Podcast: How to lead an international team

Contributor: Matthew Dickason, Global Managing Director, Hays Talent Solutions

Global mobility, moreover, the expansion of work forces overseas is nothing new, but thanks to the vast host of productivity, management and communication tools available- from Google Hangouts to Skype for Business, managers today are able to lead international teams without even having to get on a plane.

And whilst a globally expanding workforce is a strong indicator of company success, it can present its own challenges for a leader, namely the question of how one person can lead an international team from their home base. During my thirteen years at Hays, I have been based in offices across the Asia Pacific region and Europe, and in this podcast, I will be sharing what I have learnt about successfully leading an international team.

Podcast notes:

1. What would you say is the number one challenge leaders face when running an international team?

I think from my perspective, and probably many others would say this – is communication. But there is an element within that that is additional to communication. I will delve into the communication in a bit, but to have effective communication across your teams, you need a level of trust across those teams as well and that is trust in you as a leader, as part of the communication framework that enables successful communication.

So one of the things that I do, obviously having worked around the world with many different cultures, is work on building that trust with my leadership teams and the people that report into them around the world as well. And how do I role model that trust and show them that I am not just there to manage and lead them, but I am there to support them. So one of the rules that I gave to myself in building that trust is – whenever I go and see the people that work for me in different parts around the world… (and I lead five Managing Directors who have teams that sit underneath them in different regions around the world, so the Americas, different groups within Europe and the UK and then also Asia Pacific, and the cultural variations are quite significant within that)… one of the things that I have as a rule for myself is whenever I go and see them, I am not there just to review what they are doing and to manage them. I make sure that when I am in town I also help them grow and develop their business.

I make sure I go and see external clients with them, and help them be successful in the roles that they are in and lead by example. And I think that makes quite a big difference in them seeing me as a trusted leader that is, enabling them and supporting them not just managing them. And then that is kind of the framework that you can have successful communication within. Leading people thousands of miles away is quite a challenge and sometimes people can be misinformed, misdirected. They can misunderstand communication that you think is quite obvious.

So for me it is also about then following up with formal and informal communication as well. So when you are actually talking to them on a one-to-one basis, making sure that they understand what you’re meaning is and then following up later with further one-on-one communication when you also, then looking from the perspective as a team and getting team meetings together, making sure that you are bringing the people who are less able from a language perspective into the team meetings and making sure that you have got equity within the team as well.

So one of the things that I typically do, and I use video a lot in managing my teams and communicating across my teams is, I make sure everyone has the same experience. If there is a group of people say, in one of my largest team which sits in the UK, they are not allowed to sit together in the meeting. Everybody has to get on their own PC, and turn on their camera so everyone has the same experience. So the person that had been sitting by themselves in Beijing, has the same experience as the guy who is sitting in London, who has another three people that are also in the same meeting, but they will look and feel the same. And actually for myself, it is one of the things I find really effective.

I actually sometimes have better global meetings when I have got everyone on a video conference. I can see everyone’s faces at the same time. I can see their engagement, but there is some tools as well in the background. You can monitor their engagement. You can see whether or not they have shifted to another, I do not do that, but they are there and available to you. But creating that equity and then from my perspective, making sure that I am facilitating the process of that meeting and making sure I am bringing different viewpoints in. And to a certain extent, making myself vulnerable in that communication and letting people see that it is okay to be vulnerable. That is how we get the best results. That there is an equity within that. I think that is one of the things that facilitates better communication.

And then after the meetings, so when I have got a structured global meeting, I make sure that I follow up with different people afterwards to make sure that they have the same understanding of the outcomes for that meeting as I do because there are many instances where there is a slight nuance or slight difference, that if you do not address and make sure that they understood that part effectively at the very beginning, you can find yourself two or three weeks down the road and then doing something completely different to what everyone within the group agreed. And obviously from a business perspective that is bad, but also from an inclusion within the group perspective that is bad. Because people within the group then start to think that they are not contributing to the extent that they should be.

So for me it is one-on-one, front-end communication. Then making sure that I have effective team meetings and that I have got effective communication across that. And there is equity within it. And then lastly following up again on one-on-one and reinforcing and making sure there is clarity in the messages.

