Say it in hushed tones, but many senior leaders are somewhat lacking in the people skills department. They’ll certainly be smart and have no shortage of ambition. They’ll even possess excellent networking abilities and be able to tell amusing stories, but none of that equates to understanding what makes others tick.
For any leader, that’s a major blind spot, especially so when a team is dispersed across different countries, continents and time zones. Tim Kiy, Chief of Staff at Barclays Africa Group, comments: “All the normal characteristics and dynamics of teams seem magnified when managing internationally – so all the more reason to get the basics right.
“You have to get to know the team and their context, setting clear goals and objectives and getting the right measurement framework in place so you can align accordingly. Above all else, communicate often and well to build trust both ways.”
Great communication skills aren’t optional, without them the strategic direction and operational priorities might be misunderstood. Phillippa Crookes, Senior Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, says: “The golden rule when leading global teams is to almost over-communicate. Make sure there are updates and exchanges as often as possible as otherwise things can rapidly start to misalign.”
Phil Pomford, General Manager, Global eCommerce for Asia Pacific at Worldpay, advises: “Get to know how people like to receive and give information and the best ways to communicate. Also, be clear how you like to operate so there are no grey areas.
“Spend time with your people in their markets, with their teams, customers and partners, on a frequent basis – nothing beats face-to-face. Only then can you understand them on a professional level and eventually on a personal level so that distance doesn’t become a challenge.”
Dariusz Kucz, Non-executive Director at PZ Cussons and a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, says: “In order to connect, first and foremost, you need to recognise there are numerous differences between your location, culture, religion and the businesses that report to you. For example, in Asian cultures it is unthinkable to challenge the boss or even express any strong opinions in public.”
According to Dariusz, it’s a case of paying attention to what should be the obvious details, such as different working weeks and religious festivals and feasts, combined with listening to what your people are telling you about the business. He says: “The first point is to be aware of these differences and not assume you know them. This will help you connect with people at a deeper level. It can aid in challenging local teams, particularly when combined with the approach I call ‘listen to understand and not to answer’, which is a key attribute both at the people and business level.”
Successful global leaders need to do more than simply acknowledge differences, they must be able to adapt. Colin Bannister, VP Presales for EMEA at VMware, says: “I sometimes feel we make too much of the ‘differences’ between regions, countries, and cultures – we are more similar than you think. However, it is very important to understand your own communication style and personality and reflect on how that would be perceived and received by others… making adjustments where necessary to make sure you are clear and understood.”
Group, Regional and Local
Executing strategy is a complex affair in a global business. In Criticaleye’s Asia Leadership Retreat Research 2019, respondents identified the three biggest challenges when leading international teams as managing multiple reporting lines, lack of empowerment from HQ as well as poor communication and collaboration.
Dariusz recognises the difficulties. “Managing multiple reporting lines and lack of empowerment is never easy, but it often has more to do with the organisational culture and structure of any given company,” he says. One challenge he notes is “the difficulty in aligning priorities and time and resource allocations, which leads to time-consuming conflicts”.
There is also the logistical challenge of getting local or regional teams together regularly. When doing this, Dariusz says it is important to protect “local teams from ‘corporate tourism’ and time spent preparing endless reports and presentations”. However, he adds that “one needs to take into account that it is also an opportunity for local talent to get noticed in HQ, so it requires a bit of a balancing act".
Colin finds that there are advantages to both local and global structures. “I have a preference for local reporting lines, despite being part of a global organisation. Use the matrix where necessary to provide functional capabilities but keep the ‘people management’ local wherever possible,” he says.
Geographical distance leads us back to communication skills. It’s possible to reduce some of these challenges via new tech, as Phil explains: “Technology helps significantly, whether you’re using messaging apps with their call and video-call capabilities or ’traditional’ video-calling facilities.
“Visuals are also key, as it’s easy to forget that people who are not in the room can struggle to keep up – especially when English isn’t their native language. Recording of calls, a simple tool, is also effective when time zones or travel prevent attendance.”
The rewards for a senior executive will come if they act with genuine intent to build relationships and want to understand what’s happening on the ground, as opposed to seeing the role as an assignment before moving up to the next rung on the corporate ladder. For Tim, the goal of any new leader is to build trust with the team and its members. “Here, we are talking about ‘I trust you to have my back’, not just ‘I trust you to do your job’. So, that means getting out and about and meeting the teams.
“It’s essential and invaluable and shouldn’t be dismissed on cost grounds – if anything in the long run it’s an investment that will pay back many times over.”
Other findings from our Asia Leadership Research 2019 include:
- 38 percent of executives in Asia admit to having no clear and effective regional growth strategy
- 89 percent of leaders in Asia are facing business model disruption
- 54 percent of leaders in Asia report feeling isolated in their role
- 88 percent agree that more should be spent on leadership development rather than recruiters and headhunters