Consultant, trainer, motivational speaker and author Fons Trompenaars is known worldwide for his expertise on culture and business. As founder and director of Trompenaars Hampden-Turner, he has spent over 20 years helping Fortune 500 leaders and professionals manage and solve their business and cultural dilemmas to increase global effectiveness and performance.
Trompenaars was influenced by his personal experience at home where he grew up speaking French and Dutch and at work where he worked in HR for the Royal Dutch Shell Group in nine different countries. In 1989 he founded the Centre for International Business Studies, a consulting and training organization for international management, which later became Trompenaars Hampden-Turner.
He has authored and co-authored several books including the award-winning Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, which was translated into nine languages; others include Seven Cultures of Capitalism, Building Cross-Cultural Competence, and The Global M&A Tango. Trompenaars studied economics at the Free University of Amsterdam and later earned a Ph.D. from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. In 1991,Trompenaars received an ASTD International Professional Practice Area Research Award.
Q| How did you get involved in cross-cultural management issues?
After studying economics at the Free University, I had the great opportunity to do PhD research from '79 to late '82 at Wharton, where I studied Social System Sciences under some famous professors at the time - Russ Ackoff, Fred Emery, and Eric Trist. I was dedicated to doing cross-cultural research from the beginning and wanted to apply the knowledge about the methodology and deep thinking of systems sciences.
And I certainly felt that my background of having a French mother and a Dutch father was just perfect in going into the direction of culture and management. I think because I saw, as a young child, that my French family was quite different from my Dutch family, and that in fact, I was caught in between two worlds.
Q| How did you come to work for Shell?
I was paid one year by the Dutch government for my studies. And then the second year, I was looking for a scholarship for the rest of my studies. I like combining things so I looked for a company where I could do the actual research on cross-cultural differences, and that happened to be Shell. I did my research with Shell, and then I later worked for Shell in HR, and my last job was in job evaluation or job classification and management development.
The cross-cultural topic got popular, let's say, in the mid '80s - in '85, '86. I remember I was being interviewed like this for the Shell Magazine. It was amazing how many phone calls I got from competitors and companies asking me to do a lecture for them. And I did and really then discovered myself as a public speaker and how much I liked it; the rest is history as they say.
Q| What was the inspiration behind starting the Center for International Business Studies?
All the lectures I did on the subject were so much fun, including many lectures within Shell, I asked myself, "why don't I make my profession out of it?"
And the beauty was between '87 and '89, my last two or three years at Shell, the company allowed me to work part time; so Shell was really supportive of what I did or maybe that was just another word for "how can we get rid of this guy?" But anyway, they really helped me in starting that business.
So from there, we did a lot of training activities and later it became consulting. And when it became consulting, we change our name to Trompenaars Hampden -Turner.
Q| Have you found that issues today are pretty much the same as when you first started?
No. And that's why we changed from training into consulting. In the early '90s to late '90s, the issues were more training and development of people, and more country-specific concerns. In other words, we had to guide people from one country to anotherOr more generically, it was really preparation for expatriates.
Now what we increasingly see is that we are asked for multicultural dealings, like how to lead a multicultural team. Nowadays, a manager is going to America but he covers Latin America, and his team in New York consists of seven nationalities; so the work is much more on how to deal with multiculturalism. That's one change.
The other change is that although training is still important, it's now much more combined with creating a context around development known as consulting--What do companies do with their reward systems, with their HR systems and sometimes branding and other issues.
Third change is that very often our work involves mergers and acquisitions, so it is cross-cultural. That was hardly spoken of 10 years ago. In the last 10 years, people found out that cultural integration is the most difficult part.
Q| You have noted that leaders are often reluctant to deal with intercultural issues. Why is that and what is the key to dealing with these issues?
A big challenge in our job is how to quantify it, how to make it grabbable. The key in dealing with these issues was written down quite clearly in our new book, The Global M&A Tango, which is about global integration processes.
