Establishing a global team is always a daunting task. How do you get people on time zones around the world on a video conference together, knowing someone will be up in the middle of the night? How do you motivate them to perform on your strategic initiative when their local management already has them busy with their day jobs?
Here are nine steps to assure the success of global teams.
- Motivate the team to follow the company’s strategy and desired outcome. Many organizations get people on a phone call and ask them to solve a problem. Effectively chartering a team takes much more. It first requires providing the team members with the company’s strategic purpose for the team. What is the problem or opportunity statement? What competitive information, new market, socioeconomic, technology, or market information or trends should be shared? What external experts should be involved? I encourage having a couple of executives (one from corporate and one from a remote location) share the strategy and talk about the dividend it will provide to the company and its remote locations. It is essential to establish a shared commitment to the company’s purpose among all team members.
- Level the power dynamics. Global teams that are often established from “corporate” or the largest or most dominant location or business sector have a power advantage over remote locations. The corporate power advantage of course is that it sets the organization’s strategy, objectives and budgets, and has huge controls over the rest of the organization. Big, well established business units also have a power advantage that can come from their larger financial resources and their long standing. This power advantage can feel like this to the regions and smaller business units: “I’m corporate and I can tell you what to do.” Or “I am the biggest so do it my way.” But corporate and a large business unit can have huge blind spots about other business units or regions of the world.
The problem with this is two-fold. First, how business is done successfully at corporate, whether it is in China, the United States, or Germany, will not be the same as in other regions of the world. Second, corporate or the biggest unit has the power and if these team members or team leader do not level that dynamic, they will not get the full participation of the remote members of the team. The smaller units in large companies may be in different markets with different customers, different government regulations around the world and different business practices.
You level the power dynamics by making sure you solicit everyone’s opinion, being aware of work holidays and customs of all team members and not just at “corporate,” understanding that different cultures have different norms for formality/informality, transparency, respect of authority and structure, willingness to join conflict, time management, and decision making.
It is critical to understand the different business practices of the various operating units on the team. The best practice here is to make time for informal chat to build relationships. The leader also needs to act like the student and learn as much as possible from team members about culture and different business practices. This example by the leader will also spread to other team members. It’s also important to be intolerant of any cultural insensitivity among team members and to lay out the processes and expectations (see below) in norms and decision making.
- Set up practical global operating norms. This step is twice as important for global teams, and frankly not difficult to achieve, even though many co-located teams fail to do it. Effective operating norms cover the following: a) Setting up convenient and regular times for weekly meetings and one-on-one meetings with the team leader and the team; b) establishing common messaging, collaboration, and information and file sharing software. c) setting norms for fast response to each other on messaging, email, and phone calls, d) clarifying roles and handoffs for team members. This last step is especially important for cross functional and innovation teams. When team leaders see all team members following these norms, it is a sign the team is off to a good start.
- Establish fast decision-making processes for the team. The best teams need to act and move fast. Many teams falter with decision-making where there is no standard for making decisions and the team vacillates between the leader deciding, vocal members of the team deciding by dominating the rest, or consensus. The best teams set up norms for making decisions based on analytics, and equal participation of members (no dominance). These norms, however, should be reviewed by the leader every time a decision is to be made. Remember, the processes used by the global team may be very different from those used in their home country. If it is a close call on making the decision, put in place milestones to watch to early if the decision needs to be rethought.
- Set up escalation paths. Even the best teams will need guidance from executives on the decisions they are about to make. The best teams have fast—in a day or two—paths to raise issues for guidance so the team can decide and move forward.
- Build trust and demonstrate empathy. Research shows that the most effective teams set up psychological safety, or trust, and team members are sensitive to the need of other members. Trust is often found to be more critical for team success than the intelligence of team members, commitment of team members, and expertise. Team members who can share new ideas, mistakes, and failures with their teams without criticism, tend to be more honest, open, and innovative. Trust makes for better decision making. For teams to innovate, they need to create a learning culture of failing fast, furiously, and frequently. What did you learn today? What is tomorrow’ experiment? If teams do not have this trust, they will not do their best work.
- Manage the language and fluency gap. The new general manager of a recently acquired, innovative global business asked me if his new staff, which spanned seven countries and four continents, could understand English. “Yes, they can,” I responded with a smile. “But it doesn’t mean they can understand you or will follow your direction.” They had all learned English, as taught in their country of origin. However, serious differences with their understanding of English were evident. It is not only the differences of learning American English or the “King’s English.” Each individual learned English through the lens of his or her own national culture and family setting. The same word in English may take on a different meaning, from person to person.
The advice I gave him was to speak slowly, repeatedly check for clarity and agreement, build engagement, and spend a lot of time in each of the country’s offices to check that his plans were being followed. The second piece of advice I gave him is that the response “Yes, I can do this,” from an American, likely means he or she understands and will follow through. The same words from someone who is Japanese or Irish may merely mean politeness, or that he or she understands what is wanted, but has not committed to moving forward. The leader must continually check for understanding and any underlying cultural difference that may be at play.
- Use great technology. Research shows that team members who can see each other’s faces and body language get better at empathy and build stronger relationships. This effect also occurs when people observe expressions on video conferencing. Therefore, it is essential to use high quality and reliable video conferencing technology and not just teleconferences. In addition, when everyone is visible to everyone else, they are less inclined to be distracted by emails.
- Get face-to-face quarterly. If budgets allow, teams should meet face-to-face quarterly to maintain alignment and relationships. I worked with innovation teams that had team members on three continents. They would trade work on a project from China to Ireland to the US almost daily. They used common equipment, common engineering processed and technology. They had a great working relationship. Still, it was important to bring them together quarterly to keep the focus on their work and maintain the healthy relationships. Face-to-face meetings are still the best option when a sophisticated analysis is required, or difficult decisions need to be made.
Companies that overcome the challenges of having effective, innovative global teams will earn great dividends. The know-how, psychology, and technology exist to enable success. Are you using it with your global teams?
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Need help with global teams? Contact Victor Assad at VA@VictorHRConsultant.com. Visit http://www.victorhrconsultant.com for valuable free reports. For research on innovation visit http://www.InnovationOne.io.