Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

I’m delighted to be joined by Nicky Davies, founder of Nicky J. Davies and founder of the Developing Inspired Leaders podcast.

This episode will give insight into

  • Working in the Middle East
  • Leadership across cultures
  • Insights into the Greek culture

Hi, Nicky, how are you?

Nicky Davies (00:36):
I’m very well, thank you, Janina. How are you?

Janina Neumann (00:37):
I’m very well, thank you. I’m really excited to have you on my podcast today.

Nicky Davies (00:45):
Well, I’m really excited to be here as well because a lot of my work has actually taken me to other countries and this is something I’d love to have a conversation with you around.

Janina Neumann (00:59):
Yeah, I’m really excited about it.

So tell us a bit about yourself.

Nicky Davies (01:05):
So I, as you can probably tell by my accent, I’m originally from the UK. I’ve traveled and lived in many different countries and my husband’s actually American. So we’ve lived in America. We’ve lived in Europe. I brought him over to the Middle East, so we had a very different experience there. And then we’ve spent about half our year on a sailboat in the Mediterranean kind of floating around various different countries, but spending a lot of time in Greece.

Janina Neumann (01:39):
Oh, wow. What a beautiful way to live.

Nicky Davies (01:42):
Yeah. Yeah. It’s good for me.

Janina Neumann (01:46):
Oh, that’s fantastic.

So tell us a little bit more about your business.

Nicky Davies (01:51):
So my business, I have two aspects to my business. I own a training and coaching company called WAVA Global, and we deliver leadership development programs. And I’ve been doing that since 2004, and originally started working with organisations in the UK, but very quickly was asked to work with organisations in the Middle East. And that really opened my eyes to understanding different cultural experiences and understanding what it truly means to be a very diverse workplace.

Nicky Davies (02:39):
I mean diverse in terms of some of those companies have got up to about 40 different nationalities working under one roof.

Janina Neumann (02:49):
Wow.

Nicky Davies (02:49):
Yeah. So in terms of scope for miscommunication and misunderstanding is absolutely huge and I love the challenge of working in those sorts of environments where there’s very diverse cultural and communication issues because it makes it a real challenge to be a leader in those situations.

Janina Neumann (03:15):
Yes, I can imagine.

So tell us a little bit more about the types of leaders that you’ve come across.

Nicky Davies (03:24):
So leaders come in all shapes and size, and you’re a leader, and I’m a leader. You know, we have our own businesses and kind of work with other organisations. So everybody has the potential to be a leader, and is a leader, in some aspect of their life, not everybody is a leader in terms of their career. You know, for some people, it might be being a leader in terms of their family and you know, making sure that their children are educated, are healthy, and grow up with the right kind of mental attitude.

Nicky Davies (04:01):
So leadership, you know, it’s all walks of life. But in the organisations that I work with, which predominantly are in the Middle East and Europe and North Africa, what you tend to find is there’s a lot of movement in terms of employees. So you end up with very diverse workforces. So the leaders in those situations have got to have a very good understanding of how to communicate effectively with people from different nationalities in order to make sure that they’re communicating what they want to see happen strategically within the organisation and what the direction and the vision is.

Nicky Davies (04:44):
And sometimes that can be a real challenge because I learned very quickly when I was working in the Middle East, I learned very quickly about the cultural norms and societal values that I’ve grown up with in the UK because often it’s not until you have an experience in a different country to where you’ve grown up that you realise what you’ve taken for granted is actually just the way that you’ve been brought up and you know, societal norms. And I’m sure you’ve experienced that with your story as well.

Janina Neumann (05:22):
Yeah, I can definitely relate to that and what we feel so passionate about and how we see the world really and the situation is so important and just being aware of that perception and you know, understanding that not everyone sees it the way you do. And also in that instance, you might not be right. There are different ways of doing that.

Nicky Davies (05:44):
Absolutely. And just to give you a small example, there are big differences in terms of how you start meetings and in terms of hospitality. So I’m going to use some generalisations and generalisations are useful just to understand, you know, at a high level what it looks like, but obviously, there are big differences within this as well. So kind of going with stereotypes, just for simplicity.

