Leaders operating on a global scale have nuances to learn that those who only deal domestically rarely have to think about. Like learning the meaning of a “works council” in Germany, that dinners in the Middle East don’t end until you, the guest, signal the end of dinner, or the proper etiquette for delivering your business card in Japan.
Those are relatively surface-level issues that amount to cultural competency. Harder to answer is a more essential question: How do you design an environment that allows you to build and support successful teams across many different cultures?
The answers to that question are perhaps more foundational to how you run your company than you’d think.
Develop Leaders, Not Just Managers
Leaders have an outsized impact on the effectiveness of a team and the culture of your organization. How they choose to lead makes a huge difference in how those team members feel and how they produce.
It’s too often oversimplified and, frankly, easier to think of developing leaders in the form of some sort of checklist. Such as giving new managers specific instructions on when and how often to schedule one-on-ones, how to delegate, key factors to remember about legal compliance.
The checklists help, but they aren’t going to drive collective behavior that leads to a strong organizational culture, especially when adding the complexity of developing leaders located globally. The principles underlying the creation of conditions for people to say, “I’m a valued member of a winning team doing meaningful work in an environment of trust,” are universal. But the practices may be different against the backdrop of various cultural norms and values.
One critical principle for leaders to model is humility. Humility that no one knows everything about anything. And, in practice, to be curious about cultural differences.
For example, we now know from years of experience that the responses to the annual culture survey we send to teams around the world is going to look different depending on who’s filling it out. American team members are more likely to give a high rating, but tough commentary. Japanese teams are likely to provide lower scores, balanced with positive commentary.
If you did nothing but look at the numbers, you’d have trouble prioritizing which opportunities needed the most attention. But if leaders learn how to seek first to understand, they’ll build trust and make more effective decisions.
Instill Disciplines That Empower Diverse Ideas
The basis of strong habits are the principles of choice, purpose, vision, empathy and collaboration.
Regardless of location, leaders must communicate the goals to be achieved, why they are important and how they tie to your organization’s mission. More specifically, visibility to the desired result at every level of the company and ensuring that each person knows how their work impacts that result, the higher your workforce engagement and accompanying results. And then allowing as much freedom as possible in how the work gets done.
If you’ve ever been micromanaged, you know how deflating it can be. If you want to harness your teams’ creativity and ambition, set a target and empower others to determine how to achieve their part of it based on how they operate on the ground. This doesn’t mean guardrails shouldn’t be in place. Imagine the companywide consequences if a team unintentionally runs a marketing campaign that violates GDPR or CASL, or any other local privacy law.
But once you’ve outlined the guidelines within which to operate, the resources available and the accountability process, promote creativity and innovation within the local team. Teams that can make their own plan – their own big bet – on how to achieve a goal will be empowered and engaged. You will tap into new energy and market intelligence when each team is empowered to figure out which lever needs to be pulled to get to that desired result. It’s that shared hunt for the highest-leverage activity that really drives engagement around a goal.
Even better, they will be making this big bet with full knowledge of the culture in which they operate. This is what we mean when we say decisions are often best made by those closest to the work. Productive leadership habits start with the end in mind, harnessing the know-how of each team.
Make a High-Trust Culture a Priority
Many institutions are dealing with unprecedentedly low levels of trust. Yet there’s nothing more necessary in a workplace, especially one with the potential of cross-cultural misunderstanding.
If you want innovation and opportunity, as well as revenue and profit growth — top priorities for all business leaders — then you must focus on creating a high-trust environment. There’s simply no other way to make breakthroughs than to develop a workplace where people can challenge the status quo, have difficult conversations and innovate, while trusting the integrity and intent of their peers.
In order to create this, leaders first have to model it. Demonstrate the ability to listen to competing points of view, synthesize different perspectives and work to find common ground. Remain curious and ask insightful questions. Creating a space where all ideas are considered, without judgment but with seriousness, allows for the sort of trust that encourages more ideas. It’s that modeled behavior from leadership that will ripple outward.
This can also mean direct and honest conversations with anyone who is creating controversy or conflict in unproductive ways, usually done in private.
This is all hard work, but worth it. A high-trust culture moves faster, innovates and reduces the costs associated with low trust. Employees, no matter where they are, will feel the highest level of engagement when they believe they are playing a winnable game. It’s tremendously rewarding to put this playbook into action and watch your teams win.