By Adam Vander Poel, retail consultant
Proven techniques to build cross-cultural relationships and move work forward.
Current retail trends demonstrate the need for a blend of physical and virtual environments, and the same holds true for high-performing global teams. Traditional hierarchical teams are evolving as cross-functional teams emerge, where members may span various parts of an organization and at times include external parties.
Cross-functional teams offer much needed flexibility and agility in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. Colleagues with diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives strengthen the fabric of a team, but getting geographically-dispersed teams to operate effectively can be difficult. Early-morning or late-night calls to accommodate time zones is inconvenient and can result in unclear communication leading to project delays. Furthermore, not having the option to discuss misunderstandings in person may cause trust to deteriorate. Practicing simple techniques can allow teams to collaborate more effectively and deliver results.
In-person interactions cannot be replaced by a conference bridge, yet intentional routines can help reduce social distance, the perceived degree of remoteness between members of dispersed teams. When working with teams around the world, small gestures can have large impacts. This may include starting an 8 a.m. meeting with the greeting “good evening” for global colleagues taking a call at 9 p.m. It could mean understanding when its monsoon season in India and commute times dramatically increase which, for a Minnesotan, fits into our passion for talking about the weather. Or as simple as recognizing when it is Chinese New Year and extending well wishes to colleagues during a special holiday season. Awareness can bridge authentic connections.
Soon after I arrived to India on assignment as an expatriate several years ago, I met the Managing Director for a one on one. He explained to me that while the western culture has a detail focus on time, people from India often treat the concept of time with more of a natural flow. I experienced this shortly after our meeting, as my wife and I attended a local wedding reception.
We showed up a few minutes before 7 p.m. — the time listed on the invite — only to find the catering crew setting up for the night. An hour or so later, friends, family, and the bride and groom started to arrive! It was a memorable evening and an incredibly fun cultural experience. An important lesson that the same type of event can be approached two different ways, and both yield positive results.
Working with American counterparts while based in India introduced a major complexity: varying perspectives of priorities for an operations team. Often, the India-based team felt they reported to multiple supervisors, one locally and one back at headquarters in the U.S. This led to a critical leadership lesson — managers across locations must work to align goals and ensure a consistent and clear message is shared with the team. This intentional approach to clarity enables teams to focus on priorities versus politics.
Communication is critical in every aspect of life. In a global business context, a clear message can be the difference between moving a project milestone forward on time and within budget or missing a critical deadline, potentially causing an overspend. Operating in second languages, discussing critical details at odd hours, and rarely being able to see global counterparts in person all present a host of challenges. Validating what was heard, sending recap notes, and using alternative words when the first chosen were not understood are a few techniques to create a common understanding. In larger project initiatives, strategic deployment of expatriates can help deliver stronger connections, from communication to translation of corporate culture into local subsidiaries.
While based in Hong Kong, I was responsible for providing risk and compliance support to teams spread across more than 20 offices and connected back to headquarter subject matter expert teams. Working with U.S. based vendors, overseas agents, international factories, third party logistics companies, and third party auditors proved to be complicated. Working to understand a complex workflow and exercising empathy provides a foundation to build trust and make even more progress. There is a common human desire to understand and to be understood. Empathy removes barriers and serves as a connector across cultures.
The following themes of successful cross-cultural operations teams I have experienced include:
Establish clear goals, practice mindful communication, and take time to develop an effective message.
Create the opportunity to connect across various platforms, prioritize meeting in person when possible, and leverage technology to build team comradery by sharing parts of everyday life through ‘virtual’ interactions with your team and colleagues.
Establish a rhythm within each day, week, and year. Identify times you can be available, as well as time you are off the clock and schedule travel on a routine basis if it is an option.
Share about yourself, family, hobbies, interests, and ask global counterparts about their lives, town, and customs. Give honest feedback and ask for input on what is working and what is not working.
Visit the countries and global teams you work with, try to understand or imagine what the team encounters on a daily basis from commutes to office dynamics, consider time zones when scheduling calls, and be aware of the current news and events.
Shortly after arriving to India, I was in charge of hiring 12 people and needed to accomplish this goal within six months. After combing through hundreds of resumes and conducting what felt like just as many interviews, we started to build the team. Recruiting an Indian-born business-continuity expert based in London, a multiple master-degreed risk intelligence analyst stationed in Delhi, and several local Bangalore residents whom collectively shared years of security operations experience, I quickly realized one of India’s core signature strengths — its people. Launching a security operations center in less than a year proved ambitious. With a clear vision, a strong connection to Minneapolis counterparts, and sound routines, the team delivered a successful outcome.
My career highlights include working with and getting to know global colleagues at a deeper level. I used to focus on various differences, however — over time — I have started to see even more similarities across cultures. These include pride of doing quality work, passion for learning new things, and the priority of family.
We all have goals and dreams, just as we all have concerns and fears. We all experience ups and downs, good days and bad. Finding clarity, connectivity, trust, empathy and establishing routines can help global operations teams move work forward faster and more importantly, in better harmony.
About The Author
Adam Vander Poel is a Senior Manager for a U.S. retailer with more than 12 years of operations experience. He has studied in Greece and Italy and worked in India and Hong Kong. Adam has an MBA from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minn. He resides with his family in Minneapolis, MN.