How to lead international teams: drop the stereotypes

When figuring out how to manage an international team it's easy to fall back on tired stereotypes. But a better strategy is for managers to start closer to home, a new course at Företagsuniversitetet in Stockholm teaches.

Published: Tue 21 Feb 2012 17:21 CEST
How to lead international teams: drop the stereotypes

The globalized world has broken down business boundaries. The nine-to-five working day has dissolved to span different time zones and colleagues could well be sitting in different continents rather than across the room of an open-plan office.

International projects can be both profitable for companies and rewarding for employees but are a challenging minefield to manage. To avoid the many pitfalls, Företagsuniversitetet is offering the course Leading International Teams on April 23-24 in Stockholm. The two-day event is described by course leader Bob Dignen as “default training” to be effective in today’s corporate climate.

“The world of work is now global; it’s more complex, it’s more uncertain, it’s more diverse and it’s more prone to conflict,” he adds. “This training is applicable whether you’re a huge multinational, an SME just beginning to make inroads abroad, an academic institution attracting foreign students or a trade union who now has to participate in European works’ council.”

Dignen is director of York Associates, a UK-based consultancy founded 30 years ago on the premise of supporting companies to be effective in an international arena. “Cultural communication has risen as a recognised discipline but has suffered from the fact its focus has stayed very much around the country culture,” he says.

The days of doling out a handbook on “Doing business with the Swedes” with a comprehensive list of cultural quirks don’t cut it anymore.

“If you are told you will experience a certain degree of silence in Sweden, that doesn’t tell me about an individual,” he adds. “Ask yourself the following instead. Am I really silent? How do I listen? How do I like to speak? How do I like to engage people? Cultural references are interesting and sometimes true but for me there are actually a starting point for self-reflection.”

This course instead focuses on self-awareness, understanding your own values and style and using sensitivities to motivate, influence and to galvanise a team into being as high performing as possible.

At the same time that cultural coaching has become more sophisticated, companies are slowly starting to realise that they need to invest or pay a bigger price in the long run.

“What characterises international project teams is low level inefficiency – people begin to find frustration in how people work, communicate and deliver and a creeping lack of harmony begins to enter the team”, Dignen says. As a result, communication doesn’t flow, deadlines aren’t hit and quality is not as high which costs companies significant amounts of money as projects extend, work is duplicated and people lose motivation.

With experience from working closely with leadership in a large Swedish organisation, Dignen views the course as potentially challenging for native managers.

“There is a strong sense of pride about the kind of democratic leadership style that has emerged over the last 20-30 years,” he says. “And it is seen by many Swedish leaders as absolutely best practise. The big challenge for many Swedes is to recognise that their own concept of leaderships is not shared and they may struggle to step into behaviours they feel are morally wrong, like directing people and telling them what to do.”

Dignen admits he doesn’t share those characteristics and works with course participants using case studies, cognitive activities and observation. “It’s actually very difficult in modern working life to get insightful feedback,” he says. “People are a little bit afraid to tell the truth and investigate weaknesses but I am quite happy to go there and give participants a real sense of where they may need to improve.”

The course is experiential. “The moment people walk through the door they are interacting internationally – they are meeting me and I’m an international partner,” he adds. “I seek to inspire curiosity and if I can get people asking 10 per cent more questions after two days then I’ve been successful because that enables them to teach themselves to become better leaders.”

There’s one question Dignen is used to being asked - why do people need training to communicate more effectively? “The answer is simple,” he says. “For international organisations to reach the best results people need to be excellent communicators - not just good, not just average. It’s time to move to the next level.”

Click here for more information on the course.

Want to be more effective? Avoid the pitfalls of managing international teams

Working at home and abroad
Don’t assume that the way you do things domestically will work internationally – it very often does not. It can sometimes take too long for leaders to realise that they may need a different skills set.

The time factor 
Managers often don’t dedicate enough time to the fundamentals - building relationships, getting to know people and building trust. Don’t relegate the emotional side of international business by spending too much time simply getting the job done.

Meet and greet your team 
Get enough budget to travel enough to spend time with your team. One of the skills of an international leader is to have the ability to fight your manager for a decent travel budget because working solely with telephone or video conferencing isn’t enough.

The power of politics 
Don’t underestimate internal politics in a project with global participants. Many international projects involve a lot of change across an organisation, such as the standardization of a process.

Getting lost in the big picture 
International leaders usually dedicate a lot of time to projects but lose sight of the need to coach team members through the international process. They often work domestically and their heart remains local. Much of the inefficiency comes from team member to team member in different countries rather than at the leadership level.

Article sponsored by Företagsuniversitetet


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