The Argentineans define the tango as the dance where the man leads the woman where she wants to go. I think the tango is a beautiful metaphor for how mergers and acquisitions should be done. Normally, it's more like the foxtrot, where I dictate where you go, and it's not working. You need both parties to go along.
The book includes nine steps on how to effectively deal with cultural integration. And I can tell you that half of these steps have nothing to do with culture; for example, the first step is about strategic vision and mission. My advice would be don't start with culture, although at the end, you do a lot on culture. So you start with the business case. You may find the companies involved look differently at the business case, and perhaps that is because of culture. And in the reconciliation of those dilemmas, you often reconcile cultural issues. Our main goal is to help get a constructive dialogue between the parties.
But what you still see companies do, and I'm completely against it, is they invite us to give a lecture to the French about the Dutch or give a lecture to the Dutch about the French. And we say no way. And still, a lot is happening on that level, and it's just ammunition for more stereotypes.
Q| It's been said that leaders today need "cultural intelligence" or "multicultural competence." Do you agree? How would you define these?
I like to refer to it as transcultural competence. Multicultural competence is that you are good at adapting to the local culture. But I don't believe anybody thinks that you can fully understand their culture. Transcultural competence, on the other hand, is the competence to take advantage of the cultural diversity you're involved in, and it could be related to one country or five countries.
Did you know that about 90 percent of the books on leadership are written by Anglo-Saxons? And I have nothing against Anglo-Saxons, but only five percent of the world lives there. Individual countries often have their own definition and books on leadership.
We need a new paradigm of leadership. And what we have found in our research is that one of the few competencies that go beyond culture is the competence to deal with cultural diversity, which we call intercultural competence or dilemma reconciliation competence, and that consists of four elements of transculture competence (4Rs): First, recognition: what is the dilemma? Second step is respect: There's a dilemma, and both sides have legitimate opinions. Third is reconciliation: the art of coming to some sort of agreement; the fourth is realization--actually translating it into actual behavior.
Q| What are some common misconceptions about what it takes to successfully manage multinational teams or workforces?
The one I already discussed, and that is in "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." I don't think that works. So in other words, do the four Rs. That works much better.
Another common misconception is that you should focus on diversity and accept the differences, ignoring what you share. It is much more important that you focus first on what you share within which you look at the differences.
And then the third misconception is that everything is solved by shared tasks or strategies or end goals or whatever in the future. I think that helps, but that's not a sufficient condition. The problem very often is how to get to the goal rather than what the goal is. There are different ways to get to the goal, and that's where culture comes in.
Q| What new projects are you working on?
One is a book that we have been working on for five or six years, with a working title - "How to Create a Sustainable Culture." It will be a heavy book in terms of empirical support. In the history of management thinking, at various points, we have exaggerated certain stakeholders tremendously, which has led to non-sustainable solutions. These were, in succession, emphasis on management and efficiency; the employees; the client or customer; the shareholder; and now society.
How can you reconcile the dilemmas between the five stakeholders that were exaggerated in the past - tensions between employees and efficiency, between society and the shareholder, between the clients and employees? If you connect all five stakeholders with each other, you get the 10 golden dilemmas. The book will give empirical evidence that companies that deal more effectively with those 10 golden dilemmas create sustainable value.
Q| Who has been a great influence for you?
When I was with Shell, I met Charles Hampden-Turner, and he made an enormous impact in my life in that he tied dilemma thinking to cultural understanding. Apart from the fact that he is a wonderful person with a very warm heart and a great brain--you don't find that often. Another person in my life that really shaped me is Peter Woolliams. They are both above 65 now. In fact, Charles is 76 now. They are great people and have meant a lot in my professional career.
Q| So what do you like to do for relaxation or fun?
First of all being interviewed! My work is one big fun. For relaxation, though, I like to golf a bit. It sounds funny, but it relaxes me tremendously. While I hated it three years ago, I was forced by my wife to do it, and it keeps our 32-year marriage alive. And the other thing-- is working in the garden.