Vanessa Shaw is an expert intercultural trainer from the US exploring how technological innovations are changing the way teams work together. She emphasizes that culture is not just about being from another country. For example, you can be a mountain person, a city person, or a beach person. You can be a cat person or a dog person. We each define ourselves by a wide variety of characteristics besides the country we live in or come from.
Vanessa’s tips for working with other cultures:
- Be aware that we have a reduction in context when we go remote.
- Put regular feedback loops in place.
- When you’re not sure how to respond to someone, ask yourself “What else do I not know?”
- Understand that we’re all different and be curious.
- Try not to make assumptions.
- Be willing to experiment and fail.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette, and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line, I’m very excited because I have Vanessa Shaw. And it says, Vanessa, on your LinkedIn profile that you’re a Chief Digital Officer at TCO International. And on your website, you help people tech better. In fact, I’ll say that without my voice going all weird. You help people tech better. And I loved that. So welcome and thanks for letting me interview you about your experiences.
Vanessa: Yeah, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lisette: And you’re in Spain, Barcelona, but you’re basically from the Silicon Valley. So I want to talk a little bit about your background. I saw that you have a lot of knowledge on intercultural training, and then of course some overlap into the Agile world. So let’s start by you telling us a little bit about you.
Vanessa: Yeah. So I guess I could say that the intercultural field was my gateway drug into training and personal development and growth. Just like many college students, I had gone overseas and traveled. And I studied abroad and got the travel bug, and then went back to volunteering abroad, and kept on wanting to travel more. And somewhere along the line, I found out that there’s an entire field of people working to help people understand how to work across cultures. So I wanted to know what that was about and went to lots of training programs, training of trainers. And I think my first program was in 2006 or so. And a year or two ago, I came across Agile. And in the intercultural training field, there’s not a whole lot of people talking about technology systems or project management for technology companies. But from Silicon Valley, I always had my finger on what’s happening in tech. And it’s just kind of a natural habit, I suppose.
When I first read about Agile, I immediately saw some overlapping concepts. And so I got really interested. That’s kind of a short answer but brought me here.
Lisette: Interesting. Well, I definitely want to talk about the overlap with Agile in the intercultural world. I think that’s a really interesting point. But let’s start also with your virtual world and what does that look like. Give us some idea of how you operate virtually.
Vanessa: Sure. Well, kind of an average day for me is I get up and go to my co-working space. That’s about a few minutes’ walk away from here, so it’s quite nice. I got to choose the location of my cowork. I bounced around, tried a couple of different places before I found the right co-working. And I’m working in a… it’s called Talent Garden. They have several campuses in Europe, and they’re opening in the U.S. too. So working there most of the time. On days like today when I know I want to have a really quiet [with– 00:03:01] high bandwidth, I’ll stay at home, so that I can record calls. And I commute virtually to a couple of different teams. I work with TCO International as a main client of mine. They’re an intercultural training organization, and they have a network of about 60 people worldwide – all working as freelancers, trainers. And so we had to find a way to get us all more connected. That’s how I got involved with them. And the skillset that they were looking for was somebody that understood the trainer’s lifestyle and also had ideas around what kind of technology can be implemented in order to keep their network more connected, a freelancer community. So we’re not technically a one company. We’re lots of freelancers, but often we’ll have projects we work on together.
And then, you know, I’m from California but living in Spain, which is a full 28 hours of travel to get home. So what I really love about how I work right now is that I can be at home and still keep working and not lose, so to speak, vacation time and choose which office I’m in – so whether it’s my mom’s kitchen table [laughs] or my co-working space a couple of minutes’ walk from home in Barcelona.
Lisette: And do you find it pretty easy to keep up with people back home in San Francisco? I mean is it pretty seamless?
Vanessa: I would say there’s been moments where it’s just a little bit more distant. But in general, I would say yes. I think thanks to WhatsApp and obviously… Well, formally, I use Skype. I’ve now moved into using Zoom. We can talk about that later. But FaceTime, any kind of video calls, I use several apps, one called Rebtel, which is like calling from a phone. I don’t even have to put in my calling card. So I stay in touch with friends. I still get invited to weddings and baby showers and birthday parties because they know I’m back and forth often. And I’m in contact through Facebook and LinkedIn. They read my blog. For me, I feel still quite close to my home network. And my network here in Europe now has just really blossomed, having been here for about 40 years.
