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Overseeing Overseas

December 31, 2008
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Working from his Glencoe, Illinois, home on a typical Monday in November, Harold Sirkin was up at 5:30 a.m. responding to overnight e-mails from Europe and Asia.

    At 6 a.m., Sirkin, the global leader of Boston Consulting Group’s operations practice, spoke by phone to colleagues in China. At 7:30 a.m., he led a conference call with team members in Asia, Europe, South America and the United States.

    At 3:30 p.m., he left for O’Hare International Airport, flying to Paris to meet with executives there. On Tuesday, he flew from Paris to Germany for a client meeting. On Wednesday, he had a client breakfast at the airport before returning to Chicago.

    Like most nights, he says, he was up until "midnight or beyond" to stay on top of e-mails with a staff that spans 38 countries. "This is a full-contact sport," Sirkin says.

    "I’m very responsive to e-mail, but you can’t lead a global organization without meeting the people you’re working with," says the co-author of the book Globality: Competing With Everyone From Everywhere for Everything.

"People need a connection," he says. "They need to have a chance to ask questions and be part of the management decision-making process. And you have to be there and be listening. You can’t do this by e-mail or phone alone."

    Managing employees who work in the same office is challenging enough. But in today’s global economy, it’s often necessary to work with and for people thousands of miles away. E-mail and teleconferences are helpful, but they’re only tools; they can’t guarantee that you won’t misunderstand, offend, inconvenience or otherwise annoy co-workers and clients overseas.

    So how can an executive keep a global workforce motivated and avoid slipping up at the same time? And is it possible to do it without working literally around the clock?

    Veterans emphasize flexibility and these other tips:

1. Use time zones to your advantage
   Many companies take advantage of time-zone differences and cheaper labor to maintain around-the-clock workflow. But it takes constant communication. The Chicago and New Zealand offices of ad agency TimeZoneOne, for example, work together on most of the 50-person shop’s clients but are separated by a 17-hour time difference.

    "We brief our creative team in New Zealand every afternoon at 2 p.m., and they get back to us the next day with the work they’ve done," says Lor Gold, the Chicago-based agency’s global chief creative officer.

2. Gather the team
   For the past 11 years, Boston Consulting’s Sirkin and his 15-person leadership team have gathered twice a year, in Chicago and Paris, to talk business and, just as important, to build personal relationships.

    TimeZoneOne’s Chicago staff headed to New Zealand for a week in November to share skills and help solidify its culture in anticipation of future growth.

    "We want to make sure our culture is solid before we add in people, or it will bust us up," says creative chief Gold.

3. Be sensitive to cultural differences
   Jill Smart, chief human resources officer at Accenture, says that "managing with awareness" generates good will. Alternate the times of weekly conference calls so global counterparts aren’t always inconvenienced; schedule meetings during the week instead of on Mondays so international colleagues can avoid weekend travel; and learn about other cultures.

    Still, sometimes you can’t figure out the cultural playbook until you make some mistakes.

    In 1998, Erin Peterson, now based in Lincolnshire as global head of talent acquisition for Hewitt Associates Inc., relocated to Germany for three years to lead a Western European recruiting team for another company. Faced with a large task, and unaware of the region’s hierarchical culture, she took a collaborative approach.

    "I told the group that I didn’t have all the answers and that we’d figure it out together," she recalls. A Swiss colleague pulled her aside and told her that if she didn’t have all the answers, she wouldn’t be the boss. Peterson quickly changed her tone.

4. Provide meaningful opportunities
   Software maker SPSS Inc. uses teams at its Chicago headquarters and in China to develop its flagship statistics software. When the U.S. workday ends, China takes over testing and customer support.

    What makes it work?

    "Our China team is doing true R&D work, not piecemeal projects," says Richard Holada, who is senior vice president of technology and oversees 400 employees in seven countries. "We want everyone to have a sense of ownership and accomplishment."

5. Recognize talent worldwide
   Experts say the companies doing the best job of retaining top talent are looking beyond traditional boundaries for leadership.

    Hewitt recently promoted its first global leader based in India.

   And during its Chinese New Year celebration in January, SPSS will recognize the first employee in China—and one of only 19 people worldwide—to earn the prestigious title of master software engineer.

    "If people think there’s a glass ceiling, it’s not going to work," Sirkin says. "They need to have the opportunity to move beyond being a local employee to being an active member of the company."

6. Keep employees motivated
   Like all things global, cultural preferences vary when it comes to motivating employees. In the U.S., people generally like to be recognized individually for their successes, while Europeans tend to reward teams for a job well done. Working in Germany, Hewitt’s Peterson singled out an employee for praise. "It was not welcome," she says.

    But she finds her recruiting team in India responds well to a combination of both styles.

   She uses regular monthly conference calls to praise the group and encourages individuals to share best practices.

7. Videoconferencing is your friend
   While e-mail is a constant link, Smart of Bermuda-based Accenture says it’s critical to find the right mix of communications channels. She is based in Chicago, but the consulting giant has leaders in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and beyond.

    Smart likes to see people when communicating, so she relies on videoconferencing technology in the office and a webcam on her home computer.

    "The personal connection is drastically different," she says. "It feels like we’re all there in one meeting."

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