Top 5 tips to working in International teams

  1. Be explicit and share each team member’s needs, objectives and local context
  2. Focus on what you have in common and decide how you want to work together (shared team vision, objectives, ways of working, relationships)
  3. Build trust and excellent communication
  4. Don’t (just) go on instinct
  5. Skill up!

Manage the how as well as the what

  1. Be explicit about each person’s needs, objectives and context from the start. The project goal may have originated in one part of the business but the team is driving blind if it doesn’t really understand what each team member needs in order for the project to be successful.

In mono- cultural and mono-located teams peoples’ needs and context are more easily known and it is possible to have a quick person-person chat when there appears to be lack of alignment but international teams don’t have that luxury. Problems take longer to spot and are much harder to rectify.

  1. Focus on what you have in common and decide how you want to work together (shared team vision, objectives, ways of working, relationships)

As humans, we tend to see differences before commonalities so focusing, from the start, on the team’s shared vision and objectives and agreeing how to work together can really create a common base. This might include areas such as how the team wants to communicate (internally and externally), make decisions, solve problems, how to manage stakeholders and handle mistakes when they happen. Some teams agree and write this up as a team charter. Teams that do this are more aware, more intentional in how they work and more aligned. It easier to stay on track especially when under pressure.

  1. Focus on building trust and excellent communication

A successful international team needs to manage lots of things but if you had time and energy to focus on just 2 things, I would focus on trust and communication.

A team that has built trust between its members and works hard to maintain it will find it much easier to manage the various challenges that come its way. When there is trust it is easier to pick up the phone, believe in the good intentions of others and divide up the work well. When someone feels trusted, they work at their best, find it easier to ask for help and admit when something is going wrong.

Excellent communication: The team discusses and decides how they want to communicate between themselves and with others. They decide what mode (whatapp, phone, video, in person) to use and when.  Examples might include: a few words in a whatsapp group for very fast updates, a weekly zoom or skype call for team planning or phone call between individual members for more specialist discussions. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting through a 2- hour video conference discussing content that could have been prepared off- line or alternatively, finding out important team stuff via a third party (especially if it your boss who was just been asked a question from his counterpart in Brazil about something you know nothing about!)

Frequency of communication is important too. It needs a regular frequency (sometimes likened to a heartbeat) even if it is just a quick team check-in.

  1. Don’t (just) go on instinct

When we work with colleagues from the same culture, located in the same place, it is much easier to quickly evaluate a behaviour (something that is said or done) and come to a quick and instinctive judgement about it.

In this known environment instinct probably serves us well and we are often right. However, when we work internationally this tends to break down. Our interpretation, based on our own cultural norms may be completely off the mark, compared to what the intention was of our international team mate (who is operating using his or her own cultural norms).

I saw an example recently when an Italian team member asked a question to his Japanese colleague. The Japanese colleague paused for a few seconds before replying.

In Japanese culture it is normal when asked a question to pause before replying to show the importance of the question and the due respect and consideration that it is given before answering. In Italy, on the other hand, it is more normal to jump in with the answer immediately, showing that you are knowledgeable and engaged by the discussion.

So, in this real case, the Italian who asked the question, interpreted the pause by Japanese colleague as an indication that he did not really know the answer and was not the expert that he was supposed to be. On the other hand, when the Japanese colleague asked a question to the Italian, his very quick reply was interpreted as treating an important question as trivial.

  1. Skill up!

Excellence in working internationally does not come naturally –  we are not born with this ability- instead, like learning to drive, it is a skill that is learned and improved with practice, feedback and experience. In the International Profiler – a tool created by Worldwork  for people who work internationally- they identified 22 different skills that you need to work successfully in an international work environment.  It includes skills like: Active Listening or  Being sensitive to your international context and stakeholders, suspending initial judgement, influencing skills… For many international managers we work with it is the first time they have thought about their international skill set in any sort of structured way. Most managers and leaders who work internationally are very skilled in the art of leadership or managing projects but do need to skill up on the “International” part to their skillset.