How to lead a global team

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Illustration depicting a global team in different countries

Expanding your business into overseas markets is often a sign of growth success, but it can also bring with it tough leadership and cultural challenges. Jo Owen, the founder of Teach First, offers 10 tips for how to lead a global team

Jo Owen, founder of TeachFirstLeading a global team is extreme leadership because everything is harder. If you can lead a global team, you can lead any team. Making a team work in the office is difficult enough – things go wrong, priorities change and there is miscommunication and misunderstanding. That is normal. But making a team work is far harder when you can’t see your colleagues; when you are separated by time zones, language and culture; when you have to influence decisions and decision-makers you may not have met; and when you can’t have the quick two-minute conversation in the corridor and you are cut off from the daily banter of the office that lets you know who is doing what and what they are thinking.

When you lead a global team, you are on your own. You can find plenty of advice on global strategy and global firms, but there is little on the plumbing of globalisation: how global teams work and how they are led effectively. Based on research with more than 80 global firms, here are 10 things you can do that will stack the odds of success in your favour.

Select people with the right skills and mindset

The skills bar on global teams is higher. You need to have a high-performing team that you trust to make the right decisions while you are asleep. In addition to high skills, you need people with the right attitudes and values. Working on a global team needs people who are open, adaptable, inquisitive and quick to learn. If they simply believe that their way is the best way, they will not succeed.

Ditch email

We communicate more than ever but understand each other less than ever. The first person to work out how to motivate and build trust by email will make a fortune. It is a fortune that is unlikely to be made. Talking face to face is the best way to ensure understanding: you can see in real time if the other person does not understand and you can adjust in real time. Asynchronous communication allows misunderstandings to grow into mistrust.

Buy some plane tickets

Build trust – it is the glue that holds teams together. Trust is only truly built in person. Find a reason to visit your team. Find an excuse for a global conference, one that is not filled with work. The social element is vital. Help team members to get to know each other. Once the team has built trust with you and each other, the quality of communication rises dramatically which in turn reinforces the trust. These trips are not discretionary costs, they are essential investments in team building and high performance.

Set clear goals

Setting goals is management 101, but is also a constant source of frustration with global teams. There is always conflict between the hub and the spoke. For instance, can you vary products and pricing or not? The goal that is clear at the hub may make no sense to the spokes of the team. The only way to really achieve clarity is by consulting the team before setting the goals. This not only builds clarity; it also builds support.

Keep chopping wood

On a domestic team, imperfect processes still work because the team can adjust in real time to any problems. On a global team, imperfect processes wreck progress. You have to keep working to ensure that all your operational and management processes are clear, concise and consistent. This is not magic; it is hard work.

Build clear rhythms and routines

You can spend all day every day communicating on a global team, which means that you do not actually achieve anything. You need clear protocols about which communications will happen when, and about how and when decisions will be made. Control the technology beast before it controls you.

Ensure fair process

You not only have to make the right decisions; you also have to make them so that they stick and the team buys into them. Team members at remote hubs often feel like second-class citizens. Make the effort to involve them and consult them – they will repay you with increased understanding, commitment and performance.

Create common values

In some cultures you can show anger; in others that’s disastrous. In some you should always challenge; in others you never “give the boss bad medicine”. There is no culture that is universally right or wrong. But, if your team is going to succeed, you need to have a common understanding about what sorts of behaviour you all subscribe to. Consistency and predictability is key. Within your team you need a culture of adaptability and of positive regard: everyone has to assume that others are working with good intentions.

Use the same language

English is already the common language of global business – and native English speakers are very poor at it. The Civil Aviation Authority found that the worst speakers of Aviation English are native speakers. They speak too fast in long sentences, use colloquialisms and fail to listen. And they become worse under stress, increasing the risk of a disaster – just like global teams. Simplify the language: if you refer to customers, clients, accounts, buyers, partners and users, do you mean the same thing and will non-native speakers understand?

10 Develop your cultural intelligence

The good news is that you don’t have to be an anthropologist to lead different cultures. You need cultural intelligence, not knowledge. It’s based on respect for others and a willingness to learn and adapt fast. If this sounds hard, that’s because it is. You have to learn the skills that all 21st-century managers will need. Instead of command and control, you learn the arts of influence, persuasion, trust and commitment. Leading a global team is your passport to the future.

Jo Owen CV

Who Jo Owen

Role Author, speaker and founder of eight NGOs with a combined turnover of £100m. He is currently the international chair of the Education Development Trust and of several other NGOs

Previous roles He started his career in brand management at Procter & Gamble, built the Japanese and Asian business of the MAC Group/Gemini/CGEY and was a partner with Accenture.

Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams (FT Publishing) and is a keynote speaker on global teams, leadership and tribes. Visit ilead.guru for further information

Visit iod.com/training to access a range of continuous professional development courses

About author

Jo Owen

Jo Owen

Jo Owen is the founder of Teach First and is a keynote speaker on global teams, leadership and tribes. He's also the author of Global Teams (FT Publishing)

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