Nicky Davies (06:13):
So in the Middle East, hospitality is a really big thing. So if you’re going to a meeting, it would actually be rude to directly go into the substance of the meeting itself, the agenda, if you like of the meeting. Now, if you take that into an American establishment or organisation, they’re expecting you to be direct and go with the agenda and start with the agenda straight from the get go.

Nicky Davies (06:47):
So when working with organisations where there’s a big mix of nationalities, trying to find the middle ground is really important, or at least being clear that this isn’t about insulting people. This is how I’ve been brought up to look at things and do things and to lead meetings. I hope I’m not treading on people’s toes.

Nicky Davies (07:16):
The classic for the British is… And I really notice this when I go back to the UK. I’m not in the UK now, I’m in Greece right now. When I go back to the UK, the number of times that people apologise is incredible. It really stands out to me now because I’ve lived and worked in so many different countries. I notice it more. Whereas if I had stayed in the UK, I probably wouldn’t have seen that or noticed that in the same way, because it would just be an everyday feature. It would just be part of how we do things, part of how we get things done. But you really notice the difference when you’ve been outside of it. And you’ve experienced something different, don’t you?

Janina Neumann (08:02):
Yeah, you do. I mean, when I go back to Germany, it’s always interesting about how people behave for example in the supermarket. Things that I value, for example queuing, and someone barges into you, perhaps less now in this crisis, but they don’t say sorry, and that infuriates me. But it comes back to what you think are manners you know. Not everyone sees it in that way, although I’ve said before on this podcast as well, I never understand why Germans don’t queue, because if we are all about efficiency, surely queuing would be the most efficient way to do things.

Nicky Davies (08:50):
That’s an interesting thought. Yeah. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (08:55):
That’s really interesting to hear about that, about how you go back to the UK and you have a different understanding of how other people are influenced by their environments. And I can also imagine that, you know, having worked with different nationalities that are also kind of interesting things that you learn about, for example, communication and being perhaps more indirect.

So what would you talk about at the beginning of the meeting typically?

Nicky Davies (09:32):
Well, it depends who the meeting is with. And for me, I let them lead and if they’re not going to lead, because for some people, nevermind what their nationality is, for some people they’re waiting for you to lead, particularly if you’ve set up the meeting. So it’s a bit like a dance, that’s kind of how I look at it.

Nicky Davies (09:59):
When you’re dancing, you’re not quite sure what’s going to come up next. So you have to be prepared to dance in the moment and be quite flexible. And it takes looking at the non-verbal cues.

Janina Neumann (10:15):
Yes.

Nicky Davies (10:15):
So it’s not so much what people are saying, it’s picking up things that from observing, what’s not being said. It may be a slight hesitation, and if I see a slight hesitation, I often think, “Okay, what did I just do or say?” Because that’s obviously that wasn’t the right thing to do or say.

Nicky Davies (10:43):
And also it’s about reading up and understanding different cultures as well and different mannerisms, like you were saying. So for example, in the Middle East, if you are offered a drink because hospitality is so important, if you’re offered a drink or something to eat, then I would always accept it. I don’t think this is so true nowadays because we’re such a hodgepodge of different cultures, but some people might get really offended if I said, “No”, turn down a drink, or if they were offering me something to eat. If I turn that down, it’s very much a non-acceptance.

Nicky Davies (11:26):
I’ve welcomed you into my office or my home. I’m putting on this food, this drink for you, and I expect you to partake in it. It gives me a great sense of fulfillment knowing that you are partaking in what I have provided for you. That’s really important to some people in those cultures. So I very much look for those non-verbal cues, very aware of what’s going on in the meeting and just paying attention to what’s said, but also what’s left unsaid.

Janina Neumann (12:09):
Yeah, I think that’s really important also coming back to you know, perhaps having a hot drink. It makes everyone feel more at ease because it’s just the nature of drinking a warm drink. I think that’s really important.

Nicky Davies (12:25):
And the characteristic, the stereotype of somebody whose English is, “Have a cup of tea”, “Something’s happened, have a cup of tea”. So even in the UK, the British culture, there is that sense of a hot drink is associated with calming people down a lot of the time actually, isn’t it?

