In course of my career I had several times the opportunity to build up and lead global teams with staff members located e.g. in the US, Brazil, India, China, Singapore and several European countries (Spain, UK, Austria, Italy, Russia …). The following insights and advice are based on my practical experience gathered in these international leadership roles.
- Before you start anything else make yourself familiar with cultural pecularities and habits of the countries or regions your team members are located. Germans e.g. enjoy the questionable reputation to be straightforward, humorless and unfriendly, but very structured, efficient and on time. In addition the majority of Germans seem to hate small talk and have a tendency to stare at their conversational partners. It’s good to know these strange habits upfront before you start involving your German counterpart into a lengthy conversation about potential weekend activities with the best fun factor.
- Get to know your staff members in person, understand their local/regional environment and build up mutual trust. What motivates your team members? What demotivates them? Are there any constraints, which could impact their performance (e.g. insufficient IT equipment)? Do they have particular expertise, which can be leveraged by other local/regional teams (in sense of Center of Competence)? Personal acquaintance and mutual trust is indispensable particularly in intercultural relationships and cannot be substituted by numerous video conferences or conference calls.
- Perform a global kick-off-meeting including all staff members from all regions if your budget allows it. A global kick-off-meeting (ideally combined with a sports or outdoor event) is a unique and effective chance to building up team spirit and reliable personal relationships between your staff members from various locations/regions. However, unfortunately in most cases budget constraints do not allow this most effective start into a global cooperation.
- You cannot lead a global team out of your company’s corporate headquarter without regular face-to-face-meetings and intensive communication with your local/regional staff members. This should be a no-brainer, however too often the day-to-day-business in the headquarter hinders or hampers regular travelling of the global leader to the team locations in other regions of the world. If you want to build up a successful global team you need to show presence at least every two to three months in all (major) sites.
- Perform a thorough analysis of the baseline/starting position of your local/regional teams at the beginning of your journey. The development of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Treats) together with your local/regional team is a perfect opportunity to enter the dialogue with your team and build up mutual understanding and trust for your future cooperation.
- Develop a global vision/mission together with your team, which is understood, committed and actively supported by all local/regional team leaders and their staff members. Without having this global vision/mission in place, it will be difficult to create the necessary esprit de corps.
- Develop SMART targets (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) for your local/regional teams and agree upon these targets with the local/regional leader (and his local/regional superior – see bullet point no. 9).
- Let your local/regional team develop adequate actions, how they want to achieve the agreed SMART targets and follow-up the progress of the agreed actions continuously and on a regular basis, e.g. every two (at minimum four) weeks in course of conference calls or webcasts.
- Achieve mutual agreement with the local/regional supervisors of your staff members on major targets and general working conditions for your staff members. Be aware of local specifics, e.g. in terms of compensation and promotion systems, your team has to comply with. Due to legal reasons local/regional staff members often (if not usually) have a solid reporting line to a local/regional supervisor (e.g local CIO reports to local CFO). If the local/regional supervisor sings a different song, than you do in your role as global leader, the likelihood that your team will not deliver optimal performance is high.
- Utilize modern communication technology such as webcasts or video conferences to establish a direct communication channel between you as global leader and your staff members the various locations/regions. Do not only talk to the local/regional team leaders. Your staff members expect you to show presence, interact with them and give them effective guidance and support.
- Always be open, honest and straightforward in the communication with your local/regional team members and their local/regional leaders (under consideration of local/regional cultural habits, such as e.g. the risk of loss of face in Japan). Without being tangible and reliable you will not be able to build up effective working relationships.
- Competition between different locations/regions can be a stimulatory element for the performance of the whole global team, if it is not overacted and counterproductive for the necessary cooperation between the locations/regions. The question: „Why is region A able to accomplish the goal, but not region B?“ is a strong argument. Nobody likes to be the bottom of the league.
- Take nothing for granted. Behaviours, reactions or standards, which are normal or even self-evident in your home country do not necessarily need to be considered the same in other countries (including simple things such as Notebooks or Smartphones).
- Never underestimate the impact of cultural differences – even if it’s „only“ between Germany and Switzerland or Germany and Austria. These cultural differences very quickly can result in serious misunderstandings, which jeopardize the success of your entire mission.
- Cheer and reward the successful achievement of agreed targets – ideally again in course of a global team event – if your budget allows it (see bullet point no. 3).
Leading intercultural teams spread across the globe is certainly one of the biggest challenges – both from the leadership and management point of view. However, successfully developing effective high performance teams comprising diverse characters from various countries/regions belongs at the same time to the most fascinating, satisfying and instructive tasks I ever accomplished in course of my career.
Note: I will continuously further develop this first draft. Constructive criticism is always welcome.