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Building Teams Across Borders

November 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Featured Article
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Admit it. If you think about it, global teams are probably one of the toughest games around, with little chance to succeed. And if you’re really honest about it, you’d confess that it’s astounding when intercultural teams have any success at all. Luckily, they do. And the credit, in no small measure, goes to the managers -- both HR and line -- who realize what a complex task awaits the global team. They improve the odds by providing tools to help team members make their groups work.

Global teams come in various configurations. Generally, they fall into one of two categories: intercultural teams, in which people from different cultures meet face-to-face to work on a project, and virtual global teams, in which individuals remain in their separate locations around the world and conduct meetings via different forms of technology. Obviously, both kinds are fraught with enormous challenges.

Given the communications and cultural obstacles, what do companies gain from these units? Teams help global companies, preventing them from needing to reinvent the game with each new project. They enable organizations to realize 24-hour productivity via the latest in technology. They allow cross-pollenation between cultures as well as business units, adding depth of knowledge and experience to the endeavor.

But effective global teams are not simple to create or maintain. With myriad challenges -- from time and space logistics, to cultural assumptions that no one articulates because each individual believes them to be so universal -- teams must continually overcome considerable obstacles. While you may be eager to capitalize on the expertise of individuals from around the world, and even have the technology to do so, it’s important to remember that global teams must master the basics, understand the rules, learn to harness both cultural and functional group diversity and become adroit at communication and leadership.

Mastering the basics and understanding the rules.
“Everybody wants to know what’s happening at the edge and the next wave of things to come, but we still find people who don’t do the basics very well,” says Mary O’Hara-Devereaux, co-author with Robert Johansen of Global Work: Bridging Distance, Culture and Time (Jossey-Bass Inc., 1994). “People need some understanding of what a team is -- the variations of the team’s work and the variety of cultures that are on it, ways to communicate effectively, and how to work with distributed leadership so that everyone on the team has leadership roles.”

Covering the basics means ensuring everyone associated with the venture appreciates the difficulties involved with participating in a global team. There should be solid business reasons for forming one. And it’s important that team members and associated managers understand the following considerations:

  • The team champion should have the mandate to choose the people with the right skills for the job.
  • The team should have measurable goals that participants have had the opportunity to discuss and agree with.
  • Meetings must have clearly established objectives and predetermined agendas.
  • Team members must make time to discuss the lines of communication. What methods will members use to communicate? Does everyone have equal access to the communication?
  • Participants should recognize the role of language difficulties and manner of speaking in cross-border teams. For example, individuals from various English-speaking countries will speak in different dialects that may be troublesome for some members. Allow time for group members to acclimate to each other.
  • Members must realize that people need to understand each other’s differences before they can effectively come together as a group. Teambuilding sessions and cross-cultural training can help with this.

Of course there’s a lot more to creating a team than a simple list of do’s and don’ts. Clear expectations, defined responsibilities and an appreciation of cultural differences are among the basics to be accomplished by each team at the outset. Every member must know and comprehend the business objectives, understand the timetables and agree to follow a set of team rules. These are basic elements to success, but they require time and careful consideration if the team is going to consent and abide by them.

Fairfax, Virginia-based Mobil Corp. knows this lesson first-hand. About 10 years ago, Mobil undertook a companywide study and determined that it had to change significantly if it was going to be able to remain a profitable oil company in a volatile marketplace. Its assessment initiated global teams. The company realized that these work groups maximize an individual’s knowledge by sharing it throughout the company with others via natural work teams, as well as transferring best practices within the company. In other words, the best practices from one group would be carried to another via team members.

With more than 43,000 employees -- only 16,500 of whom are in the United States -- and with operations in more than 140 countries, most natural work teams have representation from all over the world, such as the SpeedPass(TM) program initiated by Mobil in the United States.

Working with Texas Instruments, Mobil developed electronic transaction payment systems for service stations. These are like bank debit cards that are customer-activated at pay-at-the-pump terminals. Mobil first tested SpeedPass(TM) in the States with excellent results. The next step was to form a global team to lob that learning from one country to another.

