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INSEAD Participant Interview

Learning to read the cultural map

Walter Jacobs

Walter Jacobs, Regional Manager with Dutch Dredging and Marine contractor, Boskalis, wanted greater insights into communicating and managing across different countries and cultures. Leading Across Borders and Cultures gave him insight into that – and into himself.

Walter, what was it that brought you to INSEAD?

In my role, I manage five countries in Southeast Asia, and each of those countries comes with its own specifics in terms of culture and business and negotiation styles. It can be challenging to adapt to these different styles and learn how to deal with colleagues and clients across such a very diverse and broad base. I’m from the Netherlands, where you could argue, the national character is quite direct – we Dutch have a tendency to get straight to the point. So when you are working with colleagues in Asia this may come across as somewhat blunt because these executives tend to be much more sociable than we are. It’s impossible to generalise, but the differences and the different nuances are absolutely there.

I was looking for a programme that could help me better recognise and understand these often subtle but critical differences between us – and that also meant getting some perspective on my own cultural background and identity and the way that I do business. I was looking for a cultural map to help me navigate business negotiations and forge better relations with diverse colleagues and clients.

I’m based in Singapore, so I had a head start in a sense: I already knew the reputation and the calibre of INSEAD, so I knew this was the right school to find what I was looking for.

In fact, you had applied to programme just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Instead of postponing you decided to go ahead and take the programme virtually. Did you have any concerns about this?

Initially yes. I’d been looking forward to coming to campus and enjoying the face-to-face interactions and networking with peers and faculty. I wasn’t sure how the virtual aspect would deliver this kind of experience which is so enriching.

In the event, it was so much better than I expected. For a start, the technical delivery of the programme was flawless. It was designed to make really optimal use of the tools – Zoom, breakouts, discussion groups, all of these things were delivered to their fullest capabilities. And I found that the smaller sessions that we had in reduced groups were hugely beneficial – not only in terms of exploring the practical and actionable dimensions of the learning, but also in really bringing us together as a peer group. As co-participants and colleagues, we all really got to know each other very well within a very short period of time.

So the virtual format worked well for you?

Campus is great and it’s an experience I would have enjoyed, but there were certain benefits to taking the programme virtually that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. There were gains in efficiency, because the time management was excellent. I found that the sessions were highly focused and dynamic, without any of the “usual” distractions.

But there was something else. Because the programme was delivered virtually, it meant that there was greater diversity of participants – it was easier for more people from more countries to take part. In my cohort, we had an enormous diversity of participants from a breadth of regions and time zones. It was really very mixed – more than it would have been had the programme been held on campus. And that was a huge advantage for me, especially in terms of this programme and the learning objectives. I would imagine that the diversity that virtual learning can deliver is an advantage for any programme for executives, in fact.

What other aspects of the programme did you particularly appreciate?

I think the inclusion of guest speakers is very enriching. The faculty and peers are excellent, and just having that extra dimension – when an industry leader comes in – is another opportunity to enrich the theoretical piece with real-world, diverse experience and expertise. It really brings the learning to life. And it’s inspiring to hear other leaders’ stories.

I also really enjoyed the lectures and the way that faculty encouraged us to explore the different chapters and dimensions of our own cultural maps in relation to each other. One of the absolute highlights for me was a group exercise with fellow participants where we each recorded negotiating and interacting. Looking back at this recording and getting feedback from peers from different cultures was illuminating – it’s a privileged and very unique way to build your personal self-awareness.

I think the learning experience in general was really geared to this kind of exploration. You have a uniquely safe space within which to explore, experiment and grow. And of course, to learn.

What kinds of learnings or takeaways has the programme given you?

When moving to a potential future role within my company in a different part of the world, I think the programme has really equipped me to make such transition with confidence and clarity. I have gained so much more awareness and understanding of cultural differences, and I have learned to approach interactions with far greater sensitivity and to manage tensions far more effectively. I’ve learned to think and to plan ahead when I am meeting with new clients and that, in turn, has really boosted my confidence and leadership.

It also helps enormously that INSEAD makes the programme resources accessible to you online once the programme has finished. I am able to go back and dip into things like our cultural maps whenever I need to.

Would you recommend this programme to other leaders in your position?

Not only would I recommend it, I already have! We have some new colleagues arriving at our regional office and the first piece of advice that I have shared with my successor is to get in touch with INSEAD!

Find out more about the Leading Across Borders and Cultures programme

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