How to Successfully Work Across Countries, Languages, and Cultures

Executive Summary

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, the number of people in the global labor force will reach 3.5 billion by 2030. Among the enormous changes this will demand are new skills, attitudes, and behaviors. A five-year study of the global workforce at Rakuten, the Japan-based e-commerce powerhouse, offers a close-up look at what will drive success for this new type of global worker. Five attributes emerged: embracing positive indifference; seeking commonality between cultures; identifying with the global organization rather than your local office; seeking interactions with other, geographically distant subsidiaries; and aspiring to a global career.

Photo by Christine Roy

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, the number of people in the global labor force will reach 3.5 billion by 2030 — and yet there will still be a shortage of skilled workers. The result is likely to be intensified global competition for talent. Rather than assuming we’ll work in one location, in our native culture, we will need new skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help us work across cultures. Our ways of thinking about careers, colleagues, and collaboration will need to become more flexible and adaptable. My five-year study of the global workforce at Rakuten, the Japan-based e-commerce powerhouse, gave me a close-up look at what will drive success for this new type of global worker.

Prior to 2010, Rakuten had been a multilingual global company. The Japanese employees in the Tokyo headquarters communicated in Japanese, the Americans in the U.S. subsidiary spoke English, and the workers in Asia, Europe, and South America spoke a mixture of native languages. Translators were employed for cross-border communications. What’s more, the subsidiaries operated more or less autonomously, each with separate organizational cultures and norms. But in 2010, Rakuten mandated an English-only policy for its…

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