Leading across distance - six tips for global leaders

Many leaders today find themselves managing teams with multiple nationalities and often distributed across continents and time zones. We give you six basic points to consider when it comes to global leadership. 

Globalisation is changing the shape of organisations around the World leading to new leadership challenges. Leaders face new challenges in managing teams and organisations with employees and team members spread out across the world – often with different cultural and organisational backgrounds. 

If you are aware of the challenges and keep some basic rules in mind it is not impossible to be a good cross culture leader. That is what we have realised in Workz, researching and designing a global leadership simulation game training global leaders and teams to deal with the challenge of working across distance and cultures. 

We have interviewed a large number of people from companies and academia and we have read a few books in our design proces. Out of it has come some basic advice that guides our development and which might inspire you. 

Of course the challenge is bigger and more complex than just following some basic rules. But by keeping these few things in mind you will clearly improve your chances of success. 

1. Stay in touch 

We all need to feel seen and appreciated, especially by our superiors. 

An occasional email with directives is simply not sufficient for building motivation and trust. Contact with your leader has to be continuous and has to exist at many levels. 

Consider all the interactions – small as well as big – you have on a daily basis with your co-located colleagues and think about how you can best accomplish them over distance. 

2. Do not rely only on digital platforms 

It should come as no surprise to you that we at Workz consider physical meetings very important. We believe that getting your team together at regular intervals to share war stories, work on shared objects and objectives and enjoy a good meal together is essential to building shared values, team spirit, trust and efficiency. 

Trust is not built through email, and team culture cannot rely only on video conferences and PowerPoints. 

As a leader, you should make use of all the media available to you, but you must choose the right medium for each occasion. 

3. Create rituals 

Cultures thrive on rituals. And when you and your collegues are far apart, rituals become even more important. 

Even a small ritual can have a large impact. A client of ours who runs a truly distributed company in the States has for instance made sure that everyone has identical cups with the company logo and has made it a habit for to use them for cheers at virtual meetings. 

4. Know yourself 

Like everyone else, you have your cultural and personal biases. 