“A project champion, who was the individual who had implemented SpeedPass(TM) in the U.S., was in charge of creating the team with others from the Fuels Advisory Council who nominated individuals to participate,” recalls Bill Cummings, who represented Japan on the team and is currently Mobil’s media relations advisor at the U.S. headquarters. Desiring cross-pollenation, Mobil charged the individual who had successfully implemented Speedpass(TM) in the U.S. with the project leadership. Not only did this individual choose the team representatives, but he communicated to them that their global expertise was critical to the success of the project. He encouraged them to express their different viewpoints.

For example, it was clear that it had taken 20 years for Americans to move from full-serve to mini-serve to self-serve to pay-at-the-pump. Countries like Japan were still accustomed to full-service. Other countries were at different points along the same journey. Only people who had first-hand knowledge of the cultures of countries such as Japan, Australia and Singapore could help take this U.S. best practice and transplant it successfully overseas.

“The concept of taking lessons learned and applying them across as many different countries, cultures and experiences as possible is a fundamental part of Mobil’s corporate culture,” says Cummings. “Clearly, individuals from the different regions would bring their cultural know-how and business perspectives to the team effort. It was their job to evaluate whether or not it was possible to transplant the lessons learned into other cultures.”

Harnessing group diversity.
Even though almost all of the dozen individuals in the group already had been on other global teams, they first gathered face-to-face in Los Angeles. Mobil generally has its team members huddle in one location at the launch of a new effort so they can begin to build relationships with each other and clearly understand the team’s business mission.

This initial meeting was also the occasion in which team members began to understand their roles, confirmed their commitments and decided the rules by which the team would operate. This particular team consisted of marketing and line managers, technology specialists, information technology experts and retail specialists. There were individuals from Texas Instruments present, as well, creating a global virtual team across two companies.

Mobil gave the team members ample time (five days) to get acquainted with the product so they could understand it thoroughly and begin to contribute their ideas for marketing it in their respective regions. This face-time together is when the team leader typically solidifies the group and guides it toward working jointly. Again, several points should be established clearly at this stage: specific team objectives, how to accomplish them, who is responsible for what and when, and general project timetables.

Cross-cultural training is a basic prerequisite for these meetings. Says O’Hara-Devereaux, “I think we haven’t done it very well, so we like to pretend that we are through with it now, and everybody did it.” She continues, “I do think, however, people have grown acclimated and accustomed to working with people who are different than they are. They go into teams expecting things to be a little bumpier. But they’ve done it enough times now that there is a whole set of new expectations and experience and awareness that people bring different elements to the team. They’re comfortable with the relationships that are formed.”

Communicating across the field.
Once the basics are addressed and cultural differences acknowledged, communication takes center field. But communication is achieved through experience, not necessarily through rigid training. “We saw that the workforce was becoming global, so we decided to teach people how to use technology and be sensitive in global teams,” says Santa Clara, California-based 3Com’s Debra Engel, currently executive advisor, and for the past 15 years senior vice president of corporate services. That personal experience accelerates the learning immensely. Says Engel, “It’s amazing how quickly it has switched from a world in which you so rarely had contact with others outside your own work to one where the customer base and marketplace segmentation is disappearing and groups need to communicate all the time.”

3Com distinguishes itself through its use of technology. The company, a networking giant, naturally attracts people who want to push the edge of technology as part of their work. Interestingly, though you might expect 3Com to use whiz-bang high-tech gymnastics in its teamwork, the organization has created a different mentality in the way people operate. With 5,000 employees in its offices in London, Dublin, Tel Aviv, San Diego and Boston, it pursues the ultimate in the virtual office. 3Com’s work with global teams concentrates on obtaining peak performance from solid use of the traditionals: voice, e-mail and teleconferencing.

In fact, phone conferencing handles a huge percentage of the real time interaction. If there is a need for visuals in teleconferences, the team members receive e-mailed documentation. They’ll look at the document on their individual computers while participating in the teleconference. This offers better resolution and clarity than video, and people also have the opportunity to make changes in the document right there on the screen.

