Strategies for Leading a Successful Global Team

Our own research has revealed that all teams–not only those with a global orientation–are struggling.
Ranjit de Sousa, President

Whenever I pick up the phone these days, it seems that everyone wants to ask me the same two questions.

The first is, “how are you?”

The second question is, “where are you?”

Since taking over as president of Lee Hecht Harrison in April, it seems as if I’ve been in constant motion. I travel nearly three out of every four weeks, trying to touch base with as much of my global team as possible. Given the structure of LHH, that’s quite a challenge.

We operate 400 offices in more than 70 countries around the world. We are active on every continent and functional in just about every major language. 

Leading a global team of this size and scope is extremely rewarding but also extremely trying. So much so that it appears many global organizations are struggling to get the most out of their global teams.

For much of the last 30 years, it has been assumed that successful companies were those that grew into global markets and acquired international customers. Organizations that looked beyond the borders of their home countries to compete with anyone and everyone from around the world. The reality of the globalization of business, however, has been a mixed bag.

Last year, The Economist looked closely at the financial performance of 500 of the world’s largest companies to see whether globalization was good for their bottom line. The results were a bit alarming.

The magazine found that in eight out of 10 sectors examined, global companies saw aggregate sales grow more slowly than their domestic peers. And in six out of 10 sectors, global companies saw a lower return on equity. More strikingly, the American firms in the group studied by The Economist saw returns that were 30 percent higher in the United States than in foreign markets. 

There are a multitude of reasons why truly global firms in this study lagged in performance. The article acknowledged that many global organizations have higher overhead, more complex supply chains, and large and diverse workforces. But it certainly does make you wonder whether, for some organizations, the desire to go global exceeded their capacity to compete globally.

To determine if your company may be among the laggards, you have to start by examining the people that make up your organization. Do you have the right people in the right jobs? Is there a talent or skills deficit in your workforce? And perhaps most importantly, are your leaders getting the most they can out of the people they lead?

Our own research has revealed that all teams—not only those with a global orientation—are struggling.

Joint research conducted in partnership with the Human Capital Institute surveyed senior HR professionals and measured the level of satisfaction that organizations have with the performance of their teams. Not surprisingly, 92 percent of respondents indicated that high-performing teams were key to organizational success. To our surprise, however, only 23 percent believed their teams were delivering on assigned tasks and hitting their targets.

These shortcomings can be, in some instances, particularly pronounced when it comes to global teams, many of which work under the most difficult of conditions.

The members of global teams are also, by necessity, constantly travelling. This means that many teams do not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with each other, let alone with the president or CEO. That puts stress on lines of communication and very often leads to poor performance.

If your global team is struggling, where would you start to put things right? I personally have four strategies I use to keep my global team pulling in the same direction.

Over-communicate. I believe very strongly that you can never really communicate too much with your team. You need to be heard on important, pressing issues facing your organization. You need to be available to your team to answer questions and clarify expectations. In short, you need to over-communicate with your team so they know exactly what they need to do to help the organization thrive.

Maintain close proximity. I believe it is incredibly important to do whatever I can to close the gap between me and my employees, wherever they are in the world. Some leaders in my position would rely heavily on remote technology to build relationships with their global teams. This is often done for cost control. For my part, I deeply believe in the power of proximity.

I have learned that close proximity breeds familiarity, which in turn breeds trust. And while it may seem to be an overly simplistic thing to say, it is impossible for a team to achieve all its goals unless they trust you. The power of proximity ensures that you are getting the best possible return on investment in your people.

Cultivate a global mindset. It may seem so obvious a point that it’s not worth making, but you simply cannot succeed as a global concern if your leaders do not know how to think globally. 

I have lived and worked in five different countries—Switzerland (my home nation), France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Foreign assignments allow your leaders to learn all about the people and culture in a country where you want to do business. Not everyone wants to work abroad, and you may have to make foreign assignments a required element in recruiting, leadership and talent development. But without that experience living and working in another country, you will have trouble embedding a truly global mindset in your company.

Balance company culture with local culture. Before you can grow your business in another country, you really need to understand the culture. And to do that, you need leaders who understand how to achieve the balance between a home office culture and the culture of a new market.

In my career, I have observed that business people from countries with dominant cultures sometimes struggle to see the nuances of less dominant cultures. When we begin to think of our own culture as exceptional and unique, we begin to lose our appetite for understanding how other cultures work. That can leave us with blind spots when the time comes to compete globally. 

People who come from smaller countries almost intrinsically understand the value of living and working abroad. In most instances, it’s because they, or their friends or family, have had to move to another country to develop their careers. They know the value of observing and learning the intimate differences between cultures. 

The key imperative is having a team that can achieve that balance between organizational culture and foreign market culture. Sometimes, strong brands from countries with dominant cultures believe success is only a matter of will. And that if they stick faithfully to their brand, new customers in a new market will come around. That isn’t always the case.

These strategies won’t solve all of your global leadership challenges, but making a concerted effort to avoid these pitfalls will give you a great start. Leading a global company can be among the most rewarding, most exciting experiences for any business leader. But unless you take a deliberate and methodical approach to building a leadership team with a global outlook, it can also be a risky venture.