2. You touched on the vast cultural differences that you can experience in a large international team. Do you have any other advice for leaders on how to manage that specifically?

For me, cultural diversity is obviously a massive benefit actually, if you bring the cultural diversity to the fore and you show what the value of that is. I suppose from my perspective it is getting your global leadership team to understand the cultural variations and understand why people put things in certain ways and why not. And it is from my perspective making sure that I have an understanding of people’s perspectives and the context under which they operate.

But from an organisational perspective and the culture within which they live on a day-to-day basis – I am beneficial in that I have worked and lived all around the world. So originally South African, I did quite a bit of work and business in South Africa, so I understand African context. I obviously worked then in the UK and Europe and understand the different cultures across Europe. I then ran our Asia-Pacific business for a long time. And so I understand the variations and you know, one of the things that I always find is people say who have not lived in Asia, they say ‘Asia’ as one group and it is not, you know. Asia is multiple cultures, which are very, very different. So for me, I suppose bringing some of that to the fore, quite often in the beginning of meetings.

So if I have got a meeting with the global leadership team, whether it is on video or the infrequent times, we are able to get together as a team in person, bringing together and showing people what those cultural variations are and allowing people to articulate them and respecting those, and kind of bringing out the value and showing the value of that. It provides a context of understanding for the leaders who are operating in different environments. So now I have got a leader who runs my Americas’ business who is based in San Francisco, with an understanding of what the guys in Shenzhen China are talking about in the context under which they are working.

And then cultural celebration for me is also something that kind of helps. And it was something that I learned when I was running Asia Pacific and it was actually a guy that worked for me in Southern China. He said to me, “it is moon cake festival at the moment, so it is the norm for you to bring mooncakes to the people and take it to clients” et cetera, et cetera. And so at the back of that, I got a bit of understanding of “well, what is moon cake festival? Why are we celebrating it?” And then I saw the effect of actually celebrating that with the people and following the customs and norms, and how much trust that built in the relationship that I had and how much better my communication as a result was.

So it is bringing those things to the fore with my global leadership team for them to understand what is happening in other people’s parts of the world and why they celebrate certain things the way they do. I mean, it is pretty simple to be entirely honest. And it is just having a certain level of emotional intelligence to understand people’s context and then make that real for other people around the room. You look at the teams that I have got say, in the Netherlands versus the teams that I have got in Germany. There are massive similarities, but there are also really big differences, and making them understand what the differences are and the value that this brings to the fore.  

3. What about teams working remotely from one another? How else can you help bring them together in order to better and more effectively collaborate?

Obviously the best form of bringing them together is in person, but that is prohibitively expensive to do all of the time. I tried to bring my global team together once a year if at all possible, and spend a few days together really brainstorming about what the future is and the things that we need to focus on, and are we going in the right direction. And then following that up with regular global meetings on a video basis, coming back to video conferencing.

The tools that we have today are really there to enable us to collaborate and be able to talk as a global team and brainstorm. I think brainstorming is the right terminology to use as well, as opposed to just having meetings, but it does not mean you do not set agendas. I think it is very important that you set agendas and people know what you are there to talk about. And then also having people from different parts of the world with different areas that they have to contribute in the agenda. So it is not my agenda, right? I get everybody else to contribute to the agenda in advance of meetings. And then I give responsibility for leading that part of the conversation or brainstorming session to different people. Sometimes that is because they are the experts in that area, and sometimes it is because I want them to be more vocal in the environment that we are in and to be seen and to have more of a kind of leadership position within that. So it is enabling cohesion across the group. And I think that is really effective, and bringing those teams together and enabling good communication.

4. When it comes to hiring people to join an international team – what traits do you think leaders should look out for specifically?

Increasingly from my perspective, it is about emotional intelligence and also the soft skills. The skills of managing a business to some extent can be taught, so the soft skills and having emotional intelligence and understanding is one of the first things that I always look for in people. And then a previous exposure to working across different cultures and geographies is beneficial. If they have got a high emotional intelligence, it is not necessarily essential, because they should therefore be culturally sensitive. But if they have got a previous disposition or experience of doing that, all the better when coupled with the softer skills.