Lisette: Interesting. And I have here that you’re launching a podcast in September. So if you want to plug the podcast really quick and tell us what it’s about, I think that’s an interesting subject.
Vanessa: Yeah. So actually the survey to name the podcast just went out yesterday, so it’s still in formation. But the topic area will look at how digital is impacting both people and their teams and also business, look at how technology innovations are changing how business is done and how people can be more successful in navigating it. So talking with experts from digital disruption, looking at remote teams, obviously, also the technology tools, what kind of social collaboration tools are being used right now, and what are the market changers of the future, so those are a couple of topics. You can find out about it on humansideoftech.org, my website, and the same name for my Twitter, @humansideoftech.
Lisette: Great, I’m really looking forward to it and checking that out, because it seems to me – I don’t know if it’s your experience or not – that digital illiteracy seems like it would be a hot topic. I mean I know that that’s something that a lot of remote teams struggle with. You’re shaking your head, so I’m thinking, yeah, this digital illiteracy is definitely a topic. What’s your perspective on it? What do you know? [crosstalk – 00:06:52] about this.
Vanessa: It’s a really interesting and important topic. And I think as a person, when I was in my early 20s and into the training and consulting field, I was obviously very young and working with people in their 40s, 50s, 60s who had many years as coaches and trainers. And I was coming at it from a completely natural… I looked to LinkedIn, and that was the digital side of onboarding into the field. It was the path that just seemed to be the best way to start. And for them, I started by asking, “Well, how did you get into the field? I want to get into a world like you and doing training and consulting and traveling and helping businesses.” And they had these stories that we’re so different about getting in a car and driving around the clients’ offices and pitching over the phone. So anyway, the differences in how they entered into their career and how I was entering in were obviously very different. And then once years go by and I’m working and collaborating with a community of trainers and consultants, it became very apparent of different styles of how we were using technology to keep in touch or just not using it at all and then losing contact. And a lot of these were people focused on communication and helping teams communicate better. But they weren’t actually even communicating because they weren’t using the mediums that teams use now to communicate, which is always through some form of technology – whether it’s a telephone, that’s technology, WhatsApp, email. This is technology. So that’s really the name for my brand came from was how do I help humans deal with technology, because once we connect through tech, we can be more human again. And when I connect with other people, passionate about the things I like, I feel even if there’s a distance between us through location, the technology has allowed me to bring in people that normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to know. Just for example, speaking with you, we have a lot in common. We have similar interests and passions. It would’ve been very difficult for me to have such a large community of like-minded colleagues and friends without the digital support of tech.
Lisette: And what do you think the biggest resistance is to tech? Why are people resisting? Is it that they don’t know? Is it maybe that they’re afraid or just not interested? It could also be people that are like, “Oh, I don’t want to deal with all of that stuff.” So what is your experience?
Vanessa: It’s all very personal. It’s hard to give a simple answer. I also notice that there’s these terms – digital native, digital immigrants, digital resisters, early adopters, and all these terms. And who wants to be really labeled? I mean I’m a digital native, which makes me feel like I’m at the top of the food chain in the sense of digital work. But that’s not really a helpful term. That doesn’t really teach me anything. It’s a label and it’s kind of pointing to the non-digital natives as they’re lacking in some way. So I think that’s already a pretty big reason for people to not like these conversations and be resistant.
Lisette: Super insightful. I never even considered that.
Vanessa: Yeah, who wants to be a digital immigrant? That doesn’t sound very enlightening.
Lisette: Right, absolutely. And it immediately puts an us-versus-them mentality into the whole conversation, which is also not very useful.
