Leading a Multinational Team

In today’s hyper-connected world, organisations are not only competing for customers, they are also competing for the best talent. The number of individuals living and working outside their home country has been growing steadily for the last two decades, creating an increasingly diverse workforce. Many  organisations see this diversity as a competitive advantage, a catalyst for innovation and a channel to understand the diverse needs and expectations of different customer segments. But in order for these strategies to work, it is imperative for today’s leaders to be effective at managing multinational and multicultural teams.

By Mario Ferraro, Deloitte

Good leaders have been managing diversity for a long time. After all, cultural differences are not limited to ethnic groups or countries. Nuances can often be perceived between different races of the same nationality, or even between offices, departments and floors within the same company. Individuals will naturally tend to identify with a group and adopt, to a great extent, a defined set of values and beliefs, which  will then influence their thinking process, perceptions and, ultimately, behaviour. 
Modern technology and communications, together with globalisation and the widespread use of the English language, have bridged some superficial cultural gaps, almost leading us to forget that deep differences still exist. On a daily basis, leaders need to decide how to interact with individuals and teams, knowing that what is acceptable or common in one culture may be frowned upon in another. For example, recognising individual achievements is perfectly acceptable in the West, but may cause offence or embarrassment in many Eastern cultures. Asking questions, raising objections and debating different viewpoints during a meeting are quite common in some cultures, but virtually unthinkable in others.
Leaders managing multicultural teams are likely to be more closely scrutinised by their staff, who will try to figure out “which side they are on.” This is a tricky predicament because a leader’s status is not always gained by virtue of his position, but rather through respect, which can be lost in an instant with a cultural blunder or an insensitive remark.
A good leader will know how to manage a variety of cultures and personalities simultaneously and resolve differences and conflicts without being perceived as having a cultural bias—for example, by referring to neutral and/or externally focused values, such as “what is best for our customers.” Leveraging corporate culture as a neutral ground for consistent handling of professional matters across nationalities and cultures is an effective strategy to mitigate the potential risks and pitfalls of managing a diverse team.
Far from being “intangible,” corporate culture can be designed, articulated and embedded into the way people behave, at least in the workplace. A good place to start is the organisation’s mission statement and the corporate values. In the most successful organisations, corporate values are more than just nice words
behind the receptionist’s desk. They are reflected in everything that the organisation does, including how decisions are taken, how meetings are run, the performance management process, the physical
environment of the workplace, office events and rituals, and the relationship between leaders and employees.  In order to be deeply embedded into the company’s culture, corporate values should also be reflected in goal-setting, budgeting, management reports and performance appraisals. And needless to say, the ultimate statement of the behavioural norms that an organisation encourages is made through incentives and disincentives. 
The key to managing multinational teams may therefore well be in aligning all employees, irrespective of their nationality, to a common set of values. Culture thus becomes an integral part of the leader’s agenda, manifesting itself in tangible and quantifiable ways: team effectiveness, employee engagement and staff retention. Today’s leaders need to manage culture just as well as they manage the execution of business strategies. After all, in the words of Mark Fields, Ford Motor’s President for the Americas, “Culture eats
strategy for breakfast.”