Communication Lessons from a Global EHS Manager

As a college student in the early 90’s I thought I was in good shape as a communicator.  I was pretty social for an engineer (nerd) and I wasn’t afraid to get up and speak in front of a large group.  So, when I started my first job as an environmental engineer at a paper mill in the Deep South, I never expected communicating would be a problem.  I was wrong.  And I would learn some valuable lessons about cross-cultural communications.

First of all there was the language barrier.  Yes they were speaking English but with that wonderful southern drawl.  I love a southern accent but there’s a big difference between talking football and discussing a complex manufacturing process.  I had to keep asking people to repeat themselves.  Add to that the cultural differences and I was quickly developing a reputation as “that rude Yankee who don’t hear so well”.  Luckily I gained a mentor who was both an engineer and a fellow northern transplant.  Through him I learned the importance of learning the local culture, utilizing local resources and adapting for success.

My mentor explained the importance of small talk in the South.  When you need data or information from someone you don’t dash off an email with: “Please provide x, y and z, by next Friday”.  You walk down the hall to their office and you start off by asking them about their kid’s Little League team or how they hit the ball on the golf course last weekend.  I was accustomed to the norms of the metro northeast; “Tell me what you need, tell me when you need it and I’ll get to you.”  I could imagine how this new approach would have gone over when I was a co-op working in Pittsburgh.

Me:  “Hi Bill, how’s your day going.”

Bill: “Peachy.”

Me: “How’s your son’s baseball team doing?  Did they win on Saturday?”

Bill:  “Why are you here and what the heck do you want?!?”

Yet it worked like a charm at the paper mill and although, as a Yankee, you can never be accepted as a true Southerner, at least I was considered a nice Yankee.  I even starting using “y’all” every once in while.

Later in my career when I was tasked with supporting the construction and startup of a manufacturing plant in India this lesson in learning the culture would pay dividends.  Before the project got underway I used the Internet to research Indian history, culture and business etiquette.  I spoke with my Indian colleagues about the similarities and differences.  I even boned up on the national sport, Cricket, and followed the performance of the local team.  All of this paid off as I was able to develop good working relationships with the local staff and I avoided most of the pitfalls that tripped up some of my American colleagues on the project.

Now, as a Global Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) leader, I’m tasked with implementing corporate policies across multiple cultures.  The lessons that I learned through my earlier experiences led me to three keys for success in working across cultures.

  1. Good translations: Google Translate might work well when you’re trying to decipher an email but don’t count on it for important documents.  If you’re lucky, you may have an internal resource who is fluent in English and the local language but even this is risky.  For important documents, always use a reputable translation service.  They have multiple layers of verification to ensure your translations are accurate and complete.  As an additional safeguard, even when I use a translation service, I always have an internal native speaker of the target language review the translated materials.
  2. Use local resources: While it’s important to do your homework, no amount of internet research can replace the insight to be gained from developing relationships within your business.  Regions within a country and even business cultures from plant to plant can vary widely.  Having a network of trusted colleagues across all locations will help you avoid mistakes.  A good network can help you test ideas, develop local plans and facilitate projects.
  3. Adapt to the local culture: Different does not mean wrong.  When working across cultures, a one-size-fits-all approach is a recipe for failure.  Balancing the need for a consistent approach to EHS programs with the realities of local differences is critical to the success of your program.  When developing global polices, standards and initiatives, I always try to leave as much flexibility as possible without compromising the imperatives of employee safety and environmental stewardship.

Utilizing these three keys to success is not always easy.  This approach requires that you work with each region or site to develop their site-specific implementation plans.  It also places greater importance on verification through internal auditing.  But if you put in the effort the rewards will be many.  Sites will take owner ship of their EHS systems.  You will see faster adaptation to revised or new initiatives.  Flexibility allows sites to develop creative best practices that can be shared across the organization.  And in the long run you will see continuous improvement in your EHS performance.

At times it’s been difficult, but as I’ve gained experience and learned from my mistakes I‘ve come to treasure working in different cultures.  It has enriched my personal life and has made me more effective as an EHS professional.  I hope that when you encounter similar opportunities you will embrace them with open arms and an open mind.


For more of Jim’s cross-cultural communication resources, please visit the Emerging Leaders group in NAEM’s online community.

About Jim Spahr

Jim Spahr is an Operations EHS leader with 19 years of experience working across borders and across cultures to improve safety, health and environmental outcomes. For more of Jim's cross-cultural communication resources, please visit the Emerging Leaders group in NAEM's online community.

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