How coaching can help overcome diversity challenges


Consultant Ernie Turner listens as Bupa Latin America’s Kiomara Hidalgo makes a poin. (PHOTO: Carlos Miller)

It’s a common challenge that executives face: how to build an effective team among managers that often live or grew up in different countries and see the world through different cultural lenses.

Coaching can help, according to Ernie Turner, senior partner and coach at Learning in International Management, a group that has worked with global companies from Coca-Cola and Merck to Volvo.

Turner coached members of WorldCity’s HR Connections group during their September meeting, showing by example what works and offering practical tips to help make meetings more effective.

For starters, Turner asked participants to stand in a circle. He said he’d like each to briefly state their name, their title, one thing that makes them unique and to pose a question on what they’d like from the meeting.

The group members then were given about a minute to reflect on their uniqueness and the question.

The exercise revealed that the group featured a tennis pro, a former TV dancer and a scuba diver who swam with sharks, among other novelties that drew laughs and comments.

Many questions also focused on issues of cultural diversity in corporations, a common problem in global firms in Miami.

Lessons learned from that exercise to help meetings: Make it fun. Get to know people beyond their business role. Give time for people to reflect in order to produce better thinking and better listening. And move from broad topics to specific questions to focus discussion, the coach said.

Story-telling also helps engage audiences and focuses discussions, Turner said.

He told the story of a chocolate company formed by the merger of businesses in different continents. The company’s Dutch managers placed priority on time, British executives on rules and Latin Americans on social relations. Executive meetings sparked frustration – until the group adopted certain rules of engagement, he said.

“Most problems in life happen because of poor contracting. So, set clear rules,” Turner said.

But how to set those rules? Turner began by asking the chocolate company managers for feedback at a group meeting. He asked each to answer two questions: “What is working well?” and “What can we do differently?”

Their responses led members to set parameters – meetings would start within a certain time – and also, become more aware of cultural biases. That helped them define common goals.

In coaching executives, Turner said, it’s best to work with a manager and their teams together. That allows the group to incorporate feedback from those supervised, Turner told HR Connections.

Kiomara Hidalgo, human resources director for health insurance company Bupa in Latin America and the Caribbean, then volunteered for a peer-coaching session.

She sketched out a challenge at work, and several fellow HR managers offered her peer support – with certain ground rules spelled out first.

Two rules basic to maximize peer support, according to Turner: First, ask the right kind of questions.

Make open-ended queries, not closed-end ones that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Also, ask “I” questions, not “you” questions, so everyone puts themselves in the position of the person being coached.

For example, don’t ask: “Have you talked to your boss?” Ask instead: “Who can I talk to about this?” The right kinds of questions open up ideas and discussion and won’t prompt defensiveness.

Second, make offerings to your peers, instead of delivering edicts on what to do.

That means saying, for instance, “Here’s a book to consider,” and not saying “You should read this book.” Offers are up to someone to consider when they want. Offers build support for problem-solving, rather than increasing pressure on the peer already facing a challenge, Turner said.

After Hidalgo stated her concern, Turner asked one of her peers to summarize the problem.

Ken Finneran, chief people officer at Hellman Worldwide Logistics in Miami, did so effectively. That exercise – distilling what a peer said – helps ensure the group understands the issue and listens well.

Next, Turner gave the group members a few minutes to write down all the open-ended “I” questions they could think of that might help Hidalgo.

The peers then gave her the papers for her consideration later, reducing the pressure for Hidalgo to read everything at once or to take detailed notes at the meeting.

Finally, the coach asked the peers to make offers to Hidalgo. Those included, among others, the possibility to share articles with her for distribution to managers.

Participants said the coaching helped them learn about fellow attendees and recognize the resources they are available to solve problems.

Said Turner: “Asking for support, helps you get support.”

HR Connections is one of five event series sponsored by WorldCity on international business. The HR series is sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business, executive search firm Diversified Search and the European Institute of Social Capital.