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It takes time, work to build successful international teams

Coach's Corner--September 22, 2008

The Client
Name: Steve
Age: 48
Title: Senior director, information technology
Time at company:  7 years 
Industry: Financial services
Issue: Building a successful international work team

Q. I lead a business unit with groups in the United States and India. We haven't figured out how to work together effectively, and I'm concerned that our quality and timeliness is suffering, not to mention morale. What could we do to become more of a team?

A. Getting people with diverse skills, competencies and styles to come together as a team is challenging. Multicultural aspects add to the complexity. Set up systems that help people work together successfully; then invest in building relationships between the groups.

The inner game
First, ensure that you're clear about your vision of success, and look at the clarity of your work plans. Evaluate whether expectations are unambiguous, hand-offs between groups are spelled out clearly and outcomes are well-defined. Do assignments make sense given the skills of each group, and do they accommodate the varying time zones? Are incentives and rewards even-handed? Consider whether well-intentioned people would achieve the outcomes you have in mind if they followed the guidance you provide.

Assess your team-building skills. Consider how well you understand team dynamics in general, as well as the workplace styles typical of each country. Most people have something to learn in these areas, and your willingness to learn will help put your team at ease.

Determine the investment you're willing to make in team development. There's no replacement for face-to-face interaction; however, you need to look at your organization's culture and available resources to determine next steps.

The outer game
People need to know one another to work together successfully, especially to solve the problems that will inevitably arise.

The best way to achieve this is to meet in person. If your team's contributions are critical to corporate success, you have a good lever for getting the resources to bring them together.

Consider meetings in both countries -- or in a neutral setting in between -- for team-building and business planning sessions.

If this isn't possible, get creative about how you connect, using webcams and other technology.

Some companies have virtual book groups or coffee meetings so people can get to know one another. Organize workshops and coaching groups that include both groups, focusing on communication and other challenging issues. Have regular meetings where employees air concerns, while building a sense of mutual respect.

Help employees in both countries understand any challenges that stem from cross-cultural issues. Formal training is one option; or try presentations from each team to the other.

A more informal and personal approach can go a long way toward building connections.

Create "ambassador" roles -- people on each side charged with building relationships and reducing friction. Have them visit both sites to foster a sense of relationship within the unit. Give them authority to address day-to-day challenges, such as finding meeting times and handing off work.

Be sure that you're consistent in your expectations for your team, and dedicate yourself to communication. Check in with yourself regularly to note how you could communicate more effectively, and then take action on it.

The last word
Good planning, clear communication and investment in building relationships among team members will lead the way to a successful international work group.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted September 21, 2008
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