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by J.R. McGee

Resources for Multinational
Relationships

There are many excellent resources for the business traveler as well as the executive facing the unknown in his or her organization.

Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway, Second Edition, Adams Media Corp., 2006). I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for key insights into understanding other cultures and the do’s and don’ts in terms of protocols, practices, or customs.

• On the web, one can go to www.executiveplanet.com. This site provides reports written by people who have lived in various locations. The reports provide critical observations and insights into local customs and practices that can help prepare you for your encounter with your team.

• The Web site www.culturebriefings.com is a commercial site operated by the Geotravel Research Center located in Kissimmee, Florida. It provides briefings on an area for a fee in a downloadable electronic format. If you have a PDA with the software that allows you to read e-books, you can have your information readily available when and where you really need it.

• The Web site www.1000ventures
.com/business_guide/crosscuttings/cross-cultural_differences.html
is a good resource for managing cross-cultural differences. There’s a lot of information located on this site that can be very useful.

 

There you are, coming out of a meeting in which your boss informed you (and everyone else) that you’ve been promoted. Due to a merger between your company and another business, you’re now the leader of a global team. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to develop a world-class, high-performance work team composed of personnel from several different countries and multiple cultures.

Piece of cake, right?

What do you do first? Where do you go for help? What is “normal?” Is it enough to ensure that your team is culturally diversified? What does world-class performance look like in a multinational or multicultural environment? How does one achieve high quality, provide value-added service, value diversity, understand different cultures, appreciate individual personalities, and still create a top-quality, high-performance work team?

The answer is twofold. You must accomplish the four key objectives that define a high-performance work team, and then you must understand the subtleties and honor the nuances of a multinational or multicultural team environment.

Elements of team excellence
Let’s first examine the four elements that define a high-performance work team:

Focus . The primary attribute
of a high-performance work team is a clear focus on specific goals and objectives, and understanding what the team is doing at all times. The fastest way for a team to fail is to try to be everything to everybody. By learning how to establish unambiguous goals and objectives, you can increase your team’s ability to achieve meaningful goals and significantly improve its chances of success.

Accountability. Another crucial aim is developing the understanding that objectives must be achieved and actions completed when promised. Failure to meet such reasonable professional expectations will have negative consequences for the individual and the organization, and your team should understand this.

Raising everyone’s level of understanding and buy-in concerning this concept is critical if your team is to perform to its highest potential.

Discipline . This word means many things to many people. In this context, it represents the understanding that membership in the team carries with it the expectation that each team member will meet his or her obligations and commitments. The leader must develop within the team the expectation that everyone will be asked to work harder, change faster, learn different approaches, and persist in the face of obstacles.

Olympic athletes offer a fitting comparison. You and I may run for fun or for our health, and we accept many excuses for why we may skip a day. Olympic athletes are among that prestigious minority because they maintain the discipline to train no matter what the weather, however much time is available, and especially when doing something else would be more fun. They’re fully committed to their decision to be the best of the best, and they have the discipline to carry out that commitment. That’s also the hallmark of a high-performance work team: the discipline to meet goals and objectives without excuses or delay.

A precise understanding of what constitutes success . A major reason for failure in many organizations is having a poor definition for success. Almost any type of work can be submitted to meet a goal or objective and be called successful if there’s no clear definition of success. Trust me: Your team members will know immediately when this happens. Few things are more frustrating than working extremely hard yet not knowing whether you’ve succeeded. Making the effort to clearly define success--declaring specific, measurable goals--before work begins is critical for your team members to know how well they’re doing, whether they’re ahead or behind schedule, and what will be required to achieve their goals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to define clearly what constitutes a successful outcome. Failure to accomplish this almost guarantees mediocre results, and that may not be acceptable to the organization or its customers.

 

Can you say ‘quality’ in five languages?
Now that we understand what a successful high-performance work team is in a general sense, let’s look at how to create one in a multinational or multicultural environment. First, spend the time to truly understand who your new teammates are and what makes them tick. How do they view the world? What are their definitions of “high quality” and “high performance?” How do they currently work together as a team, and what techniques do they use to get the job done?

