Can you lead multicultural groups spread around the world?

Leadership can be challenging when you team consists of people of numerous nationalities and on top of it are in different locations all over the world. Devote 2 minutes to watching Anne Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor, outline her ideas on how to succeed:  

Geographically dispersed teams offer a lot of benefits – increased efficiency, cost savings, and enables you to choose team members with optimal skills, regardless of where in the world they are. Videoconferencing, intranet and email has already made that way of working an option that's likely to become even more popular. Actually believe that's how we will increasingly work in the future. 

To make a success of your global team, chose team players with the right characteristics and ensure that you have the best possible communication. 

​What kind of team members should you chose?

They need to be self-motivated, have good communication skills, be result driven, open and honest.

It's essential to unite all members around a common objective and communicate clearly and frequently.Set up goals and make sure bonding takes place between all of you. Giving assessment and reward performance is even more important when the members of your team are scattered around the world. 

People who need constant encouragement and attention to get the job done is a complication to be avoided. You simply cannot devote the time necessary to make such members perform that you would have been able to do if you were in the same office. For the same reason it's also essential that all members of the team feel they can to come to you with problems and really unite around a common purpose. Everyone must have a desire to reach the team's goals and clearly understand and be motivated by their roles and responsibilities.

Give frequent and fair feed-back to everyone and make yourself available to all members of your team. Can be a bit inconvenient sometimes due to time difference. Have many times had to get up extremely early, or stay up late, in order to talk to a team member on the other side of the world. But there is no avoiding it if you want your team to stay on track. 

Since you are not meeting on a daily basis it's also important to visit them now and then to make sure they feel important. 

Don't forget different cultures and values

Obviously it's easier for those of us who have lived and worked all over the world. Provided of course that you integrated, understood the different cultures and what drives people from there. Am frequently surprised at how people, especially in the West, just presume that the way we think in say, the US or Sweden, applies to all of humanity. But you have to motivate all members of your team regardless of nationality so it's essential to make sure you really understand what drives people from different cultures. 

Do you have experience in leading teams of different nationalities spread around the world? Did you find Anne Edmondson's advice useful? Were you able to build trust when you were not meeting the team on a daily basis? Are you able to ensure that everyone feels they're treated fairly, even if you see some team members much more than others? How do you avoid members of your team feeling isolated? What can you do to make all players feel part of the team's objectives and perform according to plan? Which aspects do you find most challenging when your team is spread around the world? Do you believe diverse groups spread around the world will increasingly be the way we will work in the future? 

(Video: HarvardBusiness – You Tube)

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28 Responses to “Can you lead multicultural groups spread around the world?”

  1. Lubna Says:

    Since I am part of the international tax team in our consultancy outfit, I constantly deal with colleagues from other country. We together serve a client and has to ensure that the global service is seamless.
    It helps if the team leader of the project makes sure everyone understands his or her scope of work in the project clearly. Frequent calls with each other and of course the intra office chat box helps a lot. We all try to accomodate each other. For instance my US colleagues will start their day a little bit early and I will end mine later to have a call.
    I agree the team leader does have a crucial role to play in ensuring that everyone is as motivated to serve the client. For instance, if in Country Z, the client has smaller size operations, but it is a large client in Country A, it is vital that the motivational level of colleagues in both Country Z and A are the same. We need to see our organisation as a global one and not as a local one.
    I do think, cross country teams will be the future, as business entities will continue to spread their markets.

  2. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you agree with Harvard and me, Lubna.

  3. Susan Cooper Says:

    I have managed teams that worked remotely, although not global, they were diverse nontheless. Multicultural or diverse team members working remotely can be challenging. You hit on the nail when you mentioned the need to choose the right individual personal characteristics. Without the right individual success is not likely. Planned and consistent contact is paramount to building cohesion in a team, this type especially. This is a skill set we all will need to learn because the world is (metaphorically) shrinking.
    My recent post Roasted Chicken Breast with Garlic & Redskin Potatoes Recipe

  4. catarinaalexon Says:

    Yes having the right team members are crucial, isn't it Susan. Agree with you Susan, that when it comes to work and employment the world will keep on shrinking.

  5. Coretta Says:

    I haven't had to work with an international team…yet. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be exposed (on a smaller scale) to working with people from diverse cultural background while in leadership in Toastmasters. It was one of the greatest lessons and I take those lessons into any of my teams. I think the tips listed in the video are right on point. I would add "acknowledging a job well done" too to provide and as incentive to continue to promote productivity and teamwork .
    My recent post Death and A Lesson in Intentional Living

  6. @jepaladino Says:

    There is nothing like interacting personally with team members. But this isn't always possible with a global team. We communicate not only with words, but with pictures and actions. You can often judge if someone is accepting your ideas by their body language. It's difficult to assess completely how the team is working when everyone is in a different location. Corporate video conferencing and using Skype and Google + hangouts now enable diverse teams to meet virtually and see each other. It's not the same as being in the same room, but you did get to see an actual face and pick up physical cues that are essential to communication and understanding.
    My recent post How to Create Internal Social Networks for Employees

  7. Michael Akerib Says:

    Well I hope Anne Edmondson (and by the way she does not appear on the Harvard site as a member of faculty) has hands on experience. I have had so many colleagues lecturing in business school about managing international HR who had never left their own country and only spoke their native language, that I am very weary of academic advice on this particular issue.

  8. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good point Coretta. Glad we agree.

  9. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good points Jeannette. Glad you agree.

