Navigating Cultural Immersion: U.S. CEO in Healthcare Technology on Leading his Italian Team

Updated on February 20, 2024

Traveling around the world, stepping off a plane in a foreign country, and the rush of unfamiliarity can be thrilling and daunting simultaneously. But for leaders in the global healthcare industry, international cultural immersion is not just an adventure – it’s a necessity. My recent five-week journey to Italy, in the heart of Swisslog Healthcare’s European operations, was a powerful reminder. Navigating the intricate landscape of cultural differences and their impact on business worldwide offers invaluable insights I have utilized in my leadership. Here are a few observations from which I learned about the difference between the business cultures in America and Italy and how those lessons can be applied by other leaders in or supporting the healthcare industry.

Organizational Core Values Help to Overcome Cultural Differences

While united by a shared vision for excellence, American and Italian work cultures sometimes differ in how they approach the same or similar core values. Commitment, one of the core values of Swisslog Healthcare, is something we ask of all of our team members, yet how they embrace commitment can include differing approaches both outside of the workplace and inside the organization. For example, we can see typical Italian commitment to detail when a restaurant server artfully scoops gelato, while servers in America are largely trained for speed in order to drive ultimate efficiency and quickly “turn tables.” Both are committed to delivering to the best of their ability and measured performance. Inside of our business, we value commitment universally, even if our work styles sometime reflect it differently. This is shown in the quality of our output, regardless of which continent generated the part or assembled our automation components.

Another of our core values is clarity, which must come from our team and be delivered to all our stakeholders. However, delivering concise messages that leave no gaps for interpretation is even more difficult in a global work culture. With international cultural differences, language barriers, time zone alignment, and work style preferences, the impacting circumstances must all be considered if clarity is the goal. In Italy, I learned that clarity was most often sought out and obtained in a face-to-face conversation and then passed on to the rest of the team. Whereas, in my U.S. offices I find that clarity is most frequently demonstrated in writing – and often includes copying many to ensure group understanding. Regardless of their country of origin, those who share these values by mastering a craft and profoundly understanding the “why” behind every decision are more likely to remain committed and drive others to do the same. They are generally more willing to collaborate. And they will seek clarity and push clarity through your organization. For consideration, the core values we live by in our global organization are on our website.

The Criticality of Trust

Effective communication transcends more than words. Think body language, facial reactions, physical gestures, and eye contact. My limited Italian vocabulary demonstrates the power of nonverbal communication and genuine effort to connect in other ways. Building trust with our Italian colleagues involves investing in relationships on many levels. One of my favorite ways to cultivate authentic connections is through shared meals and open discussions. In contrast, the American disposition for task-oriented exchanges often earns trust through efficient performance and verifiable results, which can conflict with the time needed to establish trusting individual relationships in our Italian offices. Both approaches to earning trust have merit. As a leader, I remind myself that I am responsible for identifying and educating our teams about these differences to better nurture cross-cultural collaboration.

Fostering Core Values & Global Collaboration

Cultivating global relationships requires acknowledging and leveraging cultural differences. We have established that while the American dynamic can drive efficiency, Italian relationship-building can increase trust. Learning to adapt my communication style and prioritize the time it takes for effective relationship-building will only compliment my leadership style and can be applied to managing our North American team as well. Further, using my innate sensibility for deadlines and efficiency in the U.S. can also be applied to managing our European teams. A significant takeaway from my time in Italy is the importance for all of my leadership team to seek out diverse perspectives, which are the building blocks for creating a robust and cohesive global team.

Summary of My Reflections

My adventure in Italy was a profound learning experience, not just for my leadership considerations but for my personal growth. This journey highlighted the importance of continuous learning, adapting, and evolving to thrive in a globalized and connected world. However, the biggest takeaway from my time in Italy was the power of empathy and understanding. By stepping outside my comfort zone, I gained a more profound appreciation for the richness and complexity of the human experience, in and out of the workplace. This experience has given me a powerful tool to navigate the intricate landscape and cultural diversity needed to best serve the healthcare industry.

I encourage my team and other leaders to not view cultural differences as a challenge but to embrace them as an opportunity to strengthen our global healthcare community. As leaders in the healthcare industry, we are responsible for creating a collaborative and inclusive environment where everyone is empowered to thrive. Leaders can achieve this by prioritizing the power of shared core values, earning trust through genuine relationship-building, and leveraging diverse perspectives. We must step outside our comfort zones as healthcare leaders, immerse ourselves in new cultures, and embrace the transformative influence of international diversity. Once we achieve those goals, we can create a future of global healthcare that is more thoughtful, more effective, and more patient-centered.

More on International Business Travels

As my travels span the globe, I embrace each opportunity to broaden my understanding of cultural differences and how I can better lead our global teams. To hear more about my Italian adventures, visit our blog, where I will soon publish a three-part series.

Cory Kwarta
Cory Kwarta

Cory Kwarta is the mindful and innovative global CEO of Swisslog Healthcare.