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The following “6 Simple Rules for Effective Global Team Management” are from a conversation I had with Sandra Biets, former Global Director, Product Quality Management, with Nike in the US. I met Sandra at an event organized by the WTC Almere, the Netherlands, an “Internationals Day,” at the end of June, 2010. We had a conversation with each other on 23 September, 2010, at Dauphine, in Amsterdam, to get to know each other better. This article is a result of that conversation. 

Background
Sandra Biets was asked by Nike in 2007 to manage their global product integrity team from the US. Team members were located in Europe, N. and S. America and Asia. Her experience with this team provide good lessons for intercultural team building. It’s a clear demonstration how the differences in the team were leveraged for added value, delivering results that far surpassed what might have been achieved by a homogeneous team.

Her qualities
Sandra found the assignment exhilarating. It fit perfectly to her strengths, which are process and project management, with a very structural and analytical approach to everything she does.

The assignment
In assembling this global team, it was the first time that she had brought together such a complex group: team members from three different continents (Europe, Asia and the US) as well as teams from two different divisions from each continent. This meant that not only did country cultures play a role within the six teams, but also different regional company cultures even within the same country.

The assignment for the team had to do with leveraging all tools available to drive/inform product decisions (i.e. sales data, trend reports, product integrity data, consumer insights, etc.); and coordinating product integrity within product conception, design and development. Because it was a global assignment, it was necessary to analyze and interpret mountains of data from various global locations.

The lessons
There were a number of significant lessons that Sandra took away from this experience.

  1. Build on team values: the team values were set very early in the process. She requested that they begin their project with a face-to-face and focused on defining the team values during this meeting.
  2. Create ambassadors: instead of directly managing each team, Sandra chose one team member as her surrogate. It was important that these were not direct reports, usually one level below her. These ambassadors managed their teams directly, and reported back to her.
  3. Open communication: Open communication crosses cultural boundaries. Every culture values open communication. The difficulty arises, however, in how “open” is interpreted. Often cultural signals are not explained and, as a result, can be misinterpreted. Under this heading of open communication there were a number of specific practices that created organically, from within the group, and in direct response to actual situations.
  4. Direct communication: No “triangulation” – even though she was team director, and encouraged members to communicate conflicts, Sandra always pushed the solution back to the participants, instead of going between. She would provide guidance and coaching, but ultimately they were responsible for solving their own problems.
  5. Simple techniques: By adopting simple yet effective techniques, Sandra got the team to focus on the positive interaction between the team members. For example, one of the techniques she used was to have the participants create index cards to help them as a handy reminder of conflict areas and agreements. The front of the card would show the value (i.e. “respect for each other”); the back of the card the method (i.e. “give room to allow everyone to express themselves”) needed to hold the agreements they’ve made with each other.
  6. Ownership: many of the practices that Sandra implemented consistently reinforced the concept of self-management and responsibility. The feeling of ownership – of the team, the assignment and the results – was, as a result, very strong within the team.

The results
The results of this team showed very clearly that there was a close relationship between performance of the team and support by the organization. Nike is truly a globally-thinking organization that spares no expense in getting the best from and with its people. Nike’s structure and culture reinforced these practices. As one of many examples, performance reviews were based 50% on achieving targets, and 50% how much a team player the employee is. This helped reinforce the cooperative aspect of intercultural teamwork.

Even though Sandra developed these rules for global team management in retrospect, they can be very effective in planning in advance. She was presented with a unique opportunity and made the most of both what the organization had to offer in terms of support, as well as the talent and commitment of the team members. This triangular relationship (Sandra, the Nike organization, the global team members) all worked together to create a remarkable success.

To contact Sandra Biets, her profile can be found on LinkedIn. If you wish her direct contact information, please leave a message on this site and she will contact you.

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I had a meeting with the Imam yesterday in our city. Another  major step in getting local support for my Interfaith Dialogue initiative. Even though he is clearly a busy man in an important position, he was very generous with his time. For more than an hour we sat, drank tea and had a conversation about my idea for establishing an interfaith dialogue in Almelo. He was enthusiastic about the idea because it enhances his own mission. He said that even though his primary duty is to his followers, reaching out to the non-Muslim community is also an essential part of his responsibilities. Coincidentally (or not ;-)), I arrived at the same time he was giving a presentation about Islam and the mosque to a group of about 30 bureaucrats from City Hall. He regularly does the same with schools, civic organizations, other churches and the like. He said, “Even though we don’t proselytize, we do find it important to instruct others in our faith. After all, Mohammed (PBUH) was also surrounded by non-Muslims: Jews and Christians. It was also His responsibility to tell others about His faith.”

What I found most remarkable about our conversation was how learned the Imam was about Christian beliefs. And clearly how much respect he has for other faiths. In his presentation to the city employees, I found him somewhat defensive, without prompting explaining how the Islam is a peace-loving religion and the acts of violence committed in the name of Islam were perverting the teachings. Even though it’s understandable that he would do this, considering the amount of demonizing around the faith, I found it unfortunate. During our one-on-one, however, he was nothing but gracious, generous and supportive. I’ve clearly got the Imam in my corner.

