Training across cultures

We recently had the chance to work with one of our clients to help them deliver a training programme to over 100 managers located across Asia. After the initial buzz of “Yay we’re going to Singapore!” wore off we got down to some serious questioning…like “How the heck was this thing going to work?”

The majority of work we do is across the UK and Europe, so experiencing the excitement and trepidation for something new made us think “Why don’t we blog about it?”…and if it helps someone else out in a similar position then “magic darts” (as Gareth would say).



Let’s get to this one first…the training was to be delivered in English. To people from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, The Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know English is the international language of business, but we couldn’t help but feel it was a bit unfair for these managers to have to master a subject that was being delivered in a different language. Even the ones that did speak really good English (and there were plenty of them) would have to wade through the colloquialisms we inevitably used, even though we tried to keep our language as straightforward as possible.

Having to think about what you are saying is hard enough (does “easy as pie” translate well into Vietnamese?) but paled in comparison to developing your business skills based on what someone was saying in a different language.



Now this was SO cool.

Five people, each sat in their own little cubicle, translating every word from us into a different language (think Nicole Kidman in ‘The Interpreter’) that was picked up on headphones worn by the Managers.

Before the training, we had BIG reservations about whether this would work. Would our messages and meaning translate ok? Would the translation time-delay get in the way of the learning? How would we know if someone needed help? Well, we needn’t have worried. These five superheroes in cubicles did an amazing job, constantly listening to us, translating immediately and explaining things over the airwaves to the managers listening in.

Have you ever tried to give your full attention to someone for a long period of time? First, it can be way too easy to get distracted (how many times have you been tempted to look at your phone or have thought about something else since you have been reading this?) Second, it is absolutely exhausting listening intently to someone. Our mighty interpreters did this pretty much constantly for THREE whole days! (Hats off to them for that. Wait, does that translate into Taiwanese?!)

During breaks in translation we would go over, just to say hi, wave or smile…to let them know that we were super-grateful for the work they were doing. It felt the least we could do after locking them in a box for three days! One of them even said they had learnt things from our presentations that they were going to use in their own business.


The training

Firstly, a BIG shout out to the client’s global training team. They did an awesome job of setting the scene, positioning the training subject and creating the right environment throughout the event so that these managers could learn, challenge themselves and find even more effective ways of supporting their own teams. They were also cool to work with, apart from making us dance in front of 100 people…at 9 o’-clock in the morning…stone cold sober (we’ll come to that later).

There was a participant on every table that a) acted as the spokesperson for their table and b) spoke good English. These guys were briefed before the meeting and along with the translators, were absolutely vital to making this work. They kept their tables on point, and acted as a go-between for us so we could see how they were getting on.

The spokesperson would feedback to the entire group after an activity (in English) and this was translated over the airwaves. Kudos again to the translators as they were listening to English being spoken as a second language, with an accent (Malaysian/Indonesian etc) so they could translate into a different language (too many moving parts for my brain to process now)

From what we could tell, the participation level was high, and we had the table spokesperson to thank for their role in this.


The human factor

What a great group of managers this was. Apart from the fact they were clearly very talented, professional and highly skilled, they were also kind, warm, funny and incredibly appreciative of our efforts to work with them. We don’t know if this was them being sensitive to us or not, but it did lead to a powerful debate about how Managers can have truly honest conversations with their teams about performance and behaviour whilst maintaining cultural norms…something that could get quite tricky in some the Asian cultures represented.

They also told us they appreciated the mix between listening, learning, trying things out and ‘the fun stuff’ such as quizzes, basketball practice (yep, really) and the chance to see Richard dance (not a pretty sight) in front of 100 people…something that he hopes never to have to repeat again (apparently the therapy is helping him!)

The buzz in the room from when we asked them to speak to a partner that didn’t speak their language so they could listen empathetically is something that will make us smile for a very long time.



Richard often says that if he becomes Prime Minister one of his first acts would be to ban selfie sticks (surely there are bigger things to focus on Richard?!) but he says he was blown away by the amount of people asking for selfies with them at the end of the training. It felt like such a personal touch and then seeing the pictures flying around the group WhatsApp (that was a nice idea by the way) was a great way to ‘keep the vibe alive’.

Come on Europe, when are you going to get in on the act of taking selfies with your trainers after a training course?

And whilst we are on the topic of going against the grain of things we don’t like, it was also fun to hear that Gareth ended his dislike of Karaoke with a beautiful rendition of Delilah in a Karaoke booth. At least we think it was Delilah, it was difficult to interpret the screeching at times (where are the interpreters when you need them most?!)


And finally

So that was our tour to Singapore….the managers developed their skills, we learnt lots about training across cultures and got to work with some fabulous people. Let’s do it again.