How a Global Giant Builds Employee Cultural Competence

A cultural disconnect with Brazilian colleagues showed this leader how diversity affects business potential.

Patricia Rossman of BASFPatricia Rossman, who grew up in Albany, N.Y., had just been appointed the corporate vice president of communications and public affairs of the Americas region for Ciba (BASF purchased the chemical company in 2009). This was a role that expanded her responsibilities to include operations from Canada down through South America. BASF is one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies.

Naturally, she was excited for her first team meeting. “I was very interested in showing colleagues in South America that I understood their issues,” Rossman recalls. “I did research about business, communication styles, differences in government relations—for example, the differences between the United States and Brazilian systems.”

However, when it came time to make her introductory presentation, Rossman found her audience wasn’t impressed with her extensive “homework.” It turned out that they were looking for a more personal connection.

“I was prepared on the professional side, the research issues … They wanted to know what I stood for—my values and some of the formative experiences I had as a person,” says Rossman. “There was a cultural affinity toward working as people first, then focusing on the issues. I was coming in on the opposite side.”

Rossman quickly learned that she needed to change her management style if her cross-cultural and cross-continental team was going to be successful. “We met in the middle and developed a good relationship to tackle the issues, but we did it more from a sense of knowing who we were as people,” says Rossman. “It was a good lesson for all of us. It really proved the value of diversity and inclusion.”

It was a moment that she says completely changed her management approach and overall way of thinking: “That experience has helped me to listen more and try to put myself in the position of the other person and people with whom I’m working.”

It also inspired her to take action at external organizations. Rossman serves on the board of trustees for the American Conference on Diversity, and on designated weekends, she volunteers at a thrift shop that serves a disadvantaged population.

“The power that I have seen when diverse perspectives come together in powerful combinations of ideas and teams … I saw firsthand and developed a deep appreciation for diversity and cultural differences,” she says. “I saw how this appreciation, understanding and recognition of differences can be a powerful accelerator for high-performing teams.”

Resource Groups Keep It Personal

Rossman combined her newfound awareness with her experiences from her HR background to promote and recognize BASF employees as individuals with varying perspectives. “I think that the ability to work in fields [that focus] on people and their combinations of ideas provides great training,” she says. In fact, it’s a central building block for the way BASF does its business. Its goal: manifesting its “we create chemistry” strategy on a tangible level.

“Chemistry at BASF is created with our people—they really are our greatest resource,” she says. “Diversity will help us do a better job of harnessing the power of their ideas, so our priorities focus on making BASF more personal.”

That more personal touch is apparent in Rossman’s approach to talent development at BASF, which she embraces with a “leading by example” approach. She’s an active participant in BASF’s resource groups, which the company refers to as affinity groups. These include the African American, Emerging Professionals and Friends (for any new BASF employee, regardless of age), ALLchemie (LGBT), Latin American, and Women in Business, which are based in the North America region. All of the groups are open to any employee who wishes to join, regardless of race, ethnicity, orientation or gender.

“I attend as many group meetings as I can. I have a lot of contact with the groups,” says Rossman. She recently participated in a Women in Business meeting about skill building and building a personal brand.

“It’s all part of helping people build networks, helping the company seem more intimate and more personal,” explains Rossman. “BASF business leaders provide their perspectives as part of the orientation for these programs.”

“For me, it’s about appreciating that ideas get better as they get shared. The idea is to always keep improving,” Rossman says.

Related video: Rossman discusses challenges in global assignments at one of our diversity events.

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