Achieving Great Team Management Across Borders

As a servant leader, you have to look beyond keeping expenses down to unlock the full potential of a distributed team.
Author Omar Rabbolini's Headshot
Omar Rabbolini
Expert Columnist
May 19, 2020
Updated: August 11, 2020
Author Omar Rabbolini's Headshot
Omar Rabbolini
Expert Columnist
May 19, 2020
Updated: August 11, 2020

Resourcing in-house software development can be a headache, especially if you’re headquartered in a first-tier tech hotspot such as Silicon Valley or East London’s Tech City. Even if your pockets are lined with money, you still have to contend with other local startups and the big tech presence in your area for a limited resource pool.

Fierce competition for excellent workers drives some startups to set up satellite product development offices elsewhere in the world. In a rush to release to market, they open up engineering centers away from home, hoping that throwing bodies at the problem will lead to quicker iterations and higher velocity. As an added incentive, recruitment is often cheaper in these secondary locations, perhaps due to a lower cost of living or a less well-developed technology ecosystem.

Of course, adding resources mindlessly is never a good strategy to increase velocity, and over-emphasizing the lower costs of recruitment in secondary locations is a good way to set yourself up for failure. When done right, however, the experience of working with a multicultural, distributed team can be both financially rewarding for the company and professionally enriching for the managers and teams involved.

At least, that was my experience when setting up a cross-border team in Taipei to work with my engineering department based in Hong Kong. Although the endeavor was challenging, especially at the beginning, it paid off in the long run.

How did we get there? We followed a simple roadmap driven by a clear intent and employed a servant leader’s mentality throughout the project. Let’s see what that means in practice.

 

Setting Off With a Purpose

First of all, you need to take a closer look at your reasons for setting up a remote team. If money is all that matters, there are even more cost-effective solutions to consider. For instance, you could partner with one of the many outsourced development businesses to get your product developed on the cheap. Options like this exist worldwide with a range of prices that can fit any kind of budget.

The drawback here is that, by outsourcing, you take a gamble with product quality. You also might end up being completely dependent on your partner in the long run. That kind of dependence is a scary proposition even before getting into the IP concerns of such an approach. You might legally own the code, but you can’t guarantee that parts of it won’t be reused for other projects that your provider is undertaking. Of course, you can draw up different guarantees and levels of transparency, but nothing is ever going to be as safe as the code never leaving your own servers.

Having said that, outsourcing is a valid approach for non-critical components or one-off customizations for a subset of customers when your team’s capacity is already at limit. Ultimately, though, it’s a stopgap solution for a short-term problem.

Setting up a remote team abroad, on the other hand, is a longer-term goal. This approach allows you to increase your reach, acquiring and retaining talent that wouldn’t otherwise be available to your company. Eventually, however, that talent needs to be integrated with the rest of your organization. Sharing business objectives and company goals isn’t sufficient, either. The remote team also needs to align with the company’s culture and ethical values. At the same time, your company also needs to adapt to the remote team’s ways.

Imposing your own culture and way of doing business in a different country will only lead to failure. Although this approach might initially seem to work, everything will fall apart like a house of cards at the first hiccup. The remote team won’t trust you, so you won’t get early warnings when things start to go wrong. By the time these issues come to your attention, it will be too late.

Instead, the best approach is to find a common language and common values to share across your cultures. You’ll need to be ready to compromise, even going as far as integrating ideas and practices from your target location into your own company-wide processes.

I can’t stress this enough. Bringing in a remote team is like mixing a new pigment into the dye that colors the fabric of your company culture. You need to be prepared to embrace new hues and be open to variations you haven’t considered before.

 

Getting the Hang of It

Setting up a remote team starts off with a discovery process. After all, as a servant leader, you will need to cater to the needs of your remote team as much as you do to those of your team back home. To meet their needs, you need to get familiar with the local culture so that you can start considering how your company’s way of doing things might need to be adapted to fit with it.

The individuals you recruit will always be different from one another, with some being more traditional and others more liberal. Globalization makes these differences less marked than in the past, though. You might find, for instance, that your remote team in Hong Kong is not opposed to socializing over drinks at a bar on a Friday night. That’s not how socialization usually takes place over there, though. Friends and colleagues are more likely to share a meal, be it a winter hotpot, a summer barbecue, or dim sum anytime at all.

That’s a simple, superficial example, but it’s a good indicator of deeper differences. Different cultures put different degrees of emphasis on behavioral traits like assertiveness and individualism, as well as characteristics like social status and family ties. Again, not everyone you recruit will exhibit the stereotypical aspects of their culture, but you need to be aware of these traits in order to understand where your people are coming from. Once you understand who you’re working with, you can decide either to embrace them or be sure to consciously select individuals who are more compatible with your company’s way of working. Be aware, though, that the latter strategy might reduce the talent pool you’re tapping into.

