Making Global Teams Work

Many people have written about globalisation, global strategy, global organisation and culture. No one has looked at the plumbing of how globalisation actually works. Global Teams, out next week, is the first book to do this. Here is what it is all about.

Globalisation works because teams of people get together to make things happen across borders: serving customers, managing supply chains, developing IT, doing R&D. Making teams work within one office is hard enough. Making a team work where you can not see and have not met your team, and you are separated by time zones, distance, language, regulations and culture is far harder. When you look for help on how to make these teams work, there isn’t any. There is plenty of work on culture, but learning to eat sushi does not help the team work better.

Understanding how global teams work means getting beyond the mindset that globalisation equals spreading western practices around the world. When was the last time you read a Japanese management book? Nowadays, global means global.

The key challenge to making global teams work smoothly is eliminating sources of friction, including:

  • Different cultures and languages
  • Working across time zones
  • Goals which are not clear or not shared properly
  • Decision making processes which are unclear or seen to be unfair
  • Lack of trust across borders
  • Conflict between hub and spokes of the team and firm
  • Tension between home nation staff and second class citizens from the rest of the world
  • Regulatory differences which constrain options

Three key perspectives show how to eliminate friction on global teams:

Team Leader:

Team leaders need the highest levels skills of the 20th century leader and the new skills of a 21st century leader: high influencing skills at a personal level and at a political level to make things happen through people you do not control. As a global team leader also need a distinct mindset: learning, adaptable, curious and comfortable with ambiguity. If you can lead a global team, you can lead any team. A traditional domestic team leader will not succeed: if you stick with your success formula, and try command and control, you will fail.

Team Member:

The two biggest issues are trust and communication. Trust is harder to build but more important on a global team. Technology means we communicate as much as ever, but understand as little as ever. Email is part of the problem, not solution: if anyone works out how to motivate by email, they will make a fortune. The real secret is simple: you have to meet face to face. If necessary, go hiking in Iceland to get to know your team and build trust. High tech needs the high touch of personal contact.

The Firm:

The firm has a basic choice: are you an empire based on the home country or a truly global network? Empires thrive if they have a very strong model which can be rolled out globally: Starbucks. But if you want to access global talent (McKinsey) you have to become a global network. You then have to get the basic processes and protocols right: build a stable rhythm of meetings and updates; clear decision making processes; making sure goals are not only clear, but also shared.

The good news is that there is no magic secret to making global teams work. It is like chopping wood: you just have to keep working at it.

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