Vanessa: Yeah. There’s somebody whose work I really enjoy following. His name is Ray Wang. His business is Constellation Consulting. He’s written a book called Disrupting Digital Business. And he talks a bit about how people look at these terms, digital native, digital immigrant. He has a few others, digital warriors, digital resisters. He said that these shouldn’t be used for categories for age groups. So it shouldn’t be, okay, if you were born before 1980, you’re an immigrant. If you were after, you’re native, these kind of things, because I’ve definitely met Gen Z, people 16-17 years old. And I know way more about social media than they do, and I’m using it in a very different way and understanding it in a complex way. So it’s not about age. But I would even also go beyond that to completely change the terms altogether because people still are going to think, well, if you’re a native, that means you’re born. And if you’re an immigrant, you have to create this journey. I don’t have an answer for what the alternatives are, but I think when you start thinking about it in a different way… because we all can contribute something. And with the community of trainers that I’ve worked with, some of them have 20, 30, 40 years of experience as coaches in business. They’ve seen the ebb and flow of business for many years. They have extremely profound insights. They’ve seen the rise and fall of Rome several times as far as a business, the impacts of the economy, and I don’t have that life span to have that experience. I want to continue learning from them. And if they’re not collaborating or contributing blog articles or speaking in places where I can find their insights, they then become obsolete and their message unheard. So a lot of the time I look at this from a perspective of do you want to be a thought leader and do you want to be invited to speak on TED. It’s really easy to get people to say yes to those two questions [inaudible – 00:12:45] only somebody who’s a leader to find as a thought leader that has no visibility online.
Lisette: Yeah, there are a few. I mean there’s always a few, but I guess not a thought leader because that implies also knowledge work in some ways – at least to me, at least [crosstalk – 00:13:02] interesting. It’s an interesting conversation to start, and I guess now is the time because that digital divide… I feel like I’m throwing buzzwords out there, but the digital divide is growing in some instances. But I want to bring the conversation a little bit back to culture because you have a specialty in culture and I’m super curious about it. And it’s something that I’m still really struggling to learn about and understand. So I guess if I’m going to bring a specific question, I’m curious on remote teams that you see. What are the struggles that people actually have with culture? I mean I can probably brainstorm a few things, but since you’re so experienced, I wanted to really dive into that. What are some of the challenges there?
Vanessa: Let me just ask what are some of the first things that will come to mind. I’m so immersed in this topic. So I’m curious to hear what you would say. What’s your first assumptions that people might have?
Lisette: My first assumptions, I guess, would be that there are different ways of behaving in different cultures that cause misunderstandings in work. So for example, in some cultures, they don’t say no, or they’re not very good with feedback, or feedback is given in different ways. And so you put a [vid like – 00:14:26] say you take a very blunt, honest, and to-the-point Dutch culture and put them up against a culture that doesn’t know how to say no or just doesn’t say no. Then what does that do? Or, for instance, in the Asian culture, there’s hierarchy in the language, where the way people speak to each other determines sort of a hierarchy, and you need to know that in order to move around in that culture. And if you don’t know that, you’re kind of just lost or you get cut out. So those are my first kind of very immature views on culture. I mean when I look at remote teams, I definitely see that there are issues, but it’s really hard for me to pinpoint exactly where those issues stem from, and where would you even start to begin addressing those? So that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
Vanessa: Yeah, well, it sounds like you already have some pretty good ideas. I think everything you said would be true. Those are things that come up. A couple of quick answers: one is the problems people have interacting across cultures offline show up very similarly online. But in remote, there’s always a reduction in awareness of context. So you and I right now are speaking from two different countries. You could also be across the street. And I don’t know your context. And that also goes in few other more sensitive topics of maybe there was just a death in the family. If we shared an office and I saw you kind of looking down or arriving a little bit later than usual, I might tune in to that context and inquire about it or just sense that there’s something happening. But in online sense or remote sense, I wouldn’t notice that oh, she’s not responding to email until 10:00 instead of normally at 9:00am. So context reduction is one. I definitely think the communication styles, of course, will be different. And one of those very obvious ones would be some of the things you mentioned. Well, a feedback. How do people like to receive feedback? How do they give feedback? That’s really a great starting place to build a healthy team. Also trust. How is trust formed and maintained or repaired once it’s broken?