It was interesting, even though the meeting went as expected, there were some interesting surprises. The first is how young the Imam is. A young guy, maybe in his early 30’s. When he was saying prayers and later in front of the group of city hall employees he was dressed in his ceremonial robe and headwear he projected an air of religious authority. But when he met with me he was wearing a simple business suit with tie, giving him the air of a junior associate with an accounting firm. I guess the thin, scraggly mustache didn’t help (no beard, as is the custom of most Turkish men). The second surprise, though it shouldn’t have been surprising, was that he spoke little Dutch. He is relatively new in his position, having been sent by Istanbul to Almelo for this assignment relatively recently. We had an interpreter, a young guy in his early 20’s. We got by, even though we weren’t able to converse on the level I was hoping to. Whenever the sentences or ideas became complex, the kid was a bit lost. He performed admirably, nonetheless. It was interesting to hear that every time he would translate for the Imam, he would, without fail, preface his text with “The Imam says . . . “.

To follow on my post from 1 September, this article appeared yesterday on the Wereldjournalisten.nl blog site:

“There has changed little in the years since diversity was last measured in the Dutch public television landscape. The monitoring group Representative Diversity (Representatie Diversiteit) released a report in 2005 that measured the white/European representation on Dutch public television was 77.2%. This means that the share of “colored” on Dutch state-sponsored television is 22.8%, which includes all black and Latino-American in imported television series, all African and Asian political leaders in news programs, and all aboriginals and indians in documentaries. This means that the 15% of the Dutch society that is comprised of non-western non-Dutch [primarily Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamen] have no substantial representation in the programming in Dutch public television. Here and there are exceptions, but as a constant factor they are not to be seen.”

[own liberal translation from the article “Weinig culturele diversiteit bij publieke omroep in nieuwe tv-seizoen” (Little Cultural Diversity in New Television Season)]

A most amazing blog post on Saturday, 11 September by a certain Pam Geller praising the speech Geert Wilders gave at the site of the WTC in NYC. The caption to this photo was “The Dutch Parliamentarian and freedom fighter Geert Wilders gave a magnificent speech.” My response to this caption: “Wilders is anything but a ‘freedom fighter,’ unless you mean that term to be someone who is fighting to take away the ideals that freedom, liberty and the ‘Dutch tolerance’ stand for.” I was promptly viciously, and personally, attacked by the rabid right-wingers who populate the site.

My further comments regarding this speech:

As an American who lost a dear friend at the Pentagon on 9/11, I can’t think of many things more irrelevant, inappropriate or offensive than Geert Wilders, of all people, giving a speech at Ground Zero and continuously using the inclusive pronoun ‘we.’ As in ‘We are gathered here to draw a line [against Islam].’

It reminds me of that joke:
The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto are riding on horseback through a narrow canyon, when suddenly they see hundreds of enemy Apaches lined up on the ridges above them.
“It looks like we have a problem, Tonto!,” exclaims the Lone Ranger.
Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, white man?”

The point being: don’t include me in your ‘we’, Wilders. You have no right to subjugate for your own nefarious purposes my right to freedom.

This posted on the LinkedIn group site, “Creating Results From Cultural Diversity”. The question, from Leah Smiley, was: “What are the differences between diversity practices in the US and Europe?”

Hello Leah,

I’m curious to see what responses you get here. I can give my perspective, but there are two caveats: 1) it is difficult to generalize about “Europe” in terms of societal trends and business practices, and 2) it is difficult to make a direct comparison between countries in Europe and the US. Dramatic differences in historical population and societal development make it clearly a case of apples and oranges.

Having said that, however, I can make a few statements about the Netherlands, the country in Europe that I am most familiar with. As in the US (or because of the US, depending on who you talk to), all economies in Europe are suffering in varying degrees because of the economic crisis. Because diversity policy is not firmly anchored and reinforced in government or business policy, many companies have simply ignored their diversity practices the past couple of years, arguing that their “priorities are elsewhere” and “it’s a question of survival”. The fact that the companies even have this choice says a lot about the state of diversity policy in this country.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Netherlands is comparable to the US in the late 1950’s in terms of awareness of the importance of a culture that encourages diversity. The Dutch constitution is clear when it comes to equal rights, but there are very few laws in place that enable diversity policy to the individual level. Most companies that do have a constructive diversity policy are the same ones that are busy with sustainability and CSR: it’s the morally right thing to do and it bolsters their image. Not because there is a legal imperative that compels them to do so.

The media reflects a society that is overwhelmingly white, and there are no charismatic leaders amongst minority communities. In fact, most minority communities are strangely silent when it comes to fighting for their equal rights.There is not a strong private litigation culture in the Netherlands and there are very few who take action if they feel they’ve been discriminated against. In fact, there is an active public service campaign that is currently running on Dutch TV that explains to people what discrimination is and what to do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against (even though it’s in Dutch, the pictures say a lot: http://www.discriminatie.nl). This campaign seems to me to be clearly targeted towards those being discriminated against, rather than those doing the discriminating.

It will be interesting to watch developments in the coming months. The right wing politician Geert Wilders of the PVV party has gained significant ground by blaming minorities for the current problems in the Netherlands. Only now, after months of negotiating to form a new government, have any of the potential coalition partners said that the policies that the PVV espouses are anathematic. And then not necessarily because of the rights of minorities themselves, but more how it would look to trading partners of the Netherlands, most obviously Germany. In other words: there was an economic rationale rather than a moral or societal rationale.

And this is the key to promoting positive approaches to diversity in the Netherlands, in my opinion (and that’s why I do what I do): prove diversity as the wise economic choice. Increases in innovation, creativity, added value and increased access to diverse labor and consumer markets; decreases in personnel turnover and employee health issues. These are the drivers the Dutch understand. Don’t tell them it’s the right thing to do; tell them how it effects their bottom line.

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