Global Team Leaders: Have You Got What It Takes?

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Home > Articles > Global Team Leaders: Have You Got What It Takes?

 Global Team Leaders: Have You Got What It Takes?

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
June 1, 2017

​If you want to be a successful leader, leading a global team is the perfect way to stretch yourself and grow the skills you need.

Noise can be alarming, but silence can be even more alarming. There is a huge amount of fashionable noise about how firms should respond to globalisation. This normally focusses on the global versus local debate. More recently, there has been a cacophony of articles chattering about cultural differences: academics have discovered that people from China, Europe, Japan, America, and Singapore do not all think the same way.

Listen behind the noise and you will hear one topic reverberate to the sound of silence: how do you make global teams work?

Making a team work in the office is hard 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 cannot see your colleagues. You are separated by time zones, language, and culture; where you have to influence decisions and decision-makers you may not have met; you cannot have the quick two-minute conversation in the corridor, and you are cut off from the daily banter of the office which lets you knowwho is doing what and what they are thinking.

The day-to-day reality of globalisation is not about designing the global-local structure of the firm. Nor is it about exploring global cultures. It is about helping small teams of people, who are spread out across the world, function well. These teams may be working on supply chains, serving customers, building information technology (IT) systems, doing research and development (R&D), or marketing and selling. This is the unglamorous plumbing of globalisation. Plumbing may not be glamorous: we only really appreciate its value when it goes wrong. Given the challenges of working on global teams, there is plenty that can go wrong.

For the last three years I have been working with over 80 firms worldwide to find out how global teams work. Everywhere I went, it was a hot topic. These teams do important work, but no one knows how to make global teams work well. Nor is there any help at hand: until now, no one has wanted to examine the unglamorous plumbing of globalisation.

The challenges global teams face are different, and tougher, than the challenges of running a team in your office. In particular, global teams need exceptional leaders. If you can lead a global team, you can lead any team. The demands and expectations of a global team leader are higher than for a domestic team leader. Put positively, this is a wonderful learning experience for any aspiring leader.

During the course of the research, a distinct profile of a successful team leader emerged. To succeed in a global context, you need three qualities:

1) High-level Traditional and Technical Skills
The traditional skills of motivating, managing performance, communicating, coaching, and delegating become  far harder in a global context: you are separated from your team by distance, time zones, language, and culture. In a domestic team, co-location means that any misunderstandings are quickly picked up and the problem is resolved. There is no safety net on a global team: you have to get it right first time, every time. That is a high bar to clear.

Even the simplest tasks become harder on a global team. In an office, you can see if someone is struggling or coasting and you can adjust accordingly. On a global team, you have no easy way of managing workloads. And if someone is struggling, how do you coach and support them when you cannot talk to them face-to-face and in private? How do you know if your team members have understood or even agreed with what you are proposing?

Your team will expect you to prove yourself. On a domestic team, everyone will know who you are. Your reputation precedes you, for better or for worse. On a global team, no one knows about you. You have to go about establishing your credibility and your track record all over again. Quietly, everyone will be wondering if you really are the best person for the job: you are competing for your position against a global talent pool.

As a global team leader, you have to rise to global, not local, standards. The performance bar is far higher, even for the basic tasks of team leadership.

2) Specific Skills for Managing Globally
When you manage a remote team across cultures and time zones, you need all the standard disciplines of team management. But they are not enough. You need two distinctive skill sets, to a far greater degree than they are required on a domestic team.

The first skill set is about building a high commitment team. Compliance is not enough. You need team members who do their best for you even when you are asleep: they have to go the extra mile for you and you have to trust that they will make the right decisions in your absence. Your team has to trust and believe in you, your vision, and your values. You have to create a team culture which transcends any one national culture. You are not an imperialist imposing home country rules on the rest of the world. Building your high commitment team also means you have to find the right people to put on the team. Spotting talent (let alone recruiting talent) in an alien culture is a high art form.

The second skill set is about influencing the wider organisation. On a global team you have to influence decisions, stakeholders, and team members remotely. You will not have direct control over your destiny: this means that the art of influence becomes more important. With your team, influence means building trust and commitment instead of command-and-control. With key stakeholders, influence means building alliances, aligning agendas, and persuading people remotely. The art of influence is part of the domestic managers’ tool kit: it is a vital part of the global leaders skill set.

3) Distinctive Mindset
Global team leaders have a highly distinctive mindset. Five characteristics stand out:

a. Curiosity. Global working is like the infamous British spread called marmite. It is a yeast based extract which people love or hate. The same is true of global working: people either love it or hate it. Those who love it enjoy the freedom, the autonomy, the chance to discover new cultures and new ways of working. People who hate it, hate the ambiguity, uncertainty, the foreign foods and ways, and the anti-social hours.

b. Cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to quickly learn how people and systems work in different cultures. You can acquire some cultural knowledge by reading and preparation. But intelligence beats knowledge every time. Knowledge captures “know what” facts; intelligence is about “know how” skills. Global team leaders need a mindset which is very open and observant; it learns fast and avoids making judgements.

c. Adaptability. Successful leaders in a domestic context will have a tried and tested success model. There is no point in changing that success model, unless the context changes. The global context changes everything, and your domestic success model will be of limited use to you. How you communicate, deal with crises, give feedback, make decisions, set goals, and manage performance changes when dealing with people you do not see and who react in different ways from colleagues in your home country.

d. Accountability. Things always go wrong on global teams, and there is always someone or something to blame. But that gets you nowhere. The best global leaders make no excuses: they find ways around all the challenges of global working and make it happen. They have the confidence to act above their pay grade and will bypass formal systems where they have to.

e. Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. Certainty, predictability and reliability are prized assets in any business. And they are highly elusive on a global team. The team needs some routine to avoid chaos, but the team leader has to be comfortable dealing with surprises and ambiguity.

These skills and mindset are demanding. The good news is that these are the skills that all leaders will need in future. The future is not going to be based on the certainties of command-and-control style leadership. The future will require leaders who can cope with ambiguity, uncertainty, and changing conditions; it will require leaders who can exert influence far beyond their formal authority; it will require leaders who can lead people who are not like themselves. So if you want to be a successful leader, leading a global team is the perfect way to stretch yourself and grow the skills you need.



Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.


Copyright © 2017 Singapore Institute of Management

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