01/22/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Leading Beyond Borders

Staring into a silent audience of workshop attendees at the close of our presentation in Bosnia, I began to worry. Did they not understand our question? Was our material not as good as I'd hoped? What went wrong?

My local colleague interrupted the silence by suggesting that the audience sleep on what they'd heard. Wow. Apparently our presentation was so bad that we drove the audience to sleep!

Or was it?

Before we get to what was going on, let's start at the beginning.

When leading others, it is always a hurdle to adjust our behavior and expectations to complement our team (or audience).

Many business leaders have a way of assimilating themselves after careful evaluation of their peers, while other leaders may neglect to see the big picture. Regardless of one's leadership style, it's a challenge to adapt to a new environment, particularly when other people are watching.

As co-founder of The Global Good Fund, I am aware of this challenge and have spent my career adjusting work styles to best suit the needs of my diverse team. What I didn't realize was how hard this task would be once I stepped outside of my comfort zone and outside of my own country.

This past month, I was invited by a Global Good Fund Ambassador, Zoran Puljic, to help facilitate a workshop in Bosnia with the enterprise he leads, Mozaik, which provides grants and advisory and leadership development support for rural initiatives to aid social and economic development in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was honored to be invited to co-host the workshop and immediately dove into creating thoughtful content for the event.

Sticking to what I knew, I structured the workshop as if I were leading my own team by starting with a presentation and then immediately moving into a hands-on learning activity to engage the audience in practical application. After much preparation, I felt I was ready to share with and learn from the Mozaik team.

The presentation seemed to go well. At the end of sharing our content, I was ready to dive into the hands-on learning portion of the workshop. From previous experience running workshops in the United States, I expected attendees to eagerly participate in the learning activity once instructed. However, I was shocked to see the workshop attendees stare blankly back at me when asked to join.

After a long pause, my Bosnian colleague asked, "Why don't we take time to reflect on the material you just presented and start with the learning activity tomorrow? What if we listen more for now?" They were rhetorical questions, asked as he looked straight at me. Meanwhile the rest of his team nodded in agreement.

In that moment, I was taken by the reality that my Bosnian counterparts wanted to listen more, then pause and reflect before diving deeper into the workshop. This practice was very different from how we operate professionally in American culture, where diving right in and being quick and aggressive are generally rewarded. I didn't know how to handle myself in this situation other than to agree politely with the group. I continued by presenting more material and promised to reconvene the following day for the hands-on portion of the workshop.

That evening, I was left thinking about what had just happened. The way my colleagues reacted to the presentation was thoughtful, with an emphasis on taking time to reflect and process the information presented. It was astonishing to see this way of thinking, as we are often programmed in American culture to be competitive and action-driven ... and to create immediate results!

The next day, my Bosnian colleague sat me down to explain why his team at Mozaik operated in such a fashion. Civilians have grown up in a world of instability due to lingering effects of The Bosnian War, he explained. As a result, individuals often do not take risks in their personal and professional lives and many do not put an emphasis on envisioning career growth, evident in the nation's 58 percent unemployment rate in young adults in 2011, down from 63 percent unemployment rate in young adults in 2006 -- the highest youth unemployment rate in the Balkans.

Everything that he spoke about explained why the group needed time to reflect. Having a strong vision and ambition is atypical of their culture, so they were not used to my behavior. They needed time to process and think through next steps before immediately taking action. Meanwhile I was eager to jump into our learning activity and continue plunging forward.

Looking back, the experience in Bosnia taught me not only to be open and flexible when working in different cultures, but it also taught me a different way of looking at experiences in my life back home. I enjoyed seeing the team at Mozaik emphasize reflection as a key part of the learning process. Their actions taught me to be more reflective in my own work and to further practice active listening and thought processing.

I also realized that while American culture and Bosnian culture are very different on the surface, there are a lot of similarities once I dug deeper. Even though we are a competitive, driven nation, many people in the United States are prone to take the safe road ahead or cannot afford to take risks, particularly those individuals who come from less stable backgrounds. Many more people in the US, whether they come from stable backgrounds or not, steer away from thoughtful reflection in place of immediate action.

My trip to Bosnia was an incredible learning experience for my personal and professional leadership development. Naturally, I learned more from my colleagues than they could ever learn from my workshop. Back home, the idea of holding back is so counter cultural. But next time I dive in to answer a question or propose an idea, hold me back.