through people is astonishing… if you have the strength of a great culture in your people, it will really see you through.”

Lead with love

When asked whether Covid-19 will change how we see leadership, these leaders believe it may shift it for the better.

Empathetic, authentic leadership is on the rise, says Tamara, as is bringing people with you and what she calls “the millennial mindset.” As she puts it: “Don't underestimate what a difference it’s made to see your colleagues and your clients in their pyjamas, meet their pets, meet their children – it creates a closeness that is totally different to what you have in an office.”

Rebecca says this is “a time to stand by our people and our values. So be brave; it's a time to be bold. Don't hold back on innovating. Don’t see this as a time of constraint. It’s about us and about what we do together. Think about what your new ecosystem looks like… Simply, lead with love.”

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