Leading a team as an expat in the Netherlands

Leading a team as an expat in the Netherlands


Managing a team as an expat can be one of the greatest challenges in your career. But where do you start in a country where hierarchy has all but left the workplace and every team member will inevitably want to chime in before a decision is made?

Teams with a different national and cultural background have the potential to create a wide range of interesting ideas, says Meir Shemla, researcher and Academic Director of the full-time MBA course at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). But in practice, a diverse team can be quite hard to manage, he says. Surprisingly, the language barrier many expats experience is not even the biggest hurdle: Meir Shemla

“The Netherlands is an international country and in many bigger companies, people are used to speaking English during working hours. The real problem is the lack of shared work language: How do we all believe a good employee should communicate? Is work important enough to us to be doing it over the weekend? How do we voice criticism during a project meeting?”

Executive MBA

Doing the two-year Executive MBA at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, provides students with a unique opportunity to overcome these cultural differences, and even benefit from them. Learning from intense academic management cases and going through PLD (Personal Leadership Development) together with students from over 35 different nationalities often makes them acutely aware of their own communication biases.

The strong network of culturally diverse mid-career professionals that is gained in the programme, in turn, is often seen as a gateway to a career in senior leadership later on.

Missing the joke Oz Butun

Even after such extensive training, the lack of tacit, implied knowledge is exactly why you need to work harder as an expat manager, says Oz Butun, Director, Platform Architecture at Philips Innovation Service. After a stint at Toyota in Japan, the Turkish national moved to the Netherlands for his Executive MBA studies and work:

“Missing many of the jokes during meetings - or getting the timing all wrong - means it can be challenging to connect with your team. Resolving conflicts is just harder if you can’t use culturally referenced humour. Instead, I found myself taking cues from the company culture more than national culture to create a shared team knowledge and a sense of "this is how we do it."”

Drinks with the team

A smart move, says Shemla: “As the new foreign captain at the helm, it sounds like a great idea to take out your team to reduce the cultural barriers over a few drinks. However, research shows that this type of very personal leadership only highlights the differences and creates subgroups within the team. This can hamper team effectiveness in the long run.”

To effectively create a shared team identity, he advises to focus on work first: “In order to be creative, you need rules. So, make sure you discuss and clarify every team member’s unique contribution to the company strategy first, before building more elaborate social relationships later.”

Some companies take the rules even one step further to address intercultural confusion, he noticed in his research: “Financial institutions, for example, often put out extensive dress codes and guides for answering emails over the weekend. This can really help to create clarity for employees of all backgrounds.”


Butun is the first to admit he was hesitant about the effectiveness of the storied Dutch flat leadership culture: “Without a strict hierarchy, I was afraid I wasn’t going to meet my deadlines and that decisions would never get made”.

Safe to say, he changed his mind: “Working in the Dutch company culture actually made me a better manager. I was used to telling people what to do. Now, I engage with the team and reach out more to pick their brains, which actually takes some weight off my shoulders. It also forces me to think harder about my vision for the company and then communicate very clearly about that.”

And the perceived lack of speed doesn’t even have to be that much of a problem: “I work in a technical field, where the (in)famous "poldermodel" can actually save us from rushed and costly decisions!”

Overcoming cultural bias

Even with his international experience, it took Butun quite a while to develop this cultural sensitivity and really plug into Dutch culture and leadership style. Doing an Executive MBA at RSM helped him. He says: “It is not often in your life that you are exposed to so many cultural and academic backgrounds. Working so closely with these internationals - and Dutchies - really taught me to look beyond the cultural biases and stay open, to see people for who they really are.”

It also showed him you don’t have to check your cultural background at the door: “However much I have worked abroad, I am still Turkish. I feel it is part of my culture to be loyal and develop long relationships with people. So, when I ask in meetings, "is there anything I could do for you, at this moment?", people here will definitely look at me to see what is wrong with me. But in the end, they are often intrigued by this question and appreciate the approach.”

Contact Rotterdam School of Management

Learn more about how doing an Executive MBA at RSM raises your cultural sensitivity and improves your personal leadership, contact RSM.



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