Many people are under the impression that if you simply pull together a diverse team, it will somehow magically create multinational or multicultural effectiveness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Merely being diverse in today’s environment is not nearly enough. High-quality performance and world-class teamwork require hard work, true dedication, and constant focus, no matter where your team members come from or what their level of experience was prior to joining your team. The trick is to take team members from many different backgrounds, countries, and cultures and combine them to create a cohesive unit--a team that’s completely focused on achieving specific goals and objectives.

Let’s look at two examples of world-class, high-performance organizations currently operating in a multinational or multicultural environment.

Toyota continues to succeed beyond all expectations in multinational and multicultural commerce. The Toyota model was initially credited with success due to characteristics of Japanese culture and how Japanese workers approach their jobs. It wasn’t a cultural effect at all. Toyota achieved significant success in comparison to other Japanese businesses because of its approach to work standards and to sustaining teams that are unrelenting in their drive for continuous improvement. As a result of the Toyota Production System, the company now has plants and facilities all over the world and a workforce that seamlessly incorporates numerous cultural differences.

Another great example is Wal-Mart, one of the largest organizations in the world. Wal-Mart employees represent all cultures, the epitome of diversity in today’s workplace. U.S. Special Forces teams accomplish this as well by taking candidates from all walks of life and creating very high-performance teams that can accomplish miracles.

What makes these and similar organizations so successful in challenging business environments? They all possess an ability to unite their employees into a highly focused entity with a common identity while executing a well-defined strategy focused on common goals and objectives.

Toyota and Wal-Mart are examples of organizations that succeed in multinational or multicultural environments and thrive in the larger business world. Is this because of their diversity? Is it simply a matter of company size, which allows them economies of scale that are unmatched by their competitors? Or are they doing something fundamentally different than other businesses?

Cross-cultural homework
The new leader of an organization often begins with the assumption that a memo to employees stating that “new team members will receive training in our procedures and our processes” is sufficient to get the job done. Others assume that site visits, conversations with new employees, and a sincere effort to select best practices and procedures are all that it takes. Although these approaches are good, developing a high-quality, high-performance, world-class operation requires far more from the leadership team in terms of significant understanding, insight, and commitment.

Here’s where my views deviate from those that dominate in today’s business world--the current political correctness, one might say.

First, let me say that diversity, when implemented for the right reasons, is a good thing. Diversity for diversity’s sake, however, can be more harmful than beneficial. A misuse of diversity, for example, would be to allow team members to focus more on their differences than on the goal at hand. Real strength is in unity. The secret to creating a top-quality, high-performance work team is the ability to appreciate and use the strengths of each team member, and to blend different viewpoints, personalities, cultures, processes, procedures, and operations into a tight, cohesive approach that grows stronger with its successes in overcoming shared adversity.

To develop a strong multicultural team, the leader must be comfortable with that challenge--someone who can successfully combine the different perspectives and personalities that each member brings to the team to establish one organizational standard of performance. This approach has been critical to Toyota’s success and to the company’s ability to achieve significant results no matter where in the world it builds factories. The same concept allows Wal-Mart to dominate its market wherever it builds new stores.

The key to developing this success-in-diversity capability is to understand all of the individuals who make up the team. One can’t underestimate the need to be observant, and to do the necessary cross-cultural and interpersonal homework. Many of the differences between countries and cultures are quite subtle and therefore easy to overlook or misunderstand. Others are obvious.

Anyone from outside the United States who has ever worked with people from the United States will quickly tell you that U.S. workers and managers are confident (sometimes to the point of appearing arrogant), direct in general approach, and quite focused on achieving results as quickly as possible. In general, they tend to value individualism. It’s easy to read and understand their facial expressions and body language. Typically, they’re uncomfortable with silence and will speak just to avoid uneasy pauses and breaks in conversation. Many U.S. managers place great value on signing contracts and consider that action the completion of the negotiations process. In some Asian countries, on the other hand, the signing of the contract signals the beginning of the real negotiations.