And I’m actually working on a conference presentation for an event in Australia coming this fall, looking at virtual teams and trust – where we’re doing a survey. There’s actually a tool called International Team Trust Indicator sold by a company called World Work. And it’s a survey that’s not specifically focused on culture, but differences do show up in the tool when it’s utilized – looking at eight different styles of trust and looking at what are the preferences for different people, how they want to receive trust. Maybe the way I feel I’m getting trusted is by you don’t care if I show up at 8:00am or noon, that I have flexibility. Maybe that’s how I like to receive trust. But how I express trust is by always responding to your emails on time or always checking in with you on Fridays. There’s different ways that we’re doing these behaviors. So let’s see, feedback and trust and context – those are a couple of big things. And then sometimes the main common denominator is that people just don’t think about it. They think, “Obviously, this person is not responding to my email because they’re rude or they’re unorganized or they’re non-collaborative.” And so one of the methodologies that I use is called personal leadership. And it’s a great way for personal inquiry. And one of the really simple questions you can ask is what else do I not know about this situation. What are the other possible reasons this thing is happening? We often just think and assume we know what’s happening and with that reduce context and the complexity that different cultures add, slowing down and asking that question, “Why didn’t you respond to my email internally [inaudible – 00:18:49]?” And really help reduce the damage done.
Lisette: Right. I’ve heard a lot people saying the number one rule for remote team should be assume good intent – like if somebody doesn’t reply to the email, assume that there’s a reason and then just leave it at that. And it sounds like that’s something that you’re also… Especially, working across cultures is don’t make the assumption that there’s something bad behind it necessarily.
Vanessa: Yeah. And actually, I can give a really personal example. Recently, I was a little bit frustrated with a remote colleague who had been very nonresponsive and very distant in [a participatory – 00:19:32] as normal. I said, “What is going on with them?” And just real lack of response to emails, and not making comments on collaborative projects. Very distant, had no idea. Not updating their calendar. So couldn’t even check in to see are they meeting with a lot of clients, where what’s their travel schedule like. It ended up turning out they’re facing some health challenges at the moment that are quite consuming. And so, you know, those moments of… I was getting quite frustrated with them thinking what’s going on that I can’t even get a response from you to even open a conversation to check in with you. And when I found out from another colleague that no, they’re facing some health challenges at the moment, I felt a little bit guilty for getting frustrated.
Lisette: Yeah. But it’s a great example for with that lack of context, you just don’t know. And you feel frustrated, of course.
Vanessa: Yeah. But I’m glad I didn’t write the scathing email of, “Why aren’t you answering me? You’re not participating. This is really impacting the team in a negative way.” Those are the emails that really can do damage to trust. So it gave me the opportunity to then reach out and say, “Look, you don’t need to respond to this message. I’m thinking of you. Let us know when you’re back online and ready to jump back in. We’ll brief you. Take care of yourself till further notice.” It’s a much nicer message to receive. Trust hasn’t been damaged, and we can jump back into things when they’re ready.
Lisette: In fact, it sounds like trust would be built. I mean if I got an email like that from my colleagues, I would think like, “Wow! I feel really cared about and understood [without having – 00:21:12]…” So that’s a lovely way of turning it around, actually.
And what really works well with multicultural teams? I mean I could probably think of a number of added benefits from working with global teams. But what is it that you see that works so well?
Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the things that get said a lot is your company can be running around the clock. When I go off shift and I’m no longer in the normal work hours that I want to operate from, another colleague can take things over. So I notice a reduced turnaround time on certain responses. I’ll send things out at the end of my day to my California colleagues. I know when I’m back in the office first thing in the morning, there’s a response because it was eight hours behind. Other things that work well is that also when you’re in communication, we talk about synchronous, which is happening in live time – like conversation we’re having right now. There’s certain technology like Skype and instant messages or synchronous. And then there’s asynchronous, which means there’s a delay. So there’s email sent. I send a message, wait for you. You send a message. Instant message also falls [inaudible – 00:22:31] can be that way as well. Somebody is not online. These kind of options offer us different ways to deal with confrontation, challenging topics, or just people who might be a little bit more introverted, or shy cultures that are concerned about confrontation or saving face, for example. Message words are great for brainstorming. So let’s rewind maybe 20-40 years ago. Brainstorming sessions with all of the heads of a division will have to fly in. They’d be together maybe four or five days for a big company summit. And that was quite expensive. And you only had 48-72 hours worth of time together. A message forward for brainstorming could happen over weeks and months, where I go out for a run and I have an idea [inaudible – 00:23:22] put it into message [inaudible] somebody else takes a holiday for a week off, comes back refreshed with some new ideas. So the amount of creativity is really built on… And design thinkers know that diversity of ideas helps you build great products and innovate really interesting new services. And the simplest form of diversity, of course, is men and women. So having that diversity in a company is first priority.
