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Tech and Innovation

The Top 4 Challenges of Leading Global Teams

Liesbeth van der Linden

Being an effective leader in today’s global environment is undoubtedly challenging, especially for those stationed abroad or leading distributed teams globally. Over the years, I’ve seen many people who, despite enjoying immense professional success before moving overseas, found themselves struggling soon after arrival. 

From hundreds of conversations and interviews with senior leaders who were sent on global missions, there are seven major challenges that most often occurred while they lead global teams. There’s also a common thread to the strategies successful leaders created that helped them overcome these challenges. These lessons point us to essential capabilities for senior leaders that will increase their leadership success in unfamiliar circumstances. 

Challenge #1 – Culture Clashes

Culture gap is one of the most commonly mentioned reasons for what many refer to as “expat failure.” Leaders will have to lead multicultural teams, or lead multiple global teams in different countries doing a majority of their work online. 

When results or progress wane, communication is challenging and stakeholders locally don’t respond to what the leader tries to achieve, the frustration can easily lead to blaming cultural differences as the root cause. In stressful circumstances, we tend to focus more on differences rather than commonalities. We have to be careful not to start generalizing and stereotyping people based on their culture (“The Germans are so rigid,” “Americans are so opinionated”). 

Although there are certainly tendencies in behavior and communication that hold true across different regions, culture only comprises one aspect of a person’s being. It’s part of who we are, but not all we are. In other words, cultural differences cannot be the only reason for expat “failure.”

If you approach people with what you know about their native culture or country in mind, you won’t be giving credit to the individual experiences that formed their views and opinions. In a multicultural environment, there are bound to be multiple “truths” and perspectives. Leaders who were most successful listened carefully to people’s opinions and ideas and looked for places of agreement rather than disagreement to bridge cultural gaps and build strong relationships. 

Challenge #2 – Lack of Expertise

A common reason for sending high potential leaders abroad is to allow them to gain international experience to prepare them for future roles within the company. You require them to work in a different area of the organization that’s currently unfamiliar to them. 

If they worked for your organization longer, they have already built some credibility, but the challenge remains that they’re expected to start managing people who have all the knowledge and expertise they lack. 

The biggest risk and where I have seen many leaders fail is that they focus on filling the knowledge gap instead of connecting with people. Leaders, particularly the ones who have been successful in the past based on their expertise, often fear they won’t be taken seriously since they’re unable to make informed decisions, caught off guard by jargon or language they don’t understand. In short, they’re afraid to fail, and this fear causes them to focus on two things: their own insecurities, and information. 

One strategy that helped leaders overcome this challenge is to shift their focus away from themselves and content and start building relationships first. From day one, they must connect with people and start creating a circle of knowledge around them; a  network of trusted advisors that support the leader in the business. 

Another strategy I’ve seen work is focusing on people and behavioral aspects of the business rather than the functional ones as a way to build trust. One VP I spoke to told me he put “trust” on the agenda during his initial team meetings; he centered on the importance of values, how people show up to work, and how they communicate. Within a month, he had achieved full transparency about the problems his team was having, whether they were people problems, functional problems, or capital problems. As a result, his team not only started to trust him, they also started to trust each other more. 

Challenge #3 – One size does not fit all

Many leaders in hindsight admitted they initially tried to roll out the strategies, processes and systems they used before, ignoring the local nuances of their new environment and as a result got stuck or failed. This often happens to leaders who have been working in an organization for many years and step into a new role in a different part of the world. The reason the one-size-fits-all approach fails is that instead of spending time connecting with people and learning about the context already present locally, leaders fail to recognize the need or added value of involving their local team in their plan for the mission. 

The consequences of this approach are detrimental. When people in the local organization aren’t being heard or involved in the process, there’s a lack of trust in the leader and they won’t commit to the new vision. They won’t be inspired to take ownership or accountability for what they’re asked to do.

What these leaders have in common is that they carry around beliefs that are making them ineffective in a new foreign environment. Some think they were chosen for this role because they have more knowledge and experience than everyone else. Their competitive mindset keeps them from listening to other peoples’ ideas and opinions or perceive it as criticism. 

Other leaders may have a more autocratic leadership style and believe their team members are their workforce and are employed to execute their plans. Leaders with a larger ego or a tendency to perfectionism often struggle as well. 

The more leaders practiced humility, reduced hierarchical distances, stayed curious and open, the more they started to build trust with people and were able to break down barriers.

Challenge #4 – Being met with a Mess

It’s highly likely that the goal of a global assignment will involve making fundamental changes to how business is done in order to help the organization cope with one or more challenging market circumstances. Being effective in driving change and having change-management skills as a leader has become essential. The alarming reality, however, according to a McKinsey study, is that 70% of change initiatives fail. 

One major reason for change failure can be attributed to the fact that leaders are sent abroad to face and fix a mess they weren’t anticipating in addition to the original challenges that sent them there in the first place. The challenges leaders face may involve either external parties – people and problems that exist outside the organization – or internal parties involving your local colleagues. Stepping into an environment where their predecessors failed requires a different approach and calls for an additional set of skills and capabilities. 

The focus right from the start will have to be centered around regaining the trust of the people harmed, and achieving support for the plans that will steer them out of the mess. The often immense complexity of the situation mixed with strong emotions require leaders to be able to separate fact from opinions and only focus on the aspects of the circumstances they can control. They have to take ownership of the problem and accept responsibility for solving it while mitigating negative brand or reputational consequences. Many successful ways of turning a mess around and rebuilding trust involves the parties who were negatively affected by the problems in finding the solution. Building trust and garnering support from everyone in the organization requires full transparency and open, strategic collaboration to find your way out of the mess.

Written by Liesbeth van der Linden.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Tech and Innovation - The Top 4 Challenges of Leading Global Teams
Liesbeth van der Linden
Liesbeth van der Linden is an executive coach, author, speaker, and authority on Leadership issues. She is the author of Connect, Inspire, Grow – The Executive Framework for the First 100 Days, is a guide for senior leaders in global companies who step into a new role and helps them build the trust that’s required to make the changes necessary to create success. Liesbeth is the owner of Leadership Coaching Company GLTD Ltd.

Liesbeth van der Linden is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.