Professionals from Japan are just as focused on results, but they observe strict formalities in their personal and team interactions, and place a high value on loyalty and teamwork. In Russia, patience is considered to be an extremely important virtue. Russians will deliberately provoke someone in order to judge their patience--and hence, worthiness--as a business or negotiating partner. Often they’ll arrive late to a meeting for the same reason. When working with the Chinese, be sure to have the most important member of your team lead meetings and discussions, because the Chinese place great emphasis on rank and status. When working with businesspeople from Asia, keep in mind that showing proper respect is generally valued above all else.

Significant cultural differences can be found within a single country. One telling story shows how powerful differences in corporate culture can be, even within a larger shared culture. Two large U.S. aerospace firms merged during the 1990s. One was very formal, with a fairly rigid culture. The other was more relaxed culturally but equally successful in the marketplace. For the first meeting between the two firms’ executives, one side, predictably, wore suits and ties, while the other came dressed in “business casual” attire. The atmosphere was awkward, to say the least. At the next meeting, the first group arrived in “business casual,” and the other team came in suits and ties. The awkwardness quickly dissipated amid laughs and the realization of what had just transpired: Both groups were trying to acknowledge and accommodate the other’s general approach and style. That flexibility cleared the way for the eventual development of a mutual, shared culture that became a successful blend of the two businesses.

Face time
These examples reveal some of the basic differences that exist between countries and cultures. World travelers reading this article will recognize most or all of these traits, and can probably add countless others. The question remains: If so many of us struggle with these obvious traits, how many more subtle or not so well-known cultural behaviors do we miss or never understand?

One could easily assume that a Russian team member who displays a hot temper is simply being disruptive, or that a French team member who constantly argues is trying to derail the team. Yet, the Russian is most likely trying to determine what the other team members are “made of,” and the French employee highly values the ability of an individual to defend his or her position through rational argument.

Too often we assume that others see the world as we do, and so we set out to tackle the job at hand with techniques that worked in the past. When working with a multinational or multicultural team, it’s critical to understand each member as an individual so you can begin to communicate effectively within the team. Don’t underestimate the critical importance of individual relationships or the nuances of social interaction that will be required to generate the results you desire.

It’s also important to under-stand the need for “face time”--in-person communication. You must be able to see the person you’re speaking with to read their body language, gauge their level of understanding, and build a strong relationship. Phone calls and e-mails are of little use for this aspect of team development and can actually create misunderstandings and other-wise damage the team. Visit your team members and work with them in person as much as possible. A good leader works diligently to ensure that he or she doesn’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about people and what motivates them. The leader can accomplish this by learning as much as possible about differences in culture and values.

Consider, as an example, the situation of the U.S. manager who begins working with and leading a Japanese team. What has worked for the manager previously, in terms of motivating people and accomplishing tasks, could easily be seen as rude and obnoxious behavior by the new Japanese team members. Rather than simply adapting to the new manager’s style, the team could simply isolate the manager as a way to curb--or at least protest--what they consider to be unacceptable behavior.

Another key component to keep in mind is the issue of language, especially when team members aren’t working in their native tongues. Many words don’t translate well, or won’t mean the same thing to different people. Neither side may realize that there’s been a misunderstanding until it’s too late and considerable damage has already been done. The seemingly simple word “yes” is a good example of this, which is a lesson that I learned the hard way. Some, including those from the United States, interpret “yes” to mean an agreement or commitment. Japanese strongly prefer to avoid the word “no,” and occasionally they’ll say “yes” but clearly mean “no.” In Saudi Arabia, “yes” can sometimes mean “maybe.” The same word may mean different things in different contexts, depending on who uses the word and how it is used.

Multinational or multicultural teams offer significant challenges to management and leadership in today’s global work environment. Diverse, high-performance work teams that can change the world are powerful to work with, and few workplace relationships will be as satisfying to create.

About the author
J.R. McGee is president and chief executive officer of X-Stream LEAN ( www.xstreamlean.com ), a management consulting firm that provides international services for executive coaching, business process improvement, supply chain management, and organizational development for management teams serious about developing world-class performance. McGee has more than 30 years of experience as an executive, senior program manager, engineer, and business leader.