And then beyond that, bringing in different demographics, different age groups, different cultures. And you and I both are Americans now living in Europe. We bring a completely different perspective into a project. So that is huge amount of intellectual capital to be brought into any kind of a project.
Lisette: Right. And how do you advise people to start on their… I mean I know that these are all huge topics that deserve lectures to themselves. But if you wanted to start learning more about multicultural teams and working well, where would you direct people to? Where would you have people start? [crosstalk – 00:24:41] call you. After calling you [crosstalk].
Vanessa: [Laughs] No, I mean actually, it’s really quite simple because every team is multicultural. There’s this concept that a culture is a different country. And that’s really not true because anybody has noticed that there’s a big difference from somebody that’s grown up in the middle of New York City and an urban environment. If you’re somebody that grew up in the Amish countryside, that’s not a different country. That’s a different location. So culture, I think is classified as it’s a country or city location. It’s generational. It’s different life experiences. There’s many different ways that culture impacts a personality. So everything is multicultural. And if we start looking at it that way, we open up a curiosity to understand how are we different. How might our perspectives really be different, more different than we thought? What are the assumptions that I’m having? You and I being Americans, what assumptions am I automatically guessing? Oh, we’re both Americans. We’re both living in Europe. Obviously, we have so much in common. Well, is that really true? So slowing down and asking, and then of course knowing yourself is really a top priority. I find as a trainer when we talk about cultures, clients always want to know why are the… and the culture name. The British, why are the British so xyz? I don’t understand why the Swedish are always whatever. Americans are known globally for being so on and so forth. Explain to me why that is. And that’s the wrong direction of questions. Looking at, okay, what is my personal makeup? How am I designed and programmed? And how are others perceiving me? So one of the questions I love to ask people is raise your hand or speak up if you’re a typical example of somebody from your culture. Are you a typical German? Raise your hand. Are you a typical Italian? Raise your hand. Nobody raises their hands.
Lisette: Wow! Reall?
Lisette: I don’t even know what I would identify with. You’re right. I don’t feel like a typical anything.
Vanessa: Yeah. But when somebody did something you didn’t like, have you ever said, “A typical…” and then fill in the blanks? Typical Russians, always being Russian [laughs]. So these are the things that when we look at others, we can over-classify and generalize. But internally, we know the complexities of our own identity. We just want to be understood. So if we can do a bit of an internal looking at ourselves first, that’s a better place to start. And people will already be more receptive to opening up a conversation.
Lisette: And I like what you said that we should be approaching it with curiosity. I really like that. I find myself when I’m really judging people, it’s hard to be curious about them because I’m so busy judging them already and making my own decisions. You’re right, taking a step back and just sort of opening up the curiosity helps to understand their side because it could be that both people have an opinion that’s right and totally opposed to each other. I mean I can imagine that that would be true.
We’re running close to the time I wanted to allot, but I want to talk about the overlap of the intercultural training with Agile really quickly and sort of your journey there and the similarities that you’ve seen. I think this is very interesting. So I don’t want to leave without at least starting on that, so that then people can contact you more if they want to talk more about it. But let’s talk about that. I wrote down a quote from your website that I love. It says, “Agile when applied to team interactions is what the world needs to keep up with change and work across cultures.” Love that.