Indeed, while the company is so technologically progressive that all 3Com employees have the ability to watch the chairman’s address via live video at their desks, it also knows how to use technology effectively, rather than randomly. It has actually moved away somewhat from videoconferencing. “It wasn’t as productive as telephones when you take into account the time to get to the video-conference facility,” says Engel. “We also found that some of the video is actually distracting -- the delay and extraneous visual effects detracted from the information.”

3Com’s global team members (about 80 percent of whom are senior managers) have also become more experienced and efficient with teleconferencing. They have learned the behaviors that make teleconferencing more productive: speaking louder and more clearly, having extensions of the phone speakers, being adept at describing the materials they’re discussing, and making sure they ask for people’s opinions -- whether they’re physically present or not.

“People get better and better at teleconferencing and they develop new habits,” says Engel. Even when a large percentage of the team is present at the meeting location and others are teleconferencing in, speakers will not project their visuals. Instead, they hand them out, making it easier for them to remember what to describe since some of their audience isn’t in the room. “If you’re projecting the visuals, you tend to take verbal shortcuts. But if you don’t have them projected, you describe them to the people in the room the same way as the people on the phone,” she explains.

Most team members simply call one of the conferencing systems and enter the meeting via a telephone from an office, home or a cellular phone anywhere in the world. These are not mere squawk-boxes that distort sound and cause callers to scream every time they can’t hear. Sophisticated teleconferencing technology allows several callers to join the conversation in a very natural way, and even listen to prior minutes of the meeting so they can hear what they’ve missed. 3Com uses a system called Meeting Place, with which the caller uses a series of codes. One code allows access to minutes of the meeting, and another allows immediate entry to the meeting.

Because people are distributed globally, one of the biggest challenges is the timing of the meetings. If you have people in the United States and Europe, you just choose an early morning Pacific time; if you have conferences that include Europe, the Americas and Asia, you should rotate the time so that the same group isn’t inconvenienced on every occasion.

Cultivating distributed leadership.
With the fundamentals considered, and communication tackled, the teams must next grapple with leadership issues. This is especially important because work in the late 1990s has become more fragmented. Global teams can be severely penalized if leadership isn’t adequate.

And it’s important that there isn’t just one leader. Instead, each team member should have a shared leadership role. One major barrier to global teams is that most people have multiple job responsibilities. Since they have several roles throughout the organization, it’s difficult for everyone to respond in a timely, effective manner. You can imagine this becomes exacerbated when one supervisor is in the States and another is the team leader 10,000 miles away. Individuals will frequently report that their managers require them to perform tasks that interfere with their global teamwork. “People have more roles than they used to,” says O’Hara-Devereaux. “Creating a sense of leadership for everyone so it’s their job to manage other competing demands is important. It needs to be pushed deeper down into the organization.”

Some people may be on four, five or six teams, so they must have a sense of ownership of the processes. This establishes not only division of leadership, but rotation of the overall leadership role, as well. Different people take responsibility for convening and running remote meetings, and measuring progress.

Consequently, global leadership training is another skill that must be developed. People should be selected for team participation with leadership in mind, and they must also be trained, supported and monitored.

In the beginning of the team building, however, there typically is a more traditional team leader who helps define the leadership role, as well as the goals and responsibilities for each person on the team. This individual must ensure everyone has explicit enough information so they can clearly visualize what they’ll be doing and where they’ll be going.

Finally, people need to provide solutions to the team. They can’t be shy about offering their ideas. In many business situations, groups come together to work out solutions from the bottom upward. But most global teams don’t have that luxury. Part of the leadership function is to be responsible for coming up with solutions that fit into the overall context of the team’s goals.

Challenged from all fronts, successful global teams need guidance to overcome the substantial barriers they encounter. When you think about the tasks your global teams must accomplish -- and you consider the language obstacles, the cultural barriers, the business challenges -- it becomes apparent that your role as global HR manager is equally complex. You can help your organization’s cross-border teams enormously by offering cultural preparation and training on successful teamwork, and by providing ongoing assistance with the maintenance of the team.

Global Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 12-17.

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