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BW Businessworld

How To Manage A Global Team

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Imagine teams of people from different cultures working with each other day and night across 24 time zones. These virtual teams are the backbone of global businesses. They can tackle complex and strategic issues, helping their company to become more responsive to markets and customers. They are containers for innovative thinking, by which their company can leap ahead of its competitors.

Gautam Kheria joined a large manufacturing company 11 years ago. He has managed some of his company’s most complex projects and won two national awards for being an outstanding team leader. Gautam follows four principles:

    His people know exactly what the team is expected to deliver, and by when;
    Each person knows what she or he will be asked to contribute — in terms of expertise and administrative support;
    Communication lines are always open, and team members are well-informed about how problems will be solved and decisions made;
    Time is made to have fun, so people on his team get to know and enjoy each other.

Last year, the board of directors decided to expand globally, acquiring manufacturing sites in countries in Latin America and Africa. Gautam was tapped to work with site managers at three facilities outside India and five facilities in India. His three-year mandate was to orchestrate technology transfers across the eight sites and to create shared knowledge about brand-building.

What an immense, complex responsibility! This was not about managing a cooperative group of managers in one country, as he had in the past. This was about creatinga a sense of collective responsibility among managers who did not know each other; and most likely, they did not experience the same loyalty toward the company that he did.

Gautam realised that the site managers would have to get out of region-based silos, do some forward thinking, work with teammates with different backgrounds, motivations, and values, and meet production deadlines too. Could he make this happen?

Gautam’s team management was not the best. He made mistakes, but he learned too. In his interim report, he wrote up three tips for working effectively on a culturally diverse, geographically dispersed team.

Secure support from senior stakeholders, including one’s boss, in advance. To forge trust and commitment, team-members must meet face-to-face at least once every year. This is especially important in the first six months after the team is launched. But funds for travel or multi-point video-conferencing are not enough. Without resources for expert inputs about cultural differences and team development, the group could fumble.

Encourage proficient use of multiple modes of communication. Yesteryear’s phone-calls and email are no longer the only options. Now there is the company’s video-conferencing, slide-sharing, and intranet systems; skype; and voice and text messages beeping for attention.

But using communication technologies is still an art. Airing a disagreement on email is pointless — better to pick up the phone. Asking for an instantly messaged yes or no is a clever way to include team members for making a decision — but multi-point video-conferencing will draw out opinions far more effectively. It is the mind and heart connection across these channels that matters.

Allocate sufficient time to work through the logistics of virtual meetings. The 24-7 work of virtual teams has turned the pace of senior managers’ lives from hectic into frantic. Pre-dawn meetings from some regions of the world pile on top of dinner and middle-of-the-night meetings in other regions. It takes ingenuity and perseverance to distribute the inconvenience of round-the-clock meetings in a fair way, and show respect for the multiple commitments of team members.

Technology too is not fail-safe — often meeting participants wait while staff figures out how to re-connect locations or reduce distortion.

Without pre-planning, logistical and technical glitches become irksome and encroach on creativity and productivity.

Gautam’s tips are quintessential for managing virtual global teams. Business growth accelerates if natural, technological and human resources are properly integrated. New regional markets open up if localised information, knowledge, and insights are used. Innovation happens if team interactions are a dynamic mélange of opinions and perspectives. Without doubt, such effective teams add unprecedented value to their organisation.

Meena Wilson is Senior Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and author of Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today: Insights from Corporate India (Wiley, 2010).