I took my first global management job seven years ago. I had grown up in the Midwest and graduated from a Big Ten university. With the exception of living in Japan right out of college, my work experience was almost exclusively with North American companies. I had a lot to learn fast.
Happily, the last seven years have been the best of my career in part because of our global operating environment. I can’t imagine working any other way. The complexity of the challenges and the opportunity to learn from others is unsurpassed. Working globally, however, isn’t easy. Through trial and error, I have learned a few practices to become a better manager of international teams.
Persistence overcomes challenges
Leading a global team isn’t a straight path. There are side trips, missteps and misunderstandings. Cultural and language differences create serious and sometimes amusing mistakes. A successful global leader, therefore, is persistent. Don’t expect perfection, but strive for continuous improvement. As with any relationship, there will be good days and bad days, but if you keep the lines of communication flowing and your mind open, most situations will work out for the best.
A well-operating global team works together consistently. As a leader you set the tone for collaboration and openness. Silos are a challenge in any organization. In global settings, silos are prevalent and dangerous. You will have to work hard to integrate your teams consistently. Don’t give up even when it gets hard.
Process builds consistency
By its nature, global business happens seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Something is always happening. Early on, I learned the value of consistent, sustainable communication processes to align the team and build shared purpose. When your work days are divided by seven-, 12- or 16-hour intervals, it’s important to have processes to share information consistently and proactively.
A reliable communication cadence creates the conduit for important news to be communicated and collaboration to happen. It also overcomes the natural resistance that crops up with time zone differences. My team has a global call every Wednesday. All regions and functions are represented. We’ve following this practice for more than seven years. We rely upon this opportunity to talk about upcoming events, ask questions and wish each other a happy birthday. Without it, we could easily drift apart and lose effectiveness.
Practically speaking, reinforce follow-up items from teleconferences with written communications to confirm what was discussed and decided. It’s challenging for non-native English speakers to process everything from a teleconference that’s not in their primary language. This process helps keep everyone moving in the same direction.
Perspective fosters understanding
Over time, a successful global leader develops an expansive and textured perspective. Routinely seek to understand the perspectives of your teams. Every leader needs to know how something will “play in Peoria,” as the saying goes. Globally, you also have to know how it plays in Frankfurt, Shanghai and points between.
How something feels or looks in headquarters isn’t a measure of how it’s received elsewhere. The farther you get from your “home base,” the less you know about your teams and organizations. This means you should ask a lot of questions. “What are your concerns about the strategy rollout?” “How are the performance management changes being received?” “How can we do a better job next time?”
Another element of perspective is the cultural lens that we see our worlds. It’s different everywhere, and what’s normal for you may not be normal for others. There’s an easy way to avoid such issues: talk with people and get feedback. Simple things like program names, photos, translations, yes, even personal privacy practices, are culturally specific. Make it a normal way of business to vet these topics with your network. The feedback will make it better or prevent an unintended mistake.
Use all of your sensing and analytical skills to hone your perspective. Leaders make judgment calls every day. In the global environment, this is more complex. Perspective doesn’t assure harmony, but seeking it creates opportunity to build understanding and alignment.
Presence nurtures relationships
Woody Allen said, “80% of life is showing up.” He’s right, and this is especially true to build a successful and highly functioning global team. This doesn’t mean you have to be all places at all times.
Be aware of how you interact with your team members. How often do you ask them to work in their off hours to accommodate your schedule? Set boundaries around communication times. No calls on Friday nights in Shanghai, for example.
Share of yourself. Large distances separate global teams. This can create a sense of disconnection and insecurity. Bend over backward to provide your global team members with the nuance and coaching they need to understand the corporate culture and expectations. Give them timely and honest feedback just as you would anyone on your team.
Create opportunities for cross-cultural development. We’ve had success bringing team members to work in the offices of other regions. Similar to an exchange program, a Shanghai colleague may spend two to three weeks in Frankfurt working side by side with European counterparts. These opportunities don’t cost much, and the benefits are immeasurable. The employees who participate become more engaged and committed. The team as a whole benefits with increased cohesion, collaboration and understanding. The benefits are noticeable, and employees appreciate the investment in their development.
Global leadership is a privilege. The challenges are significant but also present opportunities to grow.
Are you a global leader or on a global team? Share your ideas on how to improve communication within global teams and organizations in the comment section below so that we can all learn.
Gretchen Rosswurm is the vice president of global corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at Celanese, a global chemical company in Dallas. Throughout her career, she has advised leaders on communication strategies to enhance employee engagement and improve business results. Follow her on Twitter @GRosswurm.