How do you successfully lead a team of individuals based in different countries and from different cultures? Russell Harlow gives advice on how to manage the paradox of closeness and distance at the same time.
Leaders of global teams share a number of similar challenges with those of domestic, co-located teams. These might be termed the 'core’ leadership skills – setting a clear vision for the team and providing alignment between personal and organisational goals.
However, as our actions are often viewed and scrutinised by a wider range of 'lenses’ on today’s global stage, we need to be much more self aware and context aware. A strong sense of self awareness is needed as people from different cultural backgrounds often have very different expectations of what an effective leader is and does. Context awareness is essential owing to the lack of the physical immediacy of working in the same location, which means one can easily become disconnected with the everyday situations and concerns of others.
But as a global leader, how do you manage the paradox of closeness and distance, both metaphorically and physically?
Traditionally leaders have known the value of creating distance from their followers in order to take the necessary 'helicopter' view of events and be in a position to set direction, keeping the big picture in mind. They have also known that there are times when closeness is required to build trust among people and in order to develop others with coaching, facilitative styles. And yet, now, the physical distance between members of global teams requires leaders to be even 'closer' to their people as the bonds of trust are so much more fragile and the need to avoid 'out of sight, out of mind' behaviour becomes crucial.
If cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity are lacking, both your actions and overall style as a leader may inadvertently be misunderstood. Worse, well-intentioned attempts at trying to get closer to people may create tensions or misunderstandings and, therefore, distance others from us. For example, giving positive feedback and praise to an individual in front of others in a group-oriented culture may not be well received, as the individual may feel the pressure of being made to 'stand out' from the group.
In order to be better prepared to deal with these paradoxical challenges, global leaders need to address the specific situations of their team with these recommendations in mind.
People are more likely to follow a leader in the global arena if he/she:
Demonstrates coordination not control
Look for ways to encourage self-control in others without being controlling. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk but look out for the signals – if you hear things like 'we feel our hands are tied' or 'decisions are always made elsewhere, what influence do we have?' then you have probably erred too much on control. If you hear 'we have no idea what the team in X is doing?' then you have probably erred on not enough coordination.
Uses honesty not manipulation
Transparency is often sought by teams but not always demonstrated. Honesty helps to build trust - in the fuzzy world of globally dispersed teams, people are much more sensitive to 'sugar coating' or superficial words. Leaders need to take regular doses of mindfulness – the ability to 'stand outside' of yourself and hear and see how your words and actions are being received by others.
Adapts, not adopts
When leading multicultural teams, it is important to first understand the values and viewpoints of all members. These views may well be influenced by their cultural backgrounds and local contexts. Expectations of a motivational leader may be very different across the different locations of team members. Cultural intelligence is the ability to adapt one’s mindset and behaviour in order to connect with these other views - but not at the expense of losing sight of oneself and one’s own values and viewpoints. Global leaders should strive to be themselves at all times but never arrogant to the point of ignoring those at a distance from us, culturally or geographically.
The ability to manage the paradox of confident humility as a global leader is neatly summed up by Carlos Goshn, CEO of Renault Nissan Alliance:
"Confidence is not arrogance. Confidence is the humble attitude of people who know their strengths, recognise their weaknesses, overcome them and then build on them."
Russell Harlow is the principal consultant at Transnational Management Associates. For further information you can contact him at [email protected]