Every time someone asks me about the pitfalls of managing global projects and teams, I
remember this story. What my colleague described, and actually mastered much more effectively than he made it sound, is a great example of the challenges
of working in a global, rather than merely international, project environment.
Let me define these terms: the term ‘global project’ is commonly used for one
reaching across several countries: as in the above story, three or more local teams collaborate, with each working in its own cultural, political, and
legal setting. In contrast, the term ‘international’ here describes project collaboration between teams crossing only one cultural,
political and legal border, for instance in a US-India project.
Leading in a global environment presents a much more complex challenge than working in an
international one. To explore the differences, imagine that you’re an American holding a conference call with a French-only group. It would probably
be most effective for you to present plenty of information to this group, explain the rationale behind your plans and actions, defend those through logical
arguments when challenged, be outspoken where needed, and persistently drive the debate forward until your counterparts signal agreement. By taking this
approach, you are adjusting your style to better match that of the French side, which increases your likelihood of winning their support.
If, on the other hand, the call was with an Indian-only group, you might want to focus your
communication mostly on its leader, refrain from appearing argumentative or confrontational, emphasize benefits to the Indian side, underline areas where
agreement was already reached, and allow sufficient time for decision making, even if that meant not reaching a decision during the call. Again, adjusting
your style will increase your effectiveness across cultures.
But what do you do when you are dealing with both of these groups on the same call? When
communication practices, decision making styles, and other cultural preferences seem mutually exclusive? When passionate arguing could make you more
compelling with the French side but would let you appear overly pushy in the eyes of the Indians? When delaying a decision might be best from an Indian
perspective but could be a mistake with the French team?
Adjusting Cross-Cultural Practices for Global Teams
No matter with which culture or cultures you are dealing, the first rule of engagement is
to learn, for each of them, what you need to know about the ways people communicate, collaborate, and make decisions, to learn about what they respect in
leaders and what hierarchies mean to them, and to learn about everything else that is relevant for your interactions.
When managing a global team, your leadership approach will also need to change. No longer
can you simply adjust behaviors and practices to only one other culture and then expect that to work across the board. Instead, it is crucial to ensure that
everyone on your global team has a working understanding of key cultural characteristics of their own culture, as well as those of everyone else. Your
communication practices will need updating, too: simultaneously working with multiple cultures requires much greater clarity of communication, as well as
more frequent clarifications of objectives and intentions. Moreover, you as the leader of a global team may frequently need to fill roles such as moderator,
translator, and mitigator between the different cultures and sub-teams involved. Successful global project leaders not only continually hone these skills
but are also highly flexible, adaptable, and willing to disregard their personal egos when required.
Are you ready for this challenge?