This past Saturday, I spent the day in Aix-les-Bains, a beautiful resort town near Lyon. The event was the annual conference for the officers of the region’s Rotary Club. I was invited as an outside speaker to talk about management across the world’s cultures. About 500 people attended, and the lively audience was a pleasure to interact with.
This was my initial contact with Rotary, and I was indeed impressed with the members, and with the day’s three other speakers. In addition, I enjoyed learning about Rotary, an organization about which I knew very little prior to this event. As a matter of fact, my knowledge of this organization was limited to an occasional chance encounter with a scholarship student who might explain to me that her studies abroad were supported by a Rotary club from her home country.
Saturday, in fact, there were some 50 young people from all over the world, each of whom was spending a year studying in France, financed by various Rotary groups. I find this program to be a noble endeavor, one that will certainly contribute to a future of cross-cultural understanding. Beyond the scholarship program, though, it was nice to engage in conversation with so many Rotarians, and to see that they are open-minded people who seem genuinely interested in helping each other learn and grow.
On the theme of my talk: The topic of intercultural management is one that I always have a lot of fun talking about. Though it is a bit out of the “mainstream” of my academic research, my public speaking and my consulting (which tend to focus on various aspects of leadership, storytelling, and branding), I do get an occasional keynote request in the area of crossing cultures. When I was preparing my Rotary talk, I found myself wishing that I had more opportunities to address this topic, as I find it truly fascinating.
In fact, this is a subject that I have enjoyed learning about and reflecting on for my entire adult life. Of course, I have lived in an intercultural world for many years, having worked and/or studied for significant chunks of time in seven countries and learned five languages. Today, I have American and Argentine citizenship, live with my Dutch partner in Switzerland (where we are making a priority of raising multilingual children), and travel to some 10-15 countries each year for my various activities. Everywhere I go, I devote some of my time to speaking with people about how they see their own culture and that of others, to listening to stories of what they find unusual, frustrating, or interesting when they work with people from other places.
My strategy for the Rotary Club speech was to discuss a few theoretical concepts and then to share some stories, either from my own experience or from tales related to me in my travels. The reason for this approach was twofold. First, and certainly no surprise to those who know me, I find storytelling to be the most interesting and meaningful way to interact with an audience. Second, since I was limited to 45 minutes and because the day’s schedule was tightly packed, I wanted to make a series of points organized in modules, and as such to be able to stop and conclude at the end of any one of the stories.
To my surprise, when I reached the end of my allocated time and tried to close the session on time, both the audience and the organizers urged me to continue. This happened three times, and I ended up speaking for almost an hour. My point here is not that I made a great speech, but rather that the topic is a fascinating one for many people. In fact, as I recall the dozen or so other occasions when I have spoken on this theme, it has every time been received with great enthusiasm.
Anyway, it was gratifying to have had so much fun preparing, and to see the audience react with such vigor and appreciation. In my next entry, I will write of three lessons from my day at Rotary—from my speech and the subsequent discussion—that I find interesting to share.