Leading Global Team: Building Alignment
How can a global team leader create shared goals when heading up a team that spans boundaries of geography, culture, and function? In spite of long, successful track records in high-level domestic leadership positions, even the most senior executives struggle to create shared vision within their global teams, citing it as their key challenge.
Differences in market environments and commonsense assumptions about how to do business are more pronounced for members of global teams than for teams whose participants work in the same domestic environment. In our work with hundreds of global teams, a lack of knowledge-sharing systems has been cited as one of the key obstacles to creating a shared vision and common goals. Global team members typically lack sufficient insight into their colleagues’ skills and potential contributions. This fosters isolation and duplicate work, and sets up obstacles to the exchange of best practices, preventing team members from working in alignment toward a common purpose. Virtual communication challenges further contribute to the issues global leaders face when trying to create a shared vision and goals for their teams.
Global organizations also typically have a matrix structure in which it is quite common for individuals to belong to a number of teams simultaneously. This matrix dynamic means that team members are linked with a variety of “stakeholders,” each bearing competing priorities that reflect the needs of different functions, business units, and geographies. For all these reasons, it is more difficult for the individual members of a global team to consistently identify how their efforts fit into the “bigger picture,” and a shared vision becomes both more essential and more challenging to create and maintain.1
We recently conducted interviews with over seventy global business leaders from twenty-six countries of origin and experience on assignment in over thirty-two countries. Many interviewees acknowledged that establishing a shared vision along with clear goals and objectives is difficult even in a domestic team, but emphasized that global and virtual dynamics add significant complexity. Our interviewees indicated that a clear sense of direction, even in the midst of tremendous complexity, is a crucial factor in the success of globally dispersed teams. Their comments are supported by others with special expertise in this area:
“SUCCESSFUL LEADERS OF VIRTUAL TEAMS CLEARLY ARTICULATE TEAM GOALS AND DIRECTION AND CONTINUALLY REVISIT THESE OVER TIME SO TEAM MEMBERS HAVE A SHARED TARGET. ALTHOUGH IMPORTANT TO ANY KIND OF TEAM, CLEAR TEAM GOALS ARE ESPECIALLY CRUCIAL FOR MEMBERS OF VIRTUAL TEAMS BECAUSE THE MEMBERS ARE GIVEN A SENSE OF PURPOSE AND MEANING THAT SUSTAINS THEM WHEN THEY ARE WORKING ALONE OR WITHOUT REGULAR DIRECT CONTACT WITH THE TEAM LEADER OR OTHER TEAM MEMBERS. CLEAR GOALS ALSO HELP TO UNIFY THE ACTIONS OF A GLOBALLY DISPERSED TEAM AND KEEP THE TEAM MEMBERS FOCUSED ON EXECUTION.”2
The more traditional literature on teams seldom addresses the distinct skills required to align team members toward shared goals in a global environment. The global team leaders in our study stressed the unique nature of their roles and the inadequacy of domestic leadership models to prepare them to be successful in a truly global environment.
Invite the Unexpected
What does a global team leader need to know to create a vision and goals that will resonate with team members from around the world? One of the greatest obstacles for leaders and team members working in a global environment may be not only what they do not know, but also what they think they already do know. Past successes have produced a level of confidence in certain approaches and the assumptions on which they are based. But if the practice of creating a shared vision, for example, involves unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance,”3 global team leaders need to take special care to elicit viewpoints that contradict their own or take a different tack entirely. They need to “create a climate that encourages others to participate in the envisioning by contributing ideas, including perspectives drawn by their diverse group cultures and experiences.”4 In other words, global team members must learn how to engrain the custom of inviting the unexpected on a regular basis.
How can a team leader build a shared picture of the future when heading up a team that holds an enormous diversity of perspectives and will rarely meet in person? The team leaders we interviewed shared a rich array of methods. Here are some sample practices from successful global team leaders that are applicable for most teams:
- Kick off the team effort with a face-to-face meeting to build personal relationships.
- Make short-term site visits at an early stage to build an understanding of the business and organizational context in other locations.
- Solicit information and input from team members on a regular basis regarding distinctive characteristics of their local environment; make such exchanges a regular team “habit.”
- Rotate face-to-face team meetings or hosting of virtual meetings between different market locations to promote broader team member awareness.
- Involve team members in decision-making to a greater extent than usual in order to avoid “surprises” or resistance after a decision has been made.
- Wait until after team meetings to receive additional feedback from less vocal members before rolling out solutions.
- Invest in longer-term people exchange between key locations to promote the exchange of information and to provide a “window person” in each location who can support relations with his or her home site.
- Hire international employees into headquarters team member positions and leverage the existing multicultural workforce.
- Build a system for knowledge sharing between team leaders across teams with related tasks.
- Utilize training events for team members and team leaders to foster cross-functional knowledge exchange.
This kind of list might take on a different form for a particular industry or corporate culture, but what is striking is the sheer number of practices that successful team leaders integrate to ensure that team members are systematically learning from one another and from people in other parts of the organization. The road to global team alignment begins with team members who actively seek to learn what they don’t know, and who proactively invite the unexpected as a way of establishing a common purpose.
Note: The content of this newsletter article is based on excerpts from a book on global leadership authored by Ernest Gundling, Karen Cvitkovich, and Terry Hogan, and published by Nicholas Brealey: “What is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders”.