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Respectful Global Teams: Lessons From Expatriating

Think like an expat and cultivate an interest in perpetually seeing things in new ways.

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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

The world is small — and getting ever-smaller with our collective overconnected digital footprint. Ease of travel (pandemic notwithstanding) and rising globalization have given us all unlimited access to each other. People find themselves working across timezones and cultures with remote colleagues, baffled or oblivious to the delicacy with which matters must be approached.

As a former expat who’s spent her career building and managing international marketing and comms teams, I understand the intrinsic challenges of communicating and connecting when common language may be a barrier, sensibilities differ or local challenges become distracting. Still, the chance to work with varied business cultures on shared objectives is perennially highly rewarding; the chance to form strong connections around the world makes it a much nicer place for us all.

Because it takes more finesse and effort to create and maintain strong connections across disparate cultures and timezones, alliances formed frequently turn into abiding, real friendships. My life has been immeasurably enriched by working outside my native culture. A few tips from my expat days that resonate with building and managing global teams:

1. Different Perspectives = Inherently Valuable

It should be obvious, but somehow still bears repeating: When you travel to or work with other markets, you’ll frequently bump up against different perspectives. Speak to someone from another culture and you’ll often hear something your brain simply wasn’t mapped to consider. Fun, right?

2. Your Comfort Zone Is Stifling

Life is about learning. Being open to thinking about something new makes life infinitely more exciting than getting through the day on autopilot. Creativity doesn’t happen on autopilot (not much does that moves a company forward). Communicating complex ideas in simple terms easily understood regardless of language facility is invigorating. Massive respect for anyone working in a second (third or fourth) language, with all the same performance anxieties plus shyness around accents, getting words wrong, not finding the word at all sometimes, not getting the humor, idiom, whatever. (Seriously, kudos. You know how hard it can be.)

Showing up and doing this day after day is humbling, challenging, but — again — rewarding. The more we dare to put ourselves out there in full transparency that we’re a bit unsure of our work culture, the stronger we become and the more we engage with humility and automate our ability to think globally.

3. Listen to Learn

There are many ways to lead; one is to command without asking. I find it infinitely better and smarter to actively listen to my global teams: They’re the experts in their markets. There’s plenty I know, but plenty I won’t unless (or until) I live in a specific country. As a leader, it’s important to recognize that and not feel threatened. I don’t need to be the overarching authority at all times (spoiler: neither do you). Working with global teams means being comfortable following and leading. Guide processes and large initiatives remotely, but for finer points, trust your market leads. Know where you need to go collectively, then clear obstacles for local leaders to actually lead. Sometimes this means listening more than speaking.

4. Foster Respect

I have seen American colleagues fail repeatedly in multinational meetings by presuming dominance and superiority. It’s embarrassing, misguided, a setup to fail — and likely is completely unconscious. Mutual respect means giving others what you hope to be accorded.

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5. Check Your Biases

Know what you bring when you walk into the room. Being an effective leader, communicator and executive means it’s incumbent upon you to see things from all sides — not just the angle you prefer people to see.

For instance, I know in many markets I have two, maybe three strikes against me before I even open my mouth. First, I’m American, and people have strong ideas about that. (Fellow Yanks, we’re not always the universally adored darlings we’re led to believe.) Second, I’m female. Too many times, I’ve been the sole female exec in a meeting. I’ve also seen female colleagues de-feminize themselves in attempts to “fit.” I refuse to change how I dress or adjust my mannerisms to code-switch (appear more masculine in a corporate setting). I love fashion, I am competent, I am educated — these facts don’t contradict. Third, my surname. There are places in the world (including America) where people presume myriad things about me.

Check your biases. We’ve all got them. Examine what you think and why. Much of the time, it’s unconscious stereotyping.

When you walk into a meeting, what do you suppose people see? Effectively building and managing global teams means being aware of not just what we see, but how we’re seen. Each of us carries the weight of others’ presumptions. See people — not categories — and build strong, dynamic teams.

6. Inclusivity = Strength

Diverse teams are strong teams. We should not look, act or think identically. Have conversations that make you uncomfortable. Seek understanding. Someone’s experience may differ radically from your own; yours is not the only valid experience. Great workplaces happen when teams are inclusive, intentional and thoughtful about other backgrounds and ways of seeing things. There may be nuance you’re blind to that affects your colleagues. Recognition of other experiences breeds empathy, which boosts respect.

7. Be Flexible

Timezones are not always convenient. Working with global markets means sometimes working at 5 a.m. and sometimes 10 p.m. You’re not consistently seeing someone at their most awake and lucid. Even before Covid-19, global business meant off-hours video calls and seeing someone’s home and family. Having an understanding of the totality someone brings to the “office” and how much they give up personally to keep pushing the business forward makes teams more human. Global teams were “digital nomads” before that was even a thing. Traditional office hours and setups don’t work in a global setting.

So think like an expat and cultivate interest in perpetually seeing things in new ways. Listen to your locals. Form partnerships from a place of integrity and humility — not traditional staid hierarchies. Strive to seek harmony rather than mastery over other cultures; it’s the underpinning of strong, diverse multinational teams.

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