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  1. Contrast
  2. Confrontation
  3. Pulling It All Together
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This chapter is from the book

Pulling It All Together

Contrast and confrontation—these two keys break through the first brain barrier and conquer the failure to see. Although we may not have said it explicitly, you no doubt have sensed that changing entrenched mental maps requires a serious shock to the system. In closing, let us make that point clear and unmistakable. The longer a given mental map has been in place and the more successful it has been, the greater will be the shock needed to break free from it.

As evidence of this, consider some personal, managerial maps, rather than organizational maps. Most managers grow up in a given country and culture, be that Germany, Australia, Japan, or India. They develop managerial maps of how to communicate, motivate, correct, praise, confront, and direct people successfully. This generally works fine until, as a senior leader in most companies today, you must interact effectively with people across multiple countries and cultures—i.e., global leadership. Recently, we conducted a study along with a colleague, Allen Morrison, looking at what experiences helped people develop global leadership capabilities. When we asked over 130 senior executives from 55 different companies across Europe, North America, and Asia what the most important and influential experience was in helping them develop global leadership capabilities, 80% gave the exact same answer. Given the diversity of these executives (different nationalities, job histories, industries, etc.), this is amazingly high agreement. Eight of ten executives said an international assignment was the most influential career experience they had. Why?

The following example provides the answer. Not long ago, we, along with our colleague Allen Morrison, were on a trip to Japan for an international management conference. Because one of our trio, Stewart Black, had lived and worked in Japan before, he decided to take the other two to a traditional Japanese restaurant for dinner. Being the interculturally sensitive guy that he is, he gave the other two a "briefing" about the restaurant and proper etiquette before going in. He explained that most traditional Japanese restaurants have a similar entry. It consists of a thin wood and glass sliding door with an entry area on the other side. The runners at the bottom of the door, along which it slides, are made of wood and typically not recessed; consequently, he warned the other two that they would need to step carefully over them as they entered the restaurant. He then mentioned that they would be in a small alcove called a genkan and that they would remove their shoes before stepping up into the restaurant proper.

Once they found what looked like a nice, traditional restaurant, Stewart opened the sliding door and carefully stepped inside. Allen, who is about the same height as Stewart, followed, also being sure to step over the door runner. The next thing anyone knew, there was a thunderous crash at the entry that reverberated throughout the entire restaurant. Everyone inside turned to see what had happened; some customers thought an earthquake had started. As everyone looked to the restaurant entry, they saw Hal staggering in the doorway with a trickle of blood running down his forehead. Hal, on seeing his two colleagues negotiate the entry so easily, had tried to step quickly through the door. However, Hal, who is just over 6'5", smashed his head on the top of the door frame. The impact nearly knocked Hal out.

The most interesting part of this story is that the next day, when the trio went to another traditional Japanese restaurant, the exact same thing happened. Now Hal had twin bumps on his head. It wasn't until the third time that Hal remembered to duck as he entered. It took getting smacked hard in the head—twice— for Hal to rearrange his mental map about what it takes for him to enter a traditional Japanese restaurant successfully.

Most of us are like Hal. It takes getting smacked hard in the head, probably more than once, before we are ready to rearrange what is in our heads—our mental maps. Hard knocks to the head are not always pleasant—in fact, they hurt—but they are necessary.

International assignments, unlike short trips, almost always result in some serious smacks to the head. We are confronted on a daily basis with managerial situations in which our old maps do not work. Because we cannot easily hide out in our hotel rooms for three years, we eventually smack our heads—hard and usually repeatedly. This head smacking is what caused the global leaders we interviewed to change their managerial mental maps. And this is why eight of ten touted an international assignment as the most important developmental experience in their careers and their development as global leaders.

The point is not that everyone should go on an international assignment (though if you want to be a global leader, you may need to). Rather, the point is to illustrate that a smack in the head with contrast and confrontation is often needed to dislodge entrenched mental maps. These smacks are what help us see that our mental maps have limits and to deal with shifts in the environment; we must stretch and rearrange our maps—as painful as that might be.

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