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What My Bicultural Background Taught Me About Being a Leader

The following article by Rani Puranik was published in HBR’s Ascend section. She discusses how leaders with a global mindset do more than uphold equity and inclusion — they possess a fundamental understanding of how cultural identity influences the communication styles, values, and needs of communities around the world. 

Cultivating a global mindset is essential for today’s emerging business leaders. As the world becomes more connected and remote work becomes the new standard, there are an increasing number of cultural nuances that leaders must be able to navigate. Whether you eventually lead teams across multiple countries, or in a single location, you will need to learn how to effectively connect with employees from diverse backgrounds with varying cultural identities.

Leaders with a global mindset do more than uphold equity and inclusion — they possess a fundamental understanding of how cultural identity influences the communication styles, values, and needs of communities around the world. As a result, they approach every workplace interaction through a culturally sensitive lens and question the global impact of their decisions.

I have been fortunate enough to experience and live in two very different world cultures — the United States and India.  Having immersive exposure to these two communities and lifestyles taught me how to effectively lead people better than any leadership course ever could.

I was born in India to a traditional, conservative Indian family, but I was raised in Houston, Texas the first 17 years of my life. Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, I struggled to reconcile what it meant to be an “American.” My siblings and I were very sheltered. We weren’t allowed to listen to the radio, watch American TV, or have sleepovers or playdates with other children. We didn’t know their games, wear their clothes, or understand their celebrities. We practiced Hinduism, said our prayers, and participated in the holy days celebrated in Indian culture. Even as I grew older and began to internalize American norms, I was still viewed as an outsider. There was little cultural understanding or acceptance back then.

Fast forward to age 17 through 35, when I lived in Pune, India. There, I was viewed primarily as an American. Not only was my accent a dead giveaway, but having grown up in the U.S., I also thought differently than my Indian neighbors. I thought it was okay to be curious, to ask questions, and to speak up. These things were not culturally acceptable for a young woman to be or do in my conservative Indian community. I was discouraged from making my voice heard. I was meant to follow, not lead. By age 21, I was married. My mother believed it was the only safe way for me to continue to live as an independent person — under the protection of the tradition. I quickly understood that my choices would now be made for me, and my demeanor soon went from confident and free to silent and surrendering. Once again, I was navigating what it meant to be rooted in two very different cultural identities.

While this was often challenging, especially as a younger woman, the insight I gained from this experience was invaluable. Today, I am a business leader, philanthropist, author, and global CFO of Houston-based Worldwide Oilfield Machine (WOM), a privately held, family-owned oil and gas equipment manufacturing firm with more than 3,000 employees operating in 11 locations around the world. I was named one of the “Top 25 Most Influential Women in Energy 2022” by Oil and Gas Investor and Hart Energy.

Here are six lessons I learned during those periods of my life that have helped me develop a successful global leadership mindset.

1) Consider cultural context.

My experience made me realize I should never make assumptions about someone’s actions or motivations based on my own preconceived notions. For example, every culture has a unique spiritual fabric, a guiding force that influences how we understand the world around us. I find that the spiritual fabric of U.S. culture is largely characterized by acts of service, such as charitable giving and community volunteerism, while in India, the point is more about attaining one’s own personal freedom through spirituality.

Each of these approaches to spirituality manifests in very different ways, and a biased view might see more value in one over the other. However, the experience of living within both of these spiritual contexts taught me to accept that one isn’t better than the other — they’re just different — and there is value in each.

When leading global teams, it’s essential to consider the greater cultural context of your interactions and how culture or geographic location might impact someone’s behavior. Do your homework to educate yourself on the cultural norms of those you’re leading and develop a deeper understanding. How might different expectations influence employee communication or collaboration across global teams? In some cultures, disagreement is frowned upon in a business setting, while in others confrontation is acceptable as long as it’s constructive. Without considering the context, what might seem like a lack of initiative could a be a polite deference to you as a leader.

2) Strive to support equity.

It’s one thing to consider the cultural context behind your interactions, but it’s another to allow cultural or unconscious bias to influence your leadership decisions. Being a successful global leader requires striving for objectivity in order to consider all perspectives equally and give everyone on your team a fair chance.

Something that has helped me immensely with making savvy, unbiased judgments is assessing others based on merit, or the skills they bring to the table. At the end of the day, how are they contributing to the success of your organization? What goals have they met? What improvements have they enacted? In addition, I place a high value on someone’s business ethics, or how they show up in the workplace consistently. Things like being considerate, trustworthy, and on time extend beyond borders.

