How should you manage a global team?

An expert panel discusses the challenges of leading employees across international boundaries

Nov 27, 2019

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Reid Hastie
Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science, Chicago Booth

Kristen Castillo
US Marketing Director, AbbVie

Chris Baker
Senior Vice President, Parexel

Pedro de Andrade Faria
Founding partner, Tarpon Investimentos


How does leading an international team differ from managing a team that’s based in the same place?

Hastie: There are four big differences between local teamwork and global teamwork. One is country culture differences—Germans and Japanese and Americans trying to solve a management problem together. Second, there are company cultural differences. Employees in the [international] branch of the company or the consultant we’re working with in India may not have the same experience as those inside the American branch of the company. The day-to-day conventions and habits, even though we’re all in the same company, might be different. Third, you have to solve the problem of electronic-media communication. If that fails, everything falls apart: for example, the team collaboration session goes wrong because the phones or the video didn’t work. Finally, there’s the time difference. Sometimes we’re lucky. We may be in Chicago, collaborating with a team in São Paulo, where there isn’t a big asynchrony. But if a team in Chicago is trying to collaborate with colleagues in India and France, that requires time management. It can put a differential strain on the parties, and then they might even make inferences about being disrespected, so you can see how what sounds like just a timing issue creates deeper layers for the climate and performance of the whole team.

Castillo: I’ve been on numerous conference calls at two or three in the morning. One of the biggest things that you learn is to be very flexible. But it’s a give-and-take with cultural and language differences—we get something from our international colleagues and they get something from us. There are times where I have spent every other week on the road going and meeting with my colleagues. Technology is wonderful, but especially when you’re new to a global team, you have to have that opportunity to build relationships and have that face-to-face. 

Faria: A few years ago I was running a Brazilian multinational—based in Brazil but with most of our business in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It required finding a lot of compromises. At first there was some resistance—we were the home office, so we dictated the timings. But we moved until ultimately we found ourselves in the middle. People are people anywhere, and when you go back to the essential elements of a culture, everybody wants to belong to a group, everybody wants to be on a mission or to accomplish something, and everybody has the overwhelming need to feel safe. 

Baker: Understanding other cultures is really important. For example, on a conference call, it’s really against certain cultural norms to speak up, or to speak against an idea, so if you really want people’s opinions, you have to ask them in a different manner. We had a project in China that involved global conference calls. We were trying to elicit feedback on solving problems and improving processes. We had about 100 people on the line, and we weren’t getting any meaningful feedback. So we did smaller groups, with two or three people at a time. We got better feedback, because it was part of the culture to be able to get that in a smaller group.

What’s the optimal number of people for an effective team? And how do you get buy-in among diverse and far-flung teams?

Hastie: Obviously, the optimal size depends on the task and whether the group should be broken down into subgroups that then work in a coordinated or hierarchical manner. As a general principle, groups are too large. There are arguments for oversize teams: often younger, less-experienced staff are brought on to teams to get them acculturated, so that they can learn the conventions and the culture of the company, and how to do the team’s task. Teams aren’t just optimizing execution. They’re also bringing in and training people. But in general, if you’re looking at team composition, you should tell yourself, “This one is probably too large if I am just aiming for maximum efficiency.” 

Castillo: You want to have the right people in the room, not everybody in the room. It’s important to have subject matter experts, and people who are empowered to speak on behalf of the team.

Faria: I’ve often chosen to have too many people in the room because I wanted to make sure—in the context of a globally expanding firm—that everybody was heard, and that everybody was listening to the same “source of truth.” Whereas, when you want to really get effective, probably smaller teams would be better, so long as they have diverse perspectives. I’ve always enjoyed putting together teams that don’t seem to make sense at the start, with the idea that over time, they’ll cohere and become stronger.

Hastie: Another good argument for larger teams is to make sure the solutions they come up with are acceptable to the team and the larger organization. I consider making the team’s solution acceptable to be one of the subtasks of a team and a team leader. How do you get your solution accepted? That can be hard, especially when it’s not going to be a unanimous solution, both within the team and among the stakeholders who will be affected by your decisions.

When does the head office need to set a single strategy, and when should it take a looser approach?

