How to manage a global supply chain team

13 July 2018

Building trust, setting realistic goals and understanding culture are among the vital elements required when coordinating a large international team, says JO OWEN

Making a local team work well is hard. Making a global team work well is harder, as anyone managing a global supply chain knows. This is where the plumbing of globalisation matters – coordinating teams of five to 50 people from across cultures and time zones to work together. Plumbing is not glamorous, but we all take a sudden interest when it goes wrong.

Here are the top five challenges global teams face – and what you can do about them.

1 Communications. We live in an age where we communicate more than ever, but understand each other no better. The opportunity for misunderstanding increases dramatically with distance and culture. Technology is fine for communicating information, but not for meaning. The first person to work out how to motivate by email will make a fortune. But it is a fortune that is unlikely to be made. The quality of communication rises when there is mutual trust, but achieving trust is another great challenge facing global teams.

2 Trust is at a premium on a global team because you have to trust people to make decisions while you are asleep. Trust is a function of three variables: credibility; intimacy; and risk – all of which are tougher on a global team than on a local one.

Credibility means always doing as you say. Partly that is about skill, which means that the skills premium is high on global teams. But more important than doing is saying: people hear what they want to hear, and on a global team the chances of miscommunication festering and leading to loss of trust is high. Work hard to set expectations clearly: have the difficult conversation about expectations at the start, rather than having an impossible discussion about failure at the end.

Intimacy is about shared values and beliefs. Intimacy is the enemy of diversity: you can be of any race, colour and creed as long as you share the firm’s way of thinking. Building intimacy remotely is like dating remotely: not easy. The quickest way to get round this is to buy the plane ticket and go and meet your team, or hold a global conference. For many global teams, the magic answer that helped them find trust and team effectiveness was simple: throw a party. Shared experiences lead to better trust and communication.

3 Goal setting is management 101, and is remarkably hard on a global team. It is easy to communicate a goal, but far harder to explain the context; the reason why the goal matters; how to manage all the trade-offs that may be invisible at the top of the mountain, but are painfully obvious at the bottom. Goal setting is only as good as the decision-making process that precedes it and the communication that follows it.

4 Rhythms and routines of communication and decision making need to be perfect. In a local team, any glitches can be seen and sorted in real time. In a global team, small problems can quickly run out of control. And communication can, by itself, be a full time job. So you have to tame the beast with clear routines about what is done where, when and by whom. These routines need to have fair process. Do not expect East Asians to stay up past midnight for every global conference call; make sure that decision-making appropriately involves key stakeholders wherever they are.

5 Culture is the dog that nearly did not bark. Oddly, the biggest culture problems I’ve found when interviewing global firms were those with close cultures: a German-speaking Swiss was shocked by the differences he found when he moved from Switzerland to Germany. Because exotic cultures are so different, we take care to try to understand them; with close cultures we assume we understand them until the moment things fall apart. Be adaptable and learn whoever you work with.

Leading a global team is extreme leadership: if you can lead a global team, you can lead any team. Enjoy the ride.

Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and a keynote speaker at global conferences.

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