Insights into leading an international workforce

Group of young people holding a world globe. Mixture of teenage boy and girl students looking at a map of the world and talking outdoors at sunset with lens flare

Whatever industry you’re in, it’s likely that you have globalisation initiatives on your radar. Many business leaders get overwhelmed by the amount of hours they have to put in because budget restrictions limit hiring ability, can’t find the right people, or are just unable to delegate. However, loosening the reigns and assigning tasks to the people who are most suited to carrying them out is vital – especially if your business is in a growth phase and your employees are spread out over multiple geographic locations.

While it’s true that the digitisation has revolutionized the way we work by giving us access to global talent, international markets, and considerate cost savings and maximum productivity; it’s also made it easier for cross-cultural misunderstandings, sliding deadlines and missed warning signs when an employee’s performance is waning. Becoming better at leading a global team effectively will not only ensure that business success, but will also help you keep hold of your sanity.

Be passionate: Above all, believe in what you are doing and foster positive energy. If you’re not passionate about what you do and remain enthusiastic about it, it’s hard to convey that feeling to your employees, especially when you can’t interact with them face-to-face. Frustration can come easily when working with people from different cultures, often with limited infrastructure, conflicting priorities and viewpoints, and attributes that seem completely foreign to your own. Accept that there is always more than one way to get things done, there will always be technology gremlins, and that despite best intentions communication will probably break down at some point. That’s just par for the course. Passionate enthusiasm and positive energy at all times will help you jump the inevitable hurdles encountered.

Build trust: Creating and building trust can be challenging at any time, but is that much harder when managing a team of people you can’t personally interact with, and may have significant chucks of their workday at times when you’re not online. It’s impossible to be on top of everyone at all of the times and it’s counter-productive to make your employees feel like they’re being constantly monitored, or that you don’t trust them. In a multi-national workforce, the results will speak for themselves. In markets that allow such flexibility, consider hiring new staff for a short trial period before offering a long-term contract. Create a sense of belonging by showing that you care about their career goals; that you can offer room for growth. Get feedback from existing team members to formulate the right hiring method and role structure that works best in that market. Do you prefer contractors, who work for short periods, complete the job and then leave, or do you want full time employees with a higher level of involvement and commitment on both sides? The unique labour market conditions of the operation will steer the most effective organisation structures, role types and hiring methods.

Communication is key: To keep messaging consistent use the available communication tools such as Skype, and try to get face-to-face on camera from time to time. Remember that it’s all too easy for the tone of voice to be misread when you’re reading – instead of listening to – someone else’s opinion on email, messenger or chat. Consider using animated gifs occasionally to convey emotion, but avoid using sarcasm, teasing, or jokes and idioms, as these are easily misunderstood.

If you communicate with employees in various languages, make sure that everyone involved understands and isn’t guessing as to what is being said. Before launching into the to-do list, ask your employees how they are and be as available for them as possible. Working remotely can be an isolating experience and it can make all the difference to your employees knowing that they’re not alone. Flexibility regarding meeting times when you’re dealing with workers in different time zones will be appreciated. If the last meeting was held late at night for employees in Australia, then adjust timing of the next one accordingly and avoid the onset of any resentment.

Define goals and the rules of play: Successful leaders often have A-type personalities, making it hard to accept that all people achieve in different ways, at different paces. Be cautious not to create environments that set an unrealistic sense of urgency because, when everything is urgent, nothing is exceptional and therefore effectively nothing is urgent. When managing a multi-national workforce, it is far more effective to set realistic goals and make people accountable. Leading progress can be aided by using project management software, holding regular progress meetings, providing transparent incentives, and ensuring everyone is on the same page. Applying project management methods like these ensures that your team have a clearer sense of what everyone else does, and each employee will know when his or her contribution has to be completed in order to keep everyone moving forward.

Hire the *write* people: Most of your business communications (in some cases all) will be via email, chat, or project management software, so it’s essential to hire people who know how to write well. They don’t have to be Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway, but they do need to be capable of demonstrating professionalism and courtesy through their words. The ability to express enthusiasm and support for other team members in writing will be a valuable attribute. When selecting new employees, don’t allow the selection procedures to slip just because your communications are by email. Ask for a resume and cover letter. Check for spelling. Detect eagerness. Remember that the styles they use when writing to you provide the best indication of how they will write to clients and fellow team members. It’s important to keep your corporate representation and employer brand in mind at all times while developing your business in new markets.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen: While growing an existing business into new international markets is undeniably faster than a starting a new business from scratch, do yourself a favour and keep in mind that it will take time.

A favourable company reputation needs to be established locally and effective alliances need to be built while growing a client base and service offering. Just as Rome was not built in a day, building up an effective, business-integrated international team that you trust isn’t going to happen by just flicking a switch, so be patient and remain committed; remember globalisation is here to stay and to sustain the long run you will need engaged employees who feel the same way about the opportunities as you do.