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Sinkfield & Company’s Manuel Knight on Being an African American Expat in Diverse Europe

After years in the Army’s elite Special Forces, Manuel Knight experienced an “aha!” moment. Using skills and strengths honed in the military, Knight commenced life in the private sector and set a course to make organizations run better and be more effective. Based in Sweden and owner of Sinkfield & Co., he is a much sought after international organizational development specialist. Knight spoke with rolling out while cruising down the Autobahn on his way to a client visit.

European countries seem ahead of the curve in regards of embracing diversity. Is this really how it is or is our (American) perception flawed?

I share the perception that some European countries are ahead of the curve when it comes to diversity. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in that area. Some companies understand the performance opportunities presented by creating company cultures as diverse as possible while at the same time being united by corporate visions, values and goals.

You left Atlanta for military service a month after high school graduation and have lived abroad every since. Did you envision this at 18 years old?

Living abroad my entire adult life was certainly nothing I had envisioned at 17 as I was leaving Atlanta. My life in the military presented me with both opportunities and a special set of skills to help me cope with life abroad. What happened as I was coping is that I started to enjoy my situation. I figured if I’m going to be in Germany, at least I should learn to speak the language. If I speak the language, at least I should put it to good use by speaking to people and making new local friends. That process is what really started my hunger to see, do, and know more.

Your company, Sinkfield & Company, has diverse holdings on several continents. When merging so many culturally diverse workforces what is priority?

I have four priorities that I constantly communicate in my management team as well as the entire organization.

Purpose: Everyone has to understand the purpose and meaning of what Sinkfield is all about. It’s bigger than money and bigger than simply doing good business.

Influence: Every culture that we operate in has something to bring to the party. It is essential that they both feel and exercise that influence and understand their value to the organization.

Relationships and Loyalty: We make a great effort to train our employees as teams. It is essential that we understand the value of horizontal communication. We work constantly with acceptance and consequences. Accept the attitudes, behaviors and actions that we want to be part of our culture and nothing else. Enforce consequences tactfully, professionally and especially horizontally. This creates strong relationships and team loyalty.

Reward: The reward part is simple. Everyone has to eat. Do a good job and you are rewarded accordingly.  We will provide you with the knowledge and the skills. You bring the attitude.

You, an African-American man, are the number two most sought after organizational specialist in Europe. Were you always embraced to this magnitude?

Absolutely not! It took a while. I had to constantly deliver results way above my customer’s expectations. It was and is a big challenge, but I really love it. We have been lucky enough to create a very strong signature experience. So naturally we are very careful that our performance is worthy of our reputation and that each performance continues to build on our positive signature experience.

Why should a young professional consider military service after completing undergrad instead of business or law school?

I’m not really sure if military service is the best option for everyone. You’ll definitely get the skills and discipline to excel in any given career. I would encourage every individual to look closely at all of your options before making such a big decision. Understand how that decision is going to impact your life.

A new Mercer survey reveals that organizations worldwide lack a strategy for developing women leaders. What are your thoughts on this?

Sad but true. We have to improve this area in the world of business. Nothing would make me happier than to see more women in leadership positions. Hopefully when my daughters are old enough they will have much better development opportunities than there are in organizations today. This is, by the way, one of our main focus areas in our companies.

Manuel, when speaking to your audiences, you are very open about your humble upbringing (reared in Atlanta’s once notorious Perry Homes Housing Projects).  Have you ever fielded questions that seemed classist or economically insensitive?

It happens more than you would expect. However, I try to be as open and candid as I can when responding. If I don’t want to respond, I don’t. One thing that is very interesting in Europe is that most of those types of questions are asked out of true curiosity, so it’s difficult for me to take offense. After all, curiosity is a driving force for knowledge. Anyway it’s easy to tell if someone is just plain being disrespectful, in which case my response may be less than pleasant. Mamma didn’t raise no fool y’all…