Janina Neumann (12:47):
Yes, and also just reflecting on some of the conversations I’ve heard you know, how then people think about how to make things more efficient and perhaps cut out the drink, but then you have these video calls now and you think, “I’d actually like it if I had to make a drink or have a pre-meeting conversation with someone”, because it seems so tense right now, and I think everyone wants to talk and be warmed up to the meeting now.

Nicky Davies (13:21):
Yeah, I think that’s very true. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that because we’re all on Zoom at the moment or Microsoft Teams, there’s a lot of managers who are paying much more attention to listening, and those non-verbal cues as well. So they’re actually picking up far more information now than they previously would have done if they were in the office having a team meeting. And I think that’s fascinating. It’s actually improved the level of listening and the attention that managers are paying to their team members, which must be a good thing.

Janina Neumann (13:59):
Yes, definitely because you have that focused listening like only one person should speak in a video call and there are all kinds of mannerisms associated with that.

Just from your experience of working in the Middle East, have you found that some leaders have a natural style which they then have to adapt according to a certain situation?

Nicky Davies (14:25):
Yeah, there is actually something called ‘Situational leadership’, and that’s being very aware of the context, but also the person that you’re dealing with. We all like to be treated as individuals. We all have different personalities, and we also have different values as well. And it’s really understanding what our values are. And I don’t mean those social kinds that we talk about values you know, like honesty, integrity. Everybody is actually integral to their values.

Nicky Davies (15:03):
I mean values, the things that are truly important to somebody. And it might be for example, personal development and growth is really important to me, as well as my business and being able to help people around leadership development, but also around personal growth too. So those two values are really important to me. So anything that relates to personal growth or around my business and leadership development, I’m going to naturally pay attention to. It’s kind of on my radar because I have a great interest in it.

Nicky Davies (15:40):
So if there’s something that you want me to do, the best way to get me to do it to influence my behaviour, to get me to do something that you want me to do if you’re my manager or my leader, is to actually talk about it in those terms, talk about how it relates to personal growth, leadership development or my business.

Nicky Davies (16:01):
If you talked about something that I wasn’t interested in at all… In our business, we have ILM qualifications which means that we have assignments that need to be marked. And that is the one job I really do not enjoy. There’s lots of things in my business I love, but there’s one thing I do not enjoy at all, and so I delegate that out. But if I ended up in an organisation where a leader or a manager was asking me to do that task, I would procrastinate like mad because I just don’t enjoy it.

Nicky Davies (16:43):
So if you’re a manager or a leader, and very often managers are doing both, management and leadership, then what you want to do is really understand what’s important to the individual in front of you. What are their values? What’s important to them? And then if you communicate, understanding those values and you communicate what it is that you want them to do in terms of how it helps them with those values, achieving those aspirations that they have around their values, then they’re going to be inspired to go and take that action. You don’t need to motivate them. So leadership for me is about really understanding people, understanding the person that’s in front of you.

Nicky Davies (17:39):
And if you’re in a situation where you’re actually leading a team and you’re looking to inspire a team, and there’s a range of different values that people have within that team, if you understand what they are, and you’re communicating from a place of meaning, why we’re doing this, why it’s important, but relating that to their particular values, what’s important to them, you’re going to have a really high performing team, a really inspired team. And a team that you won’t have to motivate because actually when you have to motivate, you can’t really motivate somebody. You can help set up the conditions so that somebody feels inspired, and inspired is really that internal motivation that we all have. We just get up and do things that we’re interested in because they fuel us in some way. But the moment you have to motivate somebody to do something, then you’ve got a problem as a leader.

Nicky Davies (18:45):
So I guess what I’m saying is, leadership yet, there’s a natural style. You have your own natural style, you have your own personality, which comes through in your leadership style, but it’s being authentic. It’s being true to who you are and also understanding the person that’s in front of you and really paying attention to what’s important to them and communicating from that place.

