Female entrepreneurs often bring sensitivity and human connectedness to international business, writes Laurel Delaney.
Editor’s Note: This 3-part series on exporting is excerpted from Laurel Delaney’s new book, Exporting: The Definitive Guide to Selling Abroad Profitably. Read part one and part two.
With women starting and growing businesses at a record rate, they are becoming a major force in the export marketplace.
Even though the business world demands that we leave a lot of unworkable behaviors and attitudes behind, the emotional sensitivity and the capacity for human connectedness usually attributed to women can be very useful in overseas business negotiations. (To see a woman tackling the international marketplace, please watch this TSE video on Lysanne Tusar, a Canadian who runs Hong Kong’s only winery.)
Let’s look at the interpersonal habits that women have traditionally been encouraged to cultivate and how absolutely indispensable they are in international business. Please note that these are general impressions and many characteristics, of course, also apply to men.
- Women tend to be more attentive and supportive toward others. We are socialized to give care and support to the people close to us, and we often extend this caretaking impulse to people outside our family circle. This trait can serve women well in an export business, too. You wouldn’t want to upset or offend a foreign associate. All you can do is be gracious and respectful, and let your colleagues guide you. When they see that you are committed to their comfort and happiness, they’re likely forgive any minor blunders and keep negotiations moving forward.
- Women study people, “read” their behavior, and make judgments. We’re concerned about why people do and say what they do. We do this because we want to act effectively in the interpersonal world. We’ve developed an instinct for taking accurate readings in a hurry and acting accordingly. Trust that instinct. Where language and cultural barriers hinder communications, it might be all you have.
- Women typically have patience and a capacity for forgiveness. The international business arena belongs to people who can give others the benefit of the doubt and let misunderstandings slide. Frustration, discomfort, and embarrassing social gaffes are the rule rather than the exception when you’re conducting a complex transaction in a strange environment. Women who export stand fast through good and bad times and ultimately can bring out the best in their foreign colleagues.
- Women have been conditioned to follow etiquette and appropriate social behavior. Understanding foreign cultures, customs, and protocol is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to succeed overseas. When you’re traveling the globe, you might find yourself beating drums, eating with your hands, even bathing with your associates! The next day you and those same people are in on a grueling round of negotiations and you realize that you’re working together better than you dreamed possible. When you respect foreign ways, it’s noticed—and appreciated.
- Women generally have an intuitive knowledge of how to converse with interesting and thoughtful questions, and when we have in-person meetings, we pay close attention to a person’s facial expressions and body language. We also know when to give the floor to someone else if we’ve been talking too much.
- Women are raised to be charming and pleasant to be around. Our sincerity and willingness to offer a conciliatory smile can save the day when things get awkward or even outright nasty. Foreign associates appreciate charm, so smile graciously—but stay on track. And don’t indulge in humor. You never know if foreign associates get the joke, or how they’ll take it. Just because they’re laughing doesn’t mean they’re amused….so stick to business. You can still entertain by storytelling. I do this quite often. It’s one of the oldest, purest ways to communicate and always puts people at ease.
- Women take a collaborative approach in our relationships and know how to build them to get business done. Women are ready, willing, and able to connect with people to develop win-win situations.
The lucrative and wide-open world of export business is the businesswoman’s natural habitat. Our gentler qualities are powerful assets that can transform the way the world does business.
“Nonsense!” you might say. “Foreign businessmen don’t take women seriously!” It’s certainly intimidating to head over to a country where, in some instances, women are forced to walk ten paces behind their husbands, but take heart. Many savvy international businesswomen have been pleasantly surprised by their reception in the business arena and have discovered the following perceptions:
- They’re still a novelty. Because businesswomen are unusual in some countries, they are highly visible. Use your status as a relative novelty to your advantage. Be confident, act confidently, and know your stuff. Then do what you came for.
- They’re educated. Even in countries where women are indisputably second-class citizens, educated women command respect.
- North American women are known for seeking top management positions and aspiring to break through what is commonly referred to as the “glass ceiling.” This perception gives them a particular advantage in international business. The thinking is that in struggling against the invisible barriers to advancement, these women have had to become superbly competent, creative and resourceful—all of which adds up to an exceptionally fine businessperson.
America continues to stand for equality and for a strong work ethic. People expect Americans, men and women, to be smart, gutsy and aggressive, and to mean business. An American businesswoman overseas tends to be viewed first as an American, then as a representative of her own or someone else’s company, and lastly as a woman. So, an American global businesswoman can hope in most places to be understood and respected on her own terms—and the more women who export and make the global arena their own, the better the chance of shattering that glass ceiling for good.
If you still find yourself feeling intimidated, call on the old-fashioned “masculine” qualities of single-mindedness, confidence and determination. Remember that you must have a product they want or you wouldn’t be there. Put your knowledge on the table. Look your associates in the eye and tell them what you know. No need to be arrogant; just state your case and stand your ground. Natural confidence commands respect. Finally, if you stay focused on doing the job you flew halfway around the world to do, nobody else can stop you.
A woman business owner who exports is a whole human being. She calls on both masculine and feminine traits and can be both gentle and powerful at the same time. She knows how to adapt her interpersonal instincts to fit smoothly into the professional environment and how to show authority and inspire confidence without intimidating and alienating others. A woman business owner who exports adds value to any business, whether it’s her own or that of her home corporation—pushing limits, shaking things up, competing vigorously in the world marketplace, and making the world a better place in which to live.