How to succeed across borders

October 9, 2019

Smart Business

Patrick Terrien and Mo Fong

Many managers and executives that lead international teams are experts in what they do, but receive little formal training on orchestrating the global teams that are critical to their initiatives’ success.

Understanding cultural dynamics and being vigilant about thinking beyond your latitude and longitude can help you bring out the best in your teams and avoid pitfalls on the path to global business success.

Gather the right people. As the leader of a global team, you want to involve people who are smarter than you and different from you. These individuals should demonstrate empathy, value diverse viewpoints and have the capacity to understand and appreciate how people from other cultures think and feel.

Build relationships to foster trust. It’s important to bring global team members together at least once a year at an offsite location where they can interact, build relationships and begin to establish mutual trust.

It’s also important to balance working sessions with general networking and social activities. At the end of the day, a meal or interactive learning opportunities, such as cooking classes or a simple craft, can help participants unwind, become better acquainted and have a positive shared experience. Simple personality tests like True Colors or MBTI can really help to spark conversation.

In-person meetings offer the opportunity to read body language, which can be just as important as what someone says. In Asia, for example, a nod can signify understanding and not necessarily agreement.

Bridge communication gaps. As a global team leader, you’re likely to work with people from various cultures who speak different languages. An interpreter can help facilitate communication, but you must ensure that all team members understand what is said.

Building in pauses in the group discussion or including a round-the-table check-in will help encourage all participants to share their thoughts and ideas. If you want to hear from specific individuals, repeating the question helps give the person a heads up so he or she is not caught off guard.

Practice flexibility and consideration. Leaders must always approach international communication with a global lens.

Being sensitive to time zones when arranging conferences affects participation and promotes a sense of team well-being. Also, specific dates are meaningful to different cultures and religions. Leaders who work with Muslim team members, for example, must be cognizant of events that are part of the Islamic calendar. You will not want to schedule a dinner meeting during Ramadan, which is a month of fasting.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Building the cultural awareness required to manage effective global teams is an ongoing process. Don’t be afraid to ask an honest question in pursuit of understanding cultural nuances. Getting cross-cultural actions right 100 percent of the time isn’t the expectation but showing an effort and wanting to get it right is.

Leading a global team can be a challenge. Practicing patience, creating a culture of acceptance and allowing for mistakes will facilitate communication and help team members progress toward common business goals.

Patrick Terrien is president and CEO for the Global Fluency Institute, a social enterprise of the Columbus Council on World Affairs. He is a past member of the national board of the World Affairs Councils of America. In addition, he often speaks for organizations such as Harvard University’s Think Tank on Global Education.

Mo Fong has been with Google for over 10 years and serves as director, Google Technical Solutions for Search and Assistant. She was previously director of Google’s CS Education Initiatives and served as finance director and chief compliance officer for Google Wallet. Follow her on twitter @mo_fong