Janina Neumann (19:12):
That’s really powerful. And I’m just thinking about how you understand that person’s value. I can imagine that a lot comes down to you know, building that relationship initially. Do you have any examples of where you’ve had that conversation with someone where you’ve actually had to adapt the way you talk to them, perhaps because of their style of communicating?

Nicky Davies (19:39):
Not so much about their style of communicating. Again, it comes down to values. So their values may be very different to mine. So a lot of the time I’m working with, let’s talk about women leaders, for example, because both you and I are women leaders in our businesses. So very often women leaders have a role, have many, many different roles. And one of those is to do with the family and looking after the kids and making sure that their kids are educated, they’re healthy. You know, that onus for the childcare in the family often falls on squarely on the shoulders of a woman, even if she’s in a leadership role within an organisation.

Nicky Davies (20:29):
And so very often high up in the values for that particular person is children and family. And so very often what I will be talking about, particularly when I’m coaching them as an executive coach talking to and coaching a female leader, will often have conversations around what it means to place a high value on children and their family, and still be working full time in a very pressured environment and operating as a leader in that environment, and actually thinking about what that means for other people in the organisation that place a high value on family too.

Nicky Davies (21:23):
So their conversation is going to be very different to somebody whose values are much more on the career or the profession that they’re working in, and family for them may be much, much lower than in the hierarchy of values for them. So it’s a very different conversation. So I’m always looking for, and you can very quickly pick up somebody’s values in conversation. And like you say, it’s about developing a relationship so that you really get to understand what’s important to that person.

Nicky Davies (22:01):
So they give you a lot of information in a very short period of time in a conversation. So it’s quite easy to pick up as long as you are listening for it. You’re listening out to what’s really important to that person. And a lot of the times when people are listening to each other in conversation, it’s much more about them thinking about what they’re going to say next, rather than paying attention to what the person’s actually saying in the moment.

Janina Neumann (22:33):
It’s really true. I’m just also thinking if for them family is one of their biggest values, I can also imagine that that really impacts them for example, if they have a job in the Middle East, you know, their whole family would have probably moved with them as well.

Nicky Davies (22:50):
Yes, and then they haven’t got their extended family around them to help out. And I’ve seen women in particular really struggle with that because there’s a lot of guilt that goes with uprooting the family and the guilt of not having their parents, so the children’s grandparents, around to help out and keep those relationships going within the extended family. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (23:28):
That’s really true. And also to help them advance in their own personal growth, but also for them to feel happy about what they’re doing, and perhaps to also see other ways that they’re supporting their family, for example, by having a well-paid job, for example, that’s also looking after your family in that respect.

Nicky Davies (23:52):
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I see that a lot with men in particular. Family is important to them obviously, but in a different way. So for a lot of men, it will be about making sure that they’re providing for their family as well as women, particularly single parents. Yeah. So the value is slightly different. Even though they talk about their family, it’s about providing just like you say, it’s about providing for their family in a very different way.

Janina Neumann (24:27):
Yeah, certainly. I’m just thinking as well, if a new person came to the organisation and just had moved them to the Middle East, have you had any conversations, for example, things that they found that are different or any cultural barriers that they’ve had to overcome or perhaps switch their perspective on things?

Nicky Davies (24:51):
Oh gosh, there’s so much, there’s so many. And you will have found this too with moving around. So we have an expectation that if you apply for visas, driving licenses, things like that, that there’s a very straightforward process because so many people have done this over the years, but often what I find is the processes and administration within the Middle Eastern countries is not quite as easy or as fluent. In fact, it’s getting better because one of the benefits of Covid-19 has been digitalisation of lots of processes.

Nicky Davies (25:40):
So, whereas before people would have to go with five different pieces of paper from one department, drive across the city to another department with the same five pieces of paper, only to find out that they needed a sixth piece of paper that they weren’t told about, the previous department have to go back, pick it up, go back to the original department and take the six pieces to the next department.

Nicky Davies (26:07):
Those sorts of processes have actually changed now with digitalisation because of Covid-19. So it’s actually fast-tracked improvements into processes like that, that are very confusing if you’re an expat in a different country, and maybe you don’t speak the language.