Vanessa: Yeah. Okay, so a couple of things when we work across cultures is we have to be willing to experiment with something new that’s different. We’ve not been here before, perhaps. And then also, we have to be willing to fail, make complete mistakes. I remember I was getting on the bus in Spain. And I clearly failed at my attempt to onboard in the appropriate order for the cultural standards here. And I got yelled at by an older woman in her, probably, 80s. She gave me a piece of her mind how wrongly I had gotten on the bus, out of my orders, which was a completely innocent error. We just got on the bus like we would in the United States. So you really have to be willing to fail. And then when we fail, do I run to the airport and fly back to California because I got on the bus wrong and an old lady yelled at me for it? No, we have to be Agile. We have to be resilient and pivot. So pivoting is a method in Agile that is really great. So okay, I tried it one way. I failed fast. Let’s pivot and try it a new way. And let’s have another experiment. Do short sprints. And have some sort of a plan. So have some kind of an idea. Do some research. Okay, what is it like in South Africa? Let me read about it, learn about it. Have some sort of a plan of how I’m going to act and behave and try to be flexible. But be willing to let go of my plan and throw it out and rewrite it at any given moment because once I’m in South Africa interacting with the people there, I might learn and have completely new insights that completely change the direction I need to be working there and pivot again. So does that summarize it?
Lisette: Yeah, very well. I took copious notes, actually. And do you see the Agile methodologies coming into that world, the intercultural world, and being applied there? Or are you the pioneer that we need to be paying attention to in this field?
Vanessa: Yeah. I think that’s where I really found a niche. When you have two very contrasting passions and interests, technology and then people, and how people interact, and then you can find a way to put them together. I think that’s when we really can do some interesting work and define our own niche and really specialize. So that’s really what I’m trying to do and where I’m helping clients now. So I hope there’s other pioneering interculturalists building an Agile or agilists bringing in intercultural. And if they are, connect with me, please.
Lisette: I could go on and on. There’s so many things we didn’t cover. But I’m going to have to end somewhere. And it seems like this would be a perfect time for me to ask that if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to contact you.
Vanessa: I tweet a lot, @humansideoftech. My website is humansideoftech.org. And from there, you can find my LinkedIn and my YouTube as well.
Lisette: Oh great. And for those who have questions now or in the future, you can always send tweet to #remoteinterview. And that flags it for me, and I’ll get it to the right people to make sure that the questions get answered if you’re not going to contact Vanessa directly.
And Vanessa, I guess one last question would be if you have parting advice for remote teams who are just starting out on their journey, what’s something that you wish somebody had told you when starting out? That’s kind of an off the…
Vanessa: Yeah. So what could somebody have told me? Maybe had told me about Agile and understanding kind of an iterative process and being flexible. And I think one of the things in a remote team when dealing with culture, the biggest thing that can really cause problems early on is knowing… As an American, we have a tendency to be direct, and we think, “Well, let me just ask them. That will solve the problem. I just go directly to them. I directly ask the information I’m looking for, and they will respond to me the information I need. And there’s many cultures out there that kind of direct being kind of pinned down for an answer. We’ll give a very indirect or non-answer that leaves you even more confused. So sometimes a direct answer is not the approach to go at. I don’t know if that’s a simple answer, but I would say getting out of your box and asking in different ways different questions you haven’t thought about. Here’s an answer I have, actually, that I can give you. I ran recently a workshop called Unnovation. Not innovation, but unnovation. And the whole focus was to create the worst, most terrible business plan, one of the most unviable product, terrible idea. And then we had to do a pitch. And it was great fun. Everybody is laughing, these horrible, horrendous ideas we had. The worst public transit system was a catapult system. And the success rate of arrival was less than 50 percent who survived. And 100 percent didn’t arrive on the target and destination. It was hilarious. And it really released people’s fears of failure because you were supposed to come up with bad ideas. So it was a totally different approach. And I’ve been using it, actually, for coming up with my podcast name. I thought, okay, trying to… we’re always so focused on what’s the right thing to do, what’s the best thing to do. What if I try and look at the worst thing to do, the worst name I could possibly come up with? And I came up with some pretty funny ideas that might come out in the show. I actually will write a blog article on all of the horrible names that [crosstalk – 00:34:43].
Lisette: I really love the technique. I mean it really goes back to when you’re saying like we should slow down and open up and ask different kinds of questions and be curious. I mean it really ties into that. And I think that that’s a really lovely reminder for people. It’s a really lovely reminder. I’m finding it really strikes with me. That’s something that I could do better. And that would be more enjoyable as well.
Vanessa: Or do worse. What could you do worse?
Lisette: Yeah [laughs]. That will be fun to think about [laughs]. I love it. All right, I think we’ll go ahead and we’ll end here. Thank you so much for your time today. And until next time, everybody, be powerful.Podcast