Diversity is an asset for any business, but leading an international team – together with its spread of cultures, characters and objectives – is a significant challenge for anyone tasked with the job. It requires an insightful balance of operational and interpersonal skills.
“As a global leader you need to create a shared consciousness and constantly remind everyone about where they are contributing to the strategic objectives,” says Camilla Perselli, who works with a number of global heads as Relationship Manager at Criticaleye.
“A big part of a global leader’s role is to act as an interpreter between the teams, because a lot of what is said is subject to misinterpretation if you don’t understand regional culture and differences. That calls for a great deal of EQ and the ability to cut through the noise to the core issues.”
We asked a range of global leaders about their experiences and advice on how to lead a global team.
Don't Underestimate the Power of Face-to-Face Meetings
Nestlé Waters is a standalone globally managed business of Nestlé. It has 35,000 employees across 40 countries and 93 production sites.
Building a rapport across a global spread that large is a challenge; you have geographic diversity, time differences and different regional agendas. We manage that with a very clear governance structure, monthly virtual meetings and by physically coming together three to four times a year.
As much as technology has developed, there is no better way of building trust and rapport among a team than with physical presence. We need everyone to share their challenges and perspectives, and spend time together, so you can see things through their lens.
On a personal level, I’ve found the best way to build credibility and rapport was to spend time with my teams in each of those regions. I spend at least one week a year travelling with each of my six regional HR Directors, which gives me time to really get to know them and their challenges. It also brings down the barriers of formality so they are more inclined to be open and honest.
Each regional HR director has to feel they have an equal voice, despite the variance in their markets and employee numbers.
Form a Global Communication Strategy
, NED and founding investor of UK consumer start-up, Candy Mechanics
The ability to quickly create a rapport and break down barriers in a polite way is very helpful in allowing you to become an effective global leader. It’s a skill rather than a personality type and it can be learnt, but if you have a genuine interest in people and cultures you’ll acquire that ability much faster.
The crucial ingredient is communication. As a new global leader you need to be out meeting people during those first 90 days, but that does have a limited lifespan; you can’t keep going back or you’ll risk your own home life as well as getting other elements of the job done. That means having a communication strategy.
I had the benefit of coaching from General Stan McChrystal and his colleagues who were tasked with aligning 8,000 people during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army’s enemy and environment had changed so it had to adapt its command and control style by using technology to make agile, local decisions.
The General pushed me to deliver weekly communication as close to the individual as possible, so I started filming and emailing a three-minute weekly video from my phone. At first I thought it was a disaster but as I travelled around in the weeks after, I realised people were acting like they knew me. The internal comms team wanted to make it more polished and professional but I wouldn’t let them near it; the point is that it feels genuine.
Make Strategic Secondments
, CEO of polymer cleaning company, Xeros Technology Group
The greatest gift I was given – not just in my career but in my life – was the opportunity to live and work in different continents and cultures.
There are great benefits, and a great need, for people to move geographically across organisations, because it transfers learning both ways and provides greater understanding for how a business should operate. Making good decisions about where to develop people benefits both the individual and the company.
I’ve spent 30 years on three continents in large corporates including Total, Laing O'Rourke and BOC, where I was responsible for global strategy and business development. The diverse exposure that gave me to very different experiences meant I grew as a person; my eyes opened and career blossomed.
The experience helps you understand others better, but also helps you recognise how you think and operate; it’s very valuable in forming relationships.
My children came with me on that journey and it created a greater degree of understanding and acceptance in them too and they would tell you they are better for it.
Balance Global Standardisation with Local Adaption
We’re in 80 countries with a total workforce of 420,000 people and my role is to co-ordinate everyone so that there is standardisation across the company.
There will be cultural differences in how people carry out their work, so I need to find the right balance between what to mandate globally and what to customise locally.
You can only make that decision after having strategic face-to-face meetings, during which you can read body language and cues. However, if you know your subject matter and can challenge with humility, you don’t have to be down on the ground for very long.
We have what we call ‘expert networks’ which are groups of similar minded people who want to work together on a project, such as safety or energy management. They share best practise among themselves faster than floating it up and back down through management.
It’s amazing how quickly good ideas will take traction globally. For example, unknown to employees, a team in Brazil videoed the family members of staff, asking them why it’s so important their loved ones come home safe each night. Many other local teams chose to translate or remake that video for their teams in order to send important safety messages, and that happened organically.