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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.

To exploit overseas opportunities, multinational corporations must usually transfer executives into them. Yet these expatriates—a scarce and very dear resource—often fail, and many leave their employers even after they succeed overseas. What can multinationals do to protect their investment (which, according to data provided in the article, can run upwards to $500,000 per year)? Some solutions proposed in this article are:

  • Unlocking talent by having clear partner-family policies for expatriates, such as adequate and in-depth preparation, rewards for local interaction during the assignment, and easy access to housing, schooling and feedback mechanisms as an ongoing policy.
  • Sourcing creatively such as finding talented expatriate managers in previously run joint ventures, sourcing outside of the corporate home market, and having permanent on-site teams to help facilitate operations.
  • Considering that 70 percent of failed assignments result directly from personal and family difficulties rather than incompetence on the job, having an early assessment program in place is essential.
  • Keeping the expatriates and their families well connected with corporate home base by facilitating a two-way transfer of knowledge.
  • Clear evaluations by involved senior management with visible and well-explained metrics for performance are essential.
  • Retaining the talent within the company: according to one survey, a stunning 91 percent of returning expatriates felt that their companies didn’t value their international experience. The result of this is repatriated managers in the US leave their companies at twice the rate of managers with purely domestic experience, usually within one year of returning.

The article has a great deal of data to substantiate both the problem as well as the proposed solutions. Even though it was published in the McKinsey Quarterly over 10 years ago, the lessons are now more valuable than ever. Considering the increased trend towards globalization and the even scarcer resources because of the economic downturn, it is ever more important to make the small investments necessary to protect the larger business equation.

The article can be found online here

“Are you taking your expatriate talent seriously?” by Tsun-yan Hsieh, Johanne Lavoie, and Robert A. P. Samek, The McKinsey Quarterly, 1999 NUMBER 3, p. 71 – 83.

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