Janina Neumann (26:28):
Yes, certainly.

Nicky Davies (26:31):
So that’s one of the things that a lot of people struggle with is just knowing, “How do I get things done?” Very simple things that we take for granted in our home countries because we know it, it’s taken care of a lot of the times for us, but suddenly we have to find out how to do it in a different way, in a new country, a new environment and maybe like I say, in a language that we don’t speak.

Nicky Davies (26:58):
So there’s that, but there’s other more subtle things like understanding what’s culturally appropriate to wear, what’s not culturally appropriate to wear, and nuances around behaviours as well. So there are some big differences that you need to be aware of and you can read them up online, but it’s nothing quite the same as actually arriving there and then realising the things that you need to take into account and the changes that you need to make in terms of your own behaviours in order to fit in.

Janina Neumann (27:37):
Yeah, certainly, and I’m just reflecting on when we see other people, for example, come to the UK or come to Greece, who are new to that environment to also perhaps be more understanding and have more empathy with them because things are just as new as if you went to their home country and had to adapt.

Nicky Davies (28:02):
Yes, and I’m forever apologising about my Greek because my Greek is terrible. And so what happens a lot of the time is people will speak to me in English. It’s like a double whammy because my Greek is not very good, so they revert to English. And then what happens is I then speak in English. So my practicing of the Greek language, it doesn’t happen that often, so it impacts on how well I actually speak it. And so it goes on. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (28:44):
But it’s really nice to hear how accommodating they are.

Nicky Davies (28:47):
Oh, gosh, yeah. And I think that’s because there’s a long-standing great relationship, isn’t there? Between the British and the Greeks. And part of it is about tourism.

Janina Neumann (29:00):
Yeah.

Nicky Davies (29:00):
And really I think the Greeks are really hospitable, very warm, very friendly. It’s been a great place to live part of the year for the past, gosh, must be almost 10 years now.

Janina Neumann (29:19):
Oh, wow.

Did you notice any differences that really striked you when you first moved to Greece?

Nicky Davies (29:25):
Not really. The funny thing is wherever I go around the world, we are all humans, you know? And that’s what binds us together is that human connection. And I think you can do that wherever you are in the world. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the language, you find a way to communicate. I’ve found myself in many different countries from Central America, right the way across to China where I’ve been in a situation where I don’t speak the language, and they don’t speak English or another language that I know, what we’ve done is we’ve managed to do kind of sign language, our own basic version of sign language, and communicate with each other. And I’m sure you found that too. We are essentially human beings, and that’s how we connect with each other is really from that core sense of being human.

Janina Neumann (30:35):
Yeah, and you know, sometimes that sounds so simple…

Nicky Davies (30:39):
Yeah.

Janina Neumann (30:39):
…but when you reflect on your experiences, it does come true. And I’m just thinking, you know, coming back to values, I’ve been in situations where someone felt too strongly about something and I got cross because I was thinking, “Why is it a big deal for you?”, and then I realised even though I had the same value that they did, they just had it amplified.

Nicky Davies (31:03):
Yeah.

Janina Neumann (31:03):
And then I was thinking, “Oh, they’re actually looking after me”, rather than just chasing me. So I think coming back to the values, it’s so important as well to recognise that in other people.

Nicky Davies (31:17):
Yeah, and language is an interesting thing, isn’t it? So my husband’s American and I’m British, and we think we have the same language, but actually, there are subtle differences, and I’ll give you an example. So early on in our relationship, we were down with my parents around Christmas time and my husband said, “Oh, this meal is quite good”. Now, in British language, if you said quite good, it means it’s quite good. It’s not good, but it’s not bad. It’s somewhere in the middle. It’s how I would interpret that.

Nicky Davies (32:02):
And I could see my mum’s face just kind of drop when she heard Floyd say, “This is quite good”. But I could tell by his face, again, those non-verbal cues that actually, he was really enjoying it and excited, and talking with passion about this. So I said, “So Floyd, if you used a different word to ‘quite’, what would you say?” And he would say, “Very good”. So we understood then that when he says “Quite good”, he actually means “Very good, excellent”. It’s those subtle things that often start argument and it’s a misunderstanding. It really is.

