How to Lead Global Teams on a Very Small Planet

This week, in a span of 24-hours, I had external meetings with people in Japan, Belgium, Switzerland, Belarus, Germany, France, England, India, and (of course) the United States. Plus I interacted with WeSpire team members based in Poland, Kenya, Canada, and Columbia. Two observations struck me over the course of that day. First, COVID continues to affect everyone on this planet. Almost everyone is still working from home. Second, in the last three years, WeSpire has gone from being a very US-centric business with some international customers to a truly global business.

Based on the changing composition of client team meetings and my discussions with other leaders, I do not think we are alone in this transition.

I am still wrapping my mind around the implications of heading up and engaging a global workforce and client base. One of the most noticeable impacts shows up in my schedule. I had one meeting that started at 1 a.m. this week. A client proposed a time for a meeting with teammates in the US, Belgium, India, and China that has the Chinese team member attending from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m.

In a global business, leaders need to rethink and redefine the workday and teamwork. One best practice is to establish time blocks for teamwork at the beginning or end of a day when workdays are most likely to overlap. Our approach has been to embrace and support flexible schedules. If an evening or early morning meeting is on the schedule, we encourage more personal time during the day.

Second, it is imperative to establish clear goals and use technology to enable people to see what others are doing. You have to assume communication will happen both synchronously and asynchronously. For us, we use OKRs and track them in Ally. Slack plays a pivotal role for the day-to-day contact across individuals, teams, and projects. We use Notion for more “permanent” information that the team needs to access regularly. Our engineers rely on tools like Clubhouse and Github. Zoom or Microsoft Teams is the venue for most live meetings. For our impact-oriented efforts and programs, we use WeSpire. At one point, team members were feeling very overwhelmed by Slack. So, we established clearer expectations. No, we don’t expect you to read everything. It is unreasonable to expect immediate response all the time. If a request is urgent, call.

Third, you need to rethink how you build community and connectivity. One of my favorite additions has been a Slack plugin called Donut. Anyone interested enrolls and, every two weeks, the app matches you randomly with another team member for a video chat. It will also ask “get to know you” questions for everyone to answer. One of our clients holds virtual happy hours at various times that work in various parts of the world. The social channels in Slack and Teams can be great places to share good news, funny memes, inspiring videos, and articles of interest. I have also gotten in the habit of checking to see who is online first thing when I get up in the morning and sending over a quick hello. Today, I got to see pictures from a Kenyan beach vacation.

Finally, true inclusivity means learning and respecting the different cultures you interact with. The majority of employees like being on global teams. But the percentage rises when people feel listened to and respected. I had no idea, for example, that laughing with your mouth open (something I do regularly) is considered rude in Japan. Lesson learned! And that “thumbs up” emoji? It’s like the middle finger in some places.

Ultimately, it’s a very small planet and we are now tightly connected. Yet we are still learning how to lead and connect in this new reality. Fortunately great resources are emerging. Nicole Sahin, Founder & CEO of Globalization Partners, writes regularly on best practices for engaging a global workforce and has an excellent blog.

As leaders, we won’t always get it right. But our commitment to our team members and clients around the world needs to be that we keep trying.

Quote of the Week: “Not finance, not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and rare.”

Patrick Lencioni

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