How to manage a global team

How to manage a global team

Most literature on this topic tends to touch upon complex cultural nuances among various countries and regions. However, I believe there are elements of managing global teams that are very fundamental and have little to do with culture or cultural nuances. It is these elements I will touch upon in this article.

1. Bad management practices invariably become exacerbated in global contexts. Frankly, what is often attributed to cultural incompatibility or cultural difference can be laid fair and square at the doors of poor management. It is very convenient to lay the blame on culture.

 In other words, managers who are perceived as unclear in their communication or thinking, or seen as being rude and unaccommodating in their styles in local contexts will be perceived much more so in global contexts. Active listening is similarly important in any context and so is not jumping to conclusions, but in a global context poor demonstration of either could be fatal.

The aspect of management that has zero tolerance in a global context is not walking the talk. The little things, too, matter a lot. Don’t generalise, stereotype, or make assumptions.

Schedule conference calls keeping everyone’s convenience in mind (or inconvenience by rotation, if you have to). Building rapport on the phone (and if possible in person) is important before taking the liberty to discuss controversial issues without a preamble and formalities (especially on email). Therefore, when you are leading global teams, take lessons from Management 101 very seriously. The extent to which basic management failures are attributed to culture is unbelievable.

I knew a senior global team lead who was known to become emotional in meetings when his views were not accepted by the group, but at the same time would always comment on the emotional sensitivities of team members from a particular country.
This team lead would skirt the basic issues that the group had raised, and express frustration that ‘they keep coming back to the same thing’. Bad mouthing a particular country (or teams in that particular country) is fairly common, especially where the global lead is located.

Unless nipped in the bud actively, this tendency can very quickly kill the ability to collaborate and work as a team.

2. Inclusiveness (and seeking help) is crucial. Even if you are the global lead for your function and feel very empowered and confident, it would be helpful to seek input, advice, as well as help and support from local geography heads in addressing concerns and issues.

For instance, in a large company, if you are the global head (or global HR head) for a line of business and are confronted with a sensitive issue (and this is all the more important if the issue in question is outside the country where you are located), it is very important to seek advice from the concerned Country Head (or Country HR Head) however well you may understand the approach and the solution to the problem.
Not doing this could lead to weak implementation or sometimes prove fatal to your career.

As a global lead for a function, if you wish to implement something new in a country, it would be helpful if key stakeholders outside the function have bought into it – and stakeholders don’t buy into something without active effort on your part. In summary, develop the maturity to consult and collaborate easily.

3. Focus on results and outcomes and don’t pay too much attention to style and approach. This way, you can prevent your judgment being coloured by what in your culture passes for superior style and is considered a prerequisite for superior results.
Therefore, in the beginning (and even subsequently) it would help to keep an eye on how locals evaluate a person or a situation to filter out the cultural nuances involved.

You might sometimes find it really difficult to quickly evaluate whether a person is a good performer or not because you are coloured by your expectations and biases on the styles and thought processes of top performers in the culture you are familiar with.

Watching how this person is perceived locally will, in the initial phase, help you filter out the overlay of cultural nuances that were confusing you. The lesson in this is again very elementary – ask for, and focus on, outcomes and results. Do not make comments on styles (especially comments on what is a right or wrong style), and do not impose your style and biases.

Take an example: a global function head is located in a country that has a culture where people spend long hours in office (not necessarily working hard or efficiently) and has part of her team located in a country where people start the day very early, work efficiently during the course of the day, and leave on time in the evening.
The global function lead, with encouragement from her local team, could conclude (wrongly) that the other team is not hard-working or committed. When such conclusions find expression (often unconsciously), they can cause irreparable damage.

This is not to imply that cultural differences don’t exist or don’t matter. They are important but often are used as red herrings to skirt (and avoid fixing) more basic management issues.

Most people who manage global teams in today’s global organisations do so at a fairly early stage in their life, when they have not had sufficient time to even understand culture beyond being able to parrot a few bookish statements.
If they focus on enhancing their basic management skills, however, their ability to effectively manage global teams would be significantly enhanced.

(The writer is Managing Director and Global Head of Human Resources at Amba Research.)

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