3) Lead with empathy.

Knowing firsthand how difficult it is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes made me a more empathetic leader. It helped me realize that, while I will never know any person’s entire story, I do know that we all are ultimately just striving for happiness and peace.

The value of an empathetic leadership approach is that it brings everything into balance. The minute we’re empathetic with one another, we become equals and we can interact on the same level. You may not have all the answers, but if you can lead from a place of empathy, it will help to bridge cultural gaps, bring people together and support equity within your organization.

Some ways to develop your capacity for empathy include:

Be more accessible: Get out of your office, reach out to your workforce, and engage people in conversation to learn more about what challenges they might be facing, as well as their lives and interests outside work.

Listen better: Don’t just ask questions — work on your active listening skills to help increase the depth of your understanding about the experiences of others.

Embrace vulnerability: To develop your capacity for empathy, you have to be willing to put yourself out there as well. Offer up your own challenges, experiences and interests to make more authentic connections with those you lead.

4) Value nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal forms of communication, like body language and reading between the lines, are very important in India, especially with limited freedom of speech and religious traditions that emphasize symbolism, such as respect. When an elder walks into a room full of people, for example, everyone quiets down. There’s a respectful gaze around the elder to make sure their voice is heard. That person is given the space to get comfortable or be seated. Traditionally, India’s culture is centered around hierarchy and respect, and not unfiltered speech. Body language and nonverbal cues are ingrained in the culture and are still quite relevant today.

Because of this, I naturally look for things that are unspoken but may still contain meaning in all my interactions. I also strive to give people the benefit of the doubt because I understand not everything can be easily expressed.

The ability to convey and derive meaning through actions versus words is a fundamental aspect of global leadership communication. To successfully lead people across cultures, learn to evaluate both what someone says and what they may be communicating without words, while also keeping cultural context in mind. (A firm handshake may go a long way in Western cultures, but this isn’t true everywhere.)

Top nonverbal signals to look for include:

Body language: Is someone leaning toward or away from you? Are they fidgeting or still? How we move during interactions can speak volumes.

Facial expressions: It’s tough to mistake the appearance of emotions like happiness, sadness or anger in any culture, so reading facial expressions is a helpful tool for navigating global communications.

Tone of voice: If a person’s tone is incongruent from what they’re telling you, it could signal deception — or, at the least, that you need to dig deeper and get to the bottom of how they may really feel on a matter.

5) Maximize your resources.

In the U.S., we take things like running water, light, and heat for granted — but in a developing country, none of this is a given. In India, many people must consider the environment, resources, and infrastructure constraints while planning their daily lives, so their entire lifestyle is influenced by this awareness — as was mine. While living in Pune, I would plan my day around needs like gathering fuel or wood in order to heat water. I considered the repercussions of using too much water or electricity, both of which were in scarce supply. Maximizing a resource meant knowing how to use the minimum availability to get the most output or usage. This even included being cognizant of how paper, glass, cloth, and plastics were used.

The experience taught me a critical global leadership lesson: resources are not always going to be at your disposal, so it’s essential to use what you have in the most efficient way possible. In the context of my work, this looks like developing innovative technologies or designing smarter processes to improve efficiency. Creativity, a positive outlook, and collaboration has become key. When evaluating resources, I now have awareness of all the people who will depend on them and feel responsible for making sure they are available to the group and being distributed equitably.

6) Earn to return.

My entire leadership philosophy is that I’m earning so I can return. That means I’m building a business so I can give back to the next generation — not just here in the U.S., but worldwide.

As a responsible global leader, it’s imperative to value every country and culture equally, without being exploitative or prioritizing the prosperity of one over the other. Your goal should be to give back in order to work toward minimizing whatever deficiencies exist — not just in your own backyard, but globally — to improve the lives of future generations everywhere. After all, if the people element isn’t part of the equation, the rest doesn’t matter.

Revati “Rani” Puranik  is co-owner, EVP and Global CFO of Houston-based Worldwide Oilfield Machine (WOM). Rani has been named one of the “Top 25 Most Influential Women in Energy.”

Her upcoming memoir, 7 Letters to My Daughters: Light Lessons of Love, Leadership and Legacy (Morgan James Publishing, 2023), shares insightful and practical tools to define and achieve success in love, leadership and legacy.


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