Also, remember that you aren’t just recruiting people in a vacuum. You’re bringing their whole world into your organization. Knowledge of local values can therefore give you an edge when it comes to both attracting and retaining talent. Drawing on my experience in Hong Kong once again, you’ll find that some recruits, and especially younger ones, put a large emphasis on their job title. That desire isn’t motivated by personal vanity, but rather to fend off pressure from their parents to find a “better job,” perhaps at a bigger, more renowned company. Taking that into account when assigning job titles and working out promotions might lead to better staff retention in your remote office, even if back at headquarters those titles don’t mean much.

 

Continuous Integration

Once you’ve become familiar with the culture of your target area, and you’ve started recruiting, it’s time to look at integrating the remote team into your larger organization. Keep in mind that this isn’t a one-off process, but a continuous activity that recurs over time as people join your company at its different locations.

As a servant leader, your work is to ensure that these new folks are successfully integrated into the team. Your effort alone isn’t enough, though. All team members involved in cross-regional work should make a conscious contribution to make this happen.

To accomplish this, you need to give team members the opportunity to travel and experience the culture of the people they’re working with. You don’t need to have the whole company travel to your remote offices and vice-versa, though. That’s a costly endeavor that doesn’t add much value for those who aren’t directly collaborating cross-border. For example, flying your recently recruited junior engineer to your headquarters is a more effective strategy than flying your VP of sales to the remote location, especially if it’s a cost center without local customers. The VP of sales won’t get much out of the trip apart from exposure to the local culture, while the junior engineer will grasp a better understanding of what drives his coworkers, making their collaboration more efficient in the long run.

Flying people around isn’t the only option for fostering cross-cultural pollination, though. You can also host “get to know each other” video chats. A good format for these meetings is weekly or twice-monthly lunchtime or teatime meetings where a couple of team members (one per location) get the chance to share some local happenings with the rest of the group. Of course, the timing of these calls can be quite tricky, especially when different time zones are involved, and some team members might fail to see the value in such a meeting. For a better chance of success, you should make them optional and spell out their intention clearly.

The overall purpose here is to find common ground between the different groups. Also, you can tap into grassroot communication as a way for people to find this common ground. Encourage people from different offices to get familiar with each other by starting their one-to-one video calls with anecdotes from their daily lives before jumping into business. For instance, team members who have children might use that as a starting point to build a relationship with a remote co-worker who’s also a parent. Younger team members, meanwhile, can share their interests in search for a common passion. For example, gaming proved to be a popular topic on a former team of mine whose largest demographic was freshly graduated software developers. Ultimately, when people realize how much they have in common with each other despite geographical distances, they become more willing to trust each other, leading to better cooperation.

 

Being a Fair Servant Leader

Finally, to run a cross-border team successfully, you need to optimize your own contributions as a servant leader. Both your local team and your remote one(s) might suspect that you’re biased toward the other. Your local team might think you have different standards for different locations, while the remote team(s) might just consider you as a figurehead, far removed from the reality of daily work.

These assumptions must be countered from the get-go. Ensure you have a published set of metrics that you use to hold your team accountable and that the same metrics apply across the whole team, regardless of physical location. Also, short of spending half of your time remotely, you should also make yourself available as much as possible to the remote team. Set up office hours in which they can book time with you or make it clear that they can call you ad-hoc if needed. Finally, don’t passively wait for them to reach out. Check in frequently with the remote offices to see how they’re doing. Something as simple as a ping on Slack can get the ball rolling, and that’s more effective than setting up multiple communication channels in the hope that the remote team might use them to get in touch.

You should also have a local representative in your remote office, somebody you’ve recruited over there who will represent you when you’re not around. Strive to develop absolute trust between yourself and this deputy so that you feel comfortable leaving things in their hands. Spend as much time as possible getting to know each other. Make ample time to touch base in person when you’re in her town or she’s in yours, and stay in touch remotely through frequent one-on-ones.

 

Parting Thoughts

Despite the challenges, setting up and running a distributed, cross-cultural team can be a rewarding experience for everyone involved, if done right. The management lessons you’ll learn from dealing with people far away and with different working styles will help you become a better servant leader at home. Likewise, exposure to different cultures will benefit your team members, giving them an international outlook that is increasingly valuable in the globalized world we live in.

Most importantly, it’s a chance to learn from other cultures and incorporate aspects of different working styles into your overall company culture. Doing so can lead not only to better performance, but also to an increased competitiveness in the market.

Ultimately, the key to successful management across borders lies in one of the principal characteristics of a servant leader, humility. Imposing one’s own culture onto a remote team is a recipe for disaster. It’s much better to go with the flow and understand what makes us similar and what makes us different and embrace difference when coming up with a unified set of values, processes, and metrics. Show that you’re open to change and learn from the experience of those far from you as much as you do from those closer to home.

This isn’t just advice for the manager, but for all the team members involved in cross-culture collaboration. The more you know about each other, the better. Only an open mind can allow the bigger, international team to flourish and achieve continued success.

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