Castillo: You can’t just sit in the home office, come up with a strategy, and expect people to adopt it. With some of our countries and affiliates, it may be as more of a partnership, more of a give-and-take. They tell us what they need, and we try to figure out how we can help them. With smaller countries that have fewer resources, we’re able to provide a lot of assistance, help, and guidance. Even if the overarching strategy is set in headquarters, nobody knows the business like the people who have feet on the street. You have to empower people to make their own decisions and customize. Because you’re not there, because of the time difference, you have to be able to empower people to make really good decisions.

Baker: Sometimes the US corporate strategy needs to be modified to meet a regional landscape. For example, when I held a leadership role for Pfizer in South Africa, where TVs were less prevalent, instead of running TV advertisements for Lipitor, as we did in the US, we focused on developing key opinion leaders’ advocacy for Lipitor and in turn drove one of the highest market shares of the product in the world. 

Faria: One of the most challenging projects I ever worked with was launching a manufacturing facility in Abu Dhabi, [United Arab Emirates], with a team comprising 22 nationalities. We had a lot of language challenges, but it led us to an essential part of our message: the importance of safety. Early on, a lot of the programs were steered toward safety at work. And that facility has been operating, since its launch in 2014, with zero accidents. That message of safety percolated across nationalities. So when you essentialize aspects such as safety, or a sense of purpose and mission, you accomplish far more than you would through strict command and control, which can be very ineffective.

In general, my experience has made me lean toward a lot less command and control and toward a lot more freedom. We acquired a company in Thailand, and I was very interested to learn about Thai culture and the differences between Brazil and Thailand. We figured out that we were never going to learn exactly the cultural aspects of working and operating in Thailand, so we gave a lot of power and autonomy to the Thai team. We made them part of our global teams. Our head of quality assurance came from Thailand. Those kinds of things have proven to be more effective than dictating the entire playbook. 

How do you make sure people in international offices feel they are not isolated but really part of the organization? Has technology helped?

Faria: It’s not enough just to send people from the head office to a local office. Typically, when you do that, the person from the head office acts like an instant knowledge provider who has been parachuted in for two or three days to tell the locals what to do. In my experience, the other way around has been a lot more effective, bringing people from other offices to Brazil. 

Baker: Respect is a big part of it. So is spending time getting to know people better. It sounds basic, but that really helps foster trust and communication. Technology such as teleconferencing makes things easier. However, to build successful work relationships, spending time face-to-face is vital. Traveling to visit colleagues shows respect, fosters relationships, and builds trust.

Castillo: Being able to share slide decks, or using telepresence helps to develop an ongoing cadence. But you have to buoy that up with face-to-face meetings. That really helps round it out.

What advice do you have for someone managing a global team for the first time?

Hastie: My one piece of advice is to put an incredible amount of extra energy into the beginning. [Having] face-to-face meetings, social as well as business, getting people aligned with project goals, being flexible about adopting the central culture versus the peripheral culture—all those things are important. And doing them right at the beginning, getting off on the right foot, that’s essential. 

Castillo: Taking on a global role requires you to make certain sacrifices. It has to be something that you’re ready and willing to take on. It’s certainly not for everybody. But it’s incredibly rewarding as well.  

Faria: It’s all about disintermediating—removing some nodes of the network that can create a lot of resistance. Part of that involves shying away from the head-office leader who says, “OK, I know everything” and looking instead to people who say things like, “I want to learn from you.” On the other hand, I’ve seen instances in which there is a regional office of a multinational where the local managers tell their staff, “We are a great team, despite what the people in the head office are saying.” You need to be up front and attack that. A lot of that happens in the beginning. And over time, trust gets built. People feel safe. They have a shared sense of purpose, or a mission, and then they can perform at their best, despite cultural differences, time zones, and things of that nature.

Baker: It’s key to know how to communicate through the lens of other people’s culture. There is a story about a general manager who went to Italy and tried to build consensus. He ended up getting fired, because the perception was that he wasn’t able to make a decision. That same general manager would have done really great in another country that needed to build consensus. It shows that you really need to understand the culture of the country. That’s important for retaining the local talent there. The job of the leaders in the head office is to learn how to bring out the best in their global workforces by trying to see the world through their cultural lens.