And then also kind of looking at the way they manage relationships. So are they proactive in the way they manage relationships? How do they adjust the way they communicate with people? And I quite often have very different ways of communicating with different people within the groups that I manage, because I understand what their preference in communication style is.

And just yesterday I was chatting to a Chief Commercial Officer. He was talking about his son and the fact that his son never uses the phone to phone. It is all sending WhatsApp messages to friends and he could not understand it. He was like, “you have got to pick up the phone and talk to people.” And interestingly enough, from my perspective, I was thinking about it just the other day as I was walking home from the train station, that short form of communication that requires a quick response. My preference of communication is text message or WhatsApp or Instant Messenger, because it allows for quick assimilation of the idea and response, and it is effective at managing disparate teams. Lots of people, multiple reports, but you have got to adjust your communication to the people that are receiving that communication.

So it is using the telephone, it is using text message, it is using Instant Messenger, and then looking at people that you are managing – their ability to do that. And we know what their preference is and if they are able to change their preferences. That is one of the things that I look at in people. One of the other things that I look at when I am recruiting people for my management structure, is their proactivity and communicating with me. Will they be coming and telling me everything that’s going on in their business? Are they comfortable with me having a completely open door? And so, you know – at any time of the day or night they can communicate with me and if I am up and around I will respond to them.

But then, also, their comfort that I will have an open line of communication with the people that report into them. Because one of the things from my perspective in managing a globally dispersed team, and teams that are kind of close to me is understanding the context of the environment within which they are operating themselves. And how do I add value to them in that? If I only listened to their voice, I am only getting their view. But if I hear the voices of the people that report to them, I can hear what is happening in the organisation, and I can help them make sense of what is happening in the organisation and support them better.

That, for a leader, who is reporting to me, can be an uncomfortable position because it can make them feel like I am undermining their leadership position.

So from my perspective, I have got to manage that very carefully and make sure that I am not doing that, but they also need to be comfortable with the fact that I am talking to the people that report to them, really to get better context of what is happening within their business so I can provide them greater support and not to undermine them. So their comfort and to a certain extent, I think therefore their own sense of purpose and their own sense as a leader that they are comfortable with, why they have got that job and that they are not insecure or do not show the tendency to become insecure in the future, are some of the things that also look for when I am recruiting someone in that position.

5. Would you say it is fair to say that with such a disparate team, there is sometimes a need for a much more fluid hierarchy?

Yes, and I think if you see modern teams today, the old organisational hierarchy of – you can have maximum of eight reports – all that is no longer really true. And so I have got too many. I have got 16 direct reports, and I would love to change it, but I keep on trying to and it does not necessarily work. So yes, I think there needs to be more fluidity in your management style and how you have your reports organised. And more and more it becomes how well do you lead people across a matrix, because many times they have got me as the boss, right? But they have also got a local boss that has got a different part of the business, and so how did they manage that dynamic and how do you support them within that.

I think the old school way of running and managing a hierarchical organisation is quickly changing, and when we service clients, we look at how most of their organisations are changing as well. It has become much more how quickly – do you adapt and change the environment that you are in and therefore, how you are enabling that with project teams that are executing change programmes. And for you to be effective at that, you need to have different project teams reporting in to you at different times, which means the people that report in to you change relatively regularly.

6. This is a question that we ask all of our podcast guests, what do you think are the top three qualities that make a good leader?

First and foremost, for me, it is – lead by example. Role model the behaviours that you want to see in others, support them in doing the same. It is your job as a leader to, as a group, come up with the direction and then finalise on the direction and set the direction for where the business is going.

Then from my perspective, it is putting the trust in the people that report in to you to execute on that direction. Empower them to do that and give them the space to be able to execute on. Do not then try and step in and micromanage them, trust them that they do what they need to do. Obviously guide them along the way and be there as the sounding board, so that you can identify when things are not quite going in the direction you would want them to be. But you really need to set the direction, give them the space and then empower them to do that and really resist closing the space down. When things are not going perfectly sometimes people’s natural reaction is to close the space down really quickly and start to manage. And that removes all of that trust and space that you have built up over time. So resist the temptation initially try and guide first, and only really close down the spaces when you are in a crisis moment and you know that things are not going to be successful if you don’t step in and help.

So you know from my perspective, it is my job is to set direction, guide, trust and empower.

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