What does a good boss look like? Try to answer the question quickly without giving it much thought. When you picture the perfect leader, is he wearing a navy Armani suit and a pair of highly polished wingtips, or khaki trousers, a sweater, and comfy jogging shoes? Does she travel to work on a mountain bike or driving a black Ferrari? Is the ideal leader someone that you would naturally call “Mr. Director,” or would you prefer to address him as “Sam”?
For Ulrich Jepsen, a Danish executive in his early thirties who has spent the past ten years on the management fast track working for Maersk, a Copenhagen-based multinational container-shipping company, the answer is clear:
In Denmark, it is understood that the managing director is one of the guys, just two small steps up from the janitor. I worked hard to be the type of leader who is a facilitator among equals rather than a director giving orders from on high. I felt it was important to dress just as casually as every other member of my team, so they didn’t feel I was arrogant or consider myself to be above them.
Danes call everyone by their first name and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being called anything but Ulrich. In my staff meetings, the voices of the interns and administrative assistants count as much as mine or any of the directors. This is quite common in Denmark.
Jepsen does not have an open-door policy — but only because he doesn’t have a door. In fact, he chose to not have an office (they are rare in his company’s headquarters). Instead, he works in an open space among his staff. If any team members need a quiet place to talk, they can slip into a nearby conference room.
Managing Danes, I have learned that the best way to get things done is to push power down in the organisation, and step out of the way. That really motivates people here. I am a big fan of tools like management by objectives and 360-degree feedback, which allow me to manage the team from more or less the same level as them.
The belief that individuals should be considered equal and that individual achievement should be downplayed has been a part of Scandinavian society for centuries, but it was codified in the so-called “Law of Jante” by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). Sandemose’s writing was intended as a critique of Scandinavian culture as reflected in the homogeneity and repression characteristic of the fictional small town of Jante. Nonetheless, the rules of equality Sandemose described seem to be deeply etched into the Danish psyche. Jepsen observes:
Although a lot of Danes would like to change this, we have been bathed since childhood in extreme egalitarian principles: Do not think you are better than others. Do not think you are smarter than others. Do not think you are more important than others. Do not think you are someone special. These and the other Jante rules are a very deep part of the way we live and the way we prefer to be managed.
Jepsen’s egalitarian leadership style was so appreciated in Denmark that he was promoted four times in four years. But the fifth promotion put Jepsen in charge of the company’s recently acquired Russian operation, his first international leadership position.
Relocated to a small town outside of Saint Petersburg, Jepsen was surprised by the difficulties he encountered in managing his team. After four months in his new job, he e-mailed me this list of complaints about his Russian staff:
- They call me Mr. President
- They defer to my opinions
- They are reluctant to take initiative
- They ask for my constant approval
- They treat me like I am king
When Jepsen and I met to discuss his cross-cultural challenges, he provided a concrete example: “Week two into the job, our IT director e-mailed me to outline in detail a problem we were having with the email process and describing various solutions. He ended his email, ‘Mr. President, kindly explain how you would like me to handle this.’ This was the first of many such emails from various directors to fill my inbox. All problems are pushed up, up, up, and I do my best to nudge them way back down.” After all, as Jepsen told the IT manager, “You know the situation better than I do. You are the expert, not me.”
Meanwhile, the members of Jepsen’s Russian management team were equally annoyed at Jepsen’s apparent lack of competence as a leader. Here are some of the complaints they offered during focus group interviews:
- He is a weak, ineffective leader
- He doesn’t know how to manage
- He gave up his corner office on the top floor, suggesting to the company that our team is of no importance
- He is incompetent
While Jepsen was groaning that his team members took no initiative, they were wringing their hands about Jepsen’s lack of leadership: “We are just waiting for a little bit of direction!”
How about you? Do you prefer an egalitarian or a hierarchical management approach? No matter what your nationality, the answer is probably the same. My research shows that most people throughout the world claim to prefer an egalitarian style, and a large majority of managers say that they use an egalitarian approach themselves.
But evidence from the cross-cultural trenches shows another story. When people begin managing internationally, their day-to-day work reveals quite different preferences — and these unexpected, unconscious differences can make leading across cultures surprisingly difficult.
This excerpt was posted with permission from “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from PublicAffairs.
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