  10. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good point Michael. That's true not only when it comes to academia but in companies as well, above all in the United States. Personally have the experience of working all over the world and am sure companies are losing money because of this.
    By the way, I can't imagine Harvard would post a video with Anne Edmondson stating that she is a professor at Harvard Business School if she isn't.

  11. ameha Says:

    since English language is a medial bridge to every one in this world multicultural group can be managed with active peoples with same good spirit of the team.

  12. catarinaalexon Says:

    Thank you for letting us know your opinion, Ameha.

  13. @saliza55 Says:

    I like that you mention the multicultural issue in this situation and it is always very challenging. People from different countries,speaking different languages and having different ideas can be refreshing on one hand and can also add to the communications problem.Cultural issues and motivations are different everywhere,so my question will be how do you choose that right individual for the job if you don’t speak their language or know nothing about their culture?

    By the way a person that is not “international” and understand different cultures should not be leading a global team. A mono cultural person can be a member of such a team but should not lead it.

  14. catarinaalexon Says:

    Saliza, you have to have a common language in the team. Normally English. .You cannot have members that don't speak a language you don't master. The option of an interpreter doesn't work. Have tried . For me the cultural aspect is not a problem since I have lived in and/or worked with most countries in the world. Have actually been leading multi cultural teams most of my life. The only draw back when people are scattered around the world is the time difference. Sometimes you don't sleep enough as a result.

  15. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you are getting involved in launching a global company Pat. And the team leader seems to be doing exactly what she needs to do. By the way, I believe you will enjoy the experience. Have personally led multi cultural teams most of my life and it's a wonderful experience.

  16. GuyW Says:

    A good reminder, Catarina. Those of us who've lived amongst other cultures and managed geographically and culturally diverse teams have, hopefully, learnt these lessons :-) and remember that not only language and customs are different, but gestures, too (for example, in the West we nod our head up and down for agreement, whereas in some parts of the world this can me 'No.')

    Tools like inexpensive video-conferencing are enabling much better interaction with remote teams and I see the multi-cultural team becoming the norm.

  17. Susan Oakes Says:

    I haven't lead a team but I have been part of a number of teams Catarina. Apart from self motivation the one characteristic most members have was initiative. Instead of waiting for the team leader to solve issues the members would often get together and work it out.
    My recent post Simplify Your Marketing Like Olympic Champions

  18. antoinette Says:

    I had the opportunity to work as a part of global teamfor a few years and we used video teleconferencing, webcast, office communicator, skype. Some of the lessons I learnt included:

    Try to meet everyone in person at least once.
    Share some personal information like hobbies, family with each other.
    Keep the network going by sharing links to articles of interest to the group (networking should be like banking ie it is important to deposit information rather than withdrawing continually)
    Be cognisant of time differences and consider having turns at being the one who should really be asleep rather than on an international call.
    Learn about the culture and business etiquette of your colleagues.
    Keep the meetings short and sharp, by issuing agendas in a timely manner with objectives clearly defined.
    Try to talk slowly without using colloquialisms (which is very hard for many of us :()
    If you don't understand a particular issue, seek clarification on an individual basis after or prior to a meeting.

    Above all – embrace and enjoy what a wonderful world we live in.


  19. catarinaalexon Says:

    True Susan. And when team members are spread around the world, that's essential.

  20. catarinaalexon Says:

    That's a good description of what it's like Antoinette.

  21. honolulukay Says:

    This is a terrific article, and incredibly relevant in today’s working world. There is an elephant hiding in the corner of this room, however; that would be the concept of choosing your team members wisely.

    It would be great to be able to choose your team members, but this is often a luxury that we don’t get. In a multi-cultural and geographically diverse venture, you often have to mesh already established partnerships to work toward a common goal. Most teams have members with different styles of operating and, occasionally, hidden agendas. At best these few people suck valuable energy that should be spent on moving forward rather than placating them or trying to drag them back on the same page with the rest of the group.

    I would love to hear what Ann Edmondson has to say about working with teams that have been randomly assigned. And I would love to hear Catarina’s take on this subject since this problem undoubtedly comes up in Sweden, where there are many European countries working in close proximity, as opposed to the US, where we tend to be more isolationistic. (Is that a real word?)

    Kay in Hawaii

  22. catarinaalexon Says:

    Good points Jeri.

  23. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like my article, Bethany. Agree with you completely that communication has to be simplified so that it flows easily. Too much bureaucracy complicate and could even have a detrimental affect on results.

  24. catarinaalexon Says:

    Glad you like my article, Kay. Agree with you about the problem of inheriting people for your team. One of the worst is dealing with someone that complicates everything. It's the same phenomena that you find on social media when a person writes a comment that is as long as a book. You simply haven't got time to read the long "books" such people send saying very little. Another issue is when they only concentrate on their own interest. You have to pay team members very well but beware so that it doesn't become a company run for its employers only.

    Haven't done this kind of work from Sweden. Did it mainly when I lived in London, Britain, between 1990 and 2005.

  25. Mika Castro Says:

    Leadership is a very important role and at the same time hard. Team leaders must be perfectly serve fair.
    My recent post יועצת שינה

  26. catarinaalexon Says:

    True Mika and it gets more complicated when members of the team are of different nationalities spread around the world.

  27. nittinj Says:

    I think in addition to traits defined above usually patience, tolerance and perseverance are key skills required to lead a multicultural team. A leader has to understand and overcome inhibitions, reservations and prejudices of his team members in order to truly engage them and drive them towards a common goal.

  28. catarinaalexon Says:

    Correct. But you have to do that even when groups are of the same nationality and working in the same office.

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