6 tips for successfully leading an international team

Hannah Burke our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 25/01/2023
6 tips for leading an international team

6 tips for successfully leading an international team

Diverse international teams are an asset to any life sciences company. Global businesses benefit from bringing together professionals with varied backgrounds, experience and viewpoints, which makes them better equipped for solving some of healthcare’s most complex challenges.

Research published by the American Psychological Association (2018) revealed that collaborating across organizational, geographic, and cultural boundaries and disciplines increases productivity and scientific impact. However, leading people from different corners of the world and bringing global teams together can be challenging. Time zones, language barriers, and cultural differences add layers of complexity to communication and team dynamic. Below, we share some expert advice and considerations for life science leaders of all levels to more work more effectively with an team spread across different parts of the world. Whether you’re in the early stages of your career, a manager or a board member, here's what you need to take into account when leading an international team: 

1. Share a vision

Communicating a clear vision inspires, unites, and directs your team. It is important employees understand how their work contributes to the company’s overall goals, even though they may be at a distance from other members of the team.

Recent research shows that employees who find their company’s vision to be relatable and meaningful have higher levels of engagement and are therefore more productive and effective in their work. To make sure everyone is aligned with the vision, as a leader you must take on board their feedback. Listen to any challenges they may face in their area and ask for their local knowledge and expertise so you can adapt accordingly and offer them any necessary support.

In many organizations, the vision is not communicated often enough or through sufficient channels to stay at the front of employee’s minds. In the best organizations it’s clear that every leader, every location, and every function see it as their responsibility to live and breathe the vision. To be a highly effective leader, ensure that whoever you employ overseas really understands your vision and is as passionate about it as you are.

2. Set clear expectations

To help you achieve your vision as a leader, every affiliate base across the world has to be aligned on what they’re aiming for and how they’re going to get there. To avoid misunderstandings which could lead to costly errors, set out project objectives and deliverables from the get-go. Make sure everything is written down and take the time to run through things with them on the phone to give them a chance to ask questions and ensure they fully understand what they need to do.

You will need to set specific goals at the individual level but also for the team, with clear roles and accountabilities so everyone is focussed on working together. Joint objectives can be effective for encouraging collaboration. For example, you might want to give your team in France a project that requires input and expertise from individuals in the Australian team.

3. Touch base regularly

One of the most challenging parts of leading an international team is coordinating people across different countries and time zones. Although difficult to see everyone either virtually or in-person, to make employees feel valued and ensure they stay on track, it’s critical you check in on them often.

When checking in with international teams, using video calls can help you better connect and understand each other. In addition to these regular virtual catch-ups, making the effort to travel to other office locations where your team are based can also be beneficial. It will enable you to get to know them on a more personal level and help keep them engaged. By having regular contact, you can overcome some of the barriers imposed by distance and forge a more robust working relationship with your team.

4. Employ trusted regional leads

As you can’t be in multiple locations globally at once, having a good pair of eyes and ears on the ground is crucial. As a leader, you need to have trust in your country leads and believe they will guide their teams as you would. These local managers will be your leadership representatives and will filter messages from senior management through to the staff in their region. They need to fully support your company mission and be passionate about the work you are doing as a company to improve life sciences. When hiring international brand ambassadors, look for people who are independent and self-motivated, but willing and able to fit into the larger company structure. They need to really buy-in to your vision as a leader so they can effectively communicate that and constantly motivate their teams to contribute.

5. Communicate effectively

Clear and concise communication is crucial when leading any team, but it’s doubly important in building global teams with cultural differences and language barriers.

The first step in creating effective communication for your global team is determining which channels work best for your employees. Talk to your team before establishing centralized communication channels. Ask how they prefer to communicate, either through email, instant chat, or calls. Your team may prefer several different channels for different types of communication, so it’s essential to get their thoughts so you can implement what works best for the majority and everyone is on the same page. Because your employees are working across different time zones, they need to be able to pick up after another team member leaves off. Ensure the project management tools selected for your team allow for them to see progress on task so things can run smoothly and efficiently.

For international teams, real-time collaboration is a significant challenge. As a leader you can help to promote synergy across teams in different geographies by developing an understanding of working styles and meeting preferences. Your remote team may have to come in early or stay late to participate in collaborative meetings. If this is the case, schedule meetings for the convenience of your employees and make sure timings are consistent if they are going to be a regular occurrence.

6. Be aware of cultural differences

An international team with different regional skillsets is an asset to any company. As a leader, it is your job to honour and respect the cultural nuances of your team, so you need to take the time to understand cultural differences.

If you’re expanding into a new location, make yourself aware of the cultural norms, values, and communication styles there. This can go a long way in helping you to build stronger relationships with your team. It’s important as a leader you are open-minded and avoid making assumptions or judgements about people based on their culture. Instead seek out opportunities to learn more about different cultures and perspectives. Your team will appreciate it and it will allow you to grow and progress as a leader.

Encouraging diversity and inclusion is essential for global leaders as it promotes innovation, creativity, and better decision-making by bringing together a variety of perspectives and ideas. It can also help to foster greater understanding and cooperation between teams. As a leader you will need to create a welcoming environment where everyone feels like they are a part of something. Regularly ask your team for their feedback on this and make necessary adjustments to the way things are run.

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