Leading global teams

Leading global teams

Global business means having employees from various global locations who communicate virtually – by phone, email and videoconferencing – thereby saving both time and money.

Skills needed to manage a global team are not simply different from those needed for running co-located teams; they are often the exact opposite. Also, a much broader skillset is needed than when managing traditional, co-located teams. More than that, leaders need the ability to switch between skillsets, based on the diversity of their team members and the distance between them.

Here are five principal ways they’re very different:

  1. Lead differently

While co-located teams often benefit most from a leader who acts as a facilitator, virtual teams need a manager who provides clearly-defined direction and removes all ambiguity from the process. Research by fellow INSEAD Professor José Santos demonstrates that highly-centralised supervision usually works best in globally distributed teams.

  1. Make decisions differently

In the US, managers are trained to solicit input from a team, choose a direction quickly and make adjustments as the project moves forward. In Sweden, teams learn to make decisions through lengthy consensus-building, which can span many meetings but eventually leads to strong buy-in and rapid implementation. In France, the Descartes-inspired education system teaches that debate and confrontation are necessary elements of any decision-making process. And in Japan, decisions tend to be made in informal one-on-one discussions before a formal group meeting.

One of the most difficult tasks for leaders of global teams is to recognise that their styles of decision-making may be deeply rooted in the cultures they come from. Global teams therefore need very explicit descriptions of how decisions will be made, and the best global team leader is one who is willing to try out different kinds of decision-making processes at different points in a project.

  1. Build trust differently

Trust takes on a whole new meaning in virtual teams. When you meet your workmates by the water cooler or photocopier every day, you know instinctively who you can and cannot trust. In a geographically-distributed team, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability.

  1. Negotiate differently

Global teamwork is not always about collaboration. Often team members have to compete with each other for resources, deliverable dates, and product specifications – and research shows that being physically dispersed may have surprising advantages.

Research in the US and Northern Europe to measure creativity during the decision-making process found that men (in contrast to women) are actually more creative when they can’t make eye contact. This means that two male negotiating partners may be more likely to come up with creative ideas for win-win solutions when they cannot look each other in the eye.

  1. Communicate differently

The key to leading global virtual teams is, without doubt, communication. But when we communicate virtually, we often become less influential. INSEAD Professor Ian Woodward has demonstrated through practical exercises that moving your body while speaking enhances your voice quality. Managers of global virtual teams who sit rigidly at their desks, glued to Skype or videoconference screens, tend to lose their interpersonal or persuasive edge. Walking around or simply moving your arms is just one of many simple but effective communication tricks that managers can use to improve the sound of their message.

Virtual leadership challenges? Are you thinking differently?

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