Nicky Davies (32:45):
I think that’s why you have to look at people’s body language and the non-verbal cues that go with what people are saying to really understand what the intention is and what it is that they’re saying, even if you’re finding it difficult to understand what it is in its totality. It’s those non-verbal cues and really paying attention that makes the difference.

Janina Neumann (33:12):
Yeah, it really makes a difference, and just thinking about the German language. A lot of upgraders or downgraders are used, so is either “Very”, or “Not at all”, which can also be offensive when you’re talking to someone who’s British, you know, perhaps they didn’t want to know it that directly. But I just think it’s really interesting also to learn parts of the other language so you understand kind of the structure of the language and what’s normal way of communicating. And especially like Middle Eastern languages, you can’t just translate, it’s more about the feeling that you give and perhaps some phrases tell a short story that you can never say in English.

Nicky Davies (33:58):
Oh, absolutely. And I love Arabic and again, I know a little bit of Arabic, but really not enough to communicate and have much of a conversation. But I love what happens when they do the English translations on Google and suddenly you get a phrase that doesn’t make any sense at all. And you’re right, the language, it’s very much about stories and when somebody is talking to me, I’m translating the Arabic into the English, it loses a little bit of the meaning. So I love them to tell me if they can, just tell me the structure and the story, you know, what the moral of the story is, basically is what they’re communicating to me. But I love the story behind it. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (34:54):
Yes, but then again, the moral of the story comes back to values.

Nicky Davies (34:58):
Yes.

Janina Neumann (34:58):
Sometimes really difficult to understand what the meaning is behind it, you know?

Nicky Davies (35:03):
Yes. Yes. And I think it goes back to that thing about intention and really paying attention to the non-verbal cues as much as anything. Yeah.

Janina Neumann (35:16):
Yeah, definitely. And just getting to know more people.

Nicky Davies (35:20):
Yeah.

Janina Neumann (35:20):
You pick up some cues from that as well. Not being afraid to also do things wrong because also people, they understand that you probably don’t understand the situation. So just being flexible like you mentioned before, obviously comes with vulnerability and I think some people don’t want to be vulnerable and that’s what everything hinges on.

Nicky Davies (35:42):
Yeah. I think if you’ve grown up with a really strong sense that you’ve got to get things right, you can’t make mistakes because that’s a failure. Then yeah, it’s really hard to be in that kind of environment because you are going to make mistakes.

Janina Neumann (36:00):
Exactly. Nicky, it’s been fantastic talking to you. And let us find out a bit more about your podcast.

Nicky Davies (36:15):
Yeah, so my podcast is really about developing inspired leaders. It’s recognising that we have a great intuition that guides us as to what’s the right thing to say in situations, what’s the right thing to do, and very often what we do is we cover that up and we go with the other voice. Our intuition is the quiet voice that really knows best. It’s like an inner wisdom. And some people would say, it’s spirit, it’s soul, it’s God, whatever label you want to put on it, but it really is the best guide in any situation. And so my podcast is very much about learning to live from that place and lead from that place. And what that means, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a leader in a corporation, or even a stay-at-home mum, what does that mean for your life and how you go about your life? And how can you encourage others to do the same thing too?

Janina Neumann (37:22):
Yeah, that’s really powerful. And I loved listening to your podcast. I always get so much from it.

Nicky Davies (37:27):
Thank you. I love listening to yours too.

Janina Neumann (37:32):
Well, that’s great to hear. Yes, and tell us a little bit more about how people can connect or work with you.

Nicky Davies (37:39):
Oh, thank you. So find the ‘Developing Inspired Leaders‘ podcast, start listening to that. You can go to my personal website, which is NickyJDavies.com. And if it helps to have a conversation, more than happy to do that. It costs nothing to have a conversation. I’m just here to help.

Janina Neumann (38:04):
Thank you. All right, it’s been brilliant, Nicky. Thank you so much for your time today and sharing all your knowledge of different cultures. I really enjoyed it.

Nicky Davies (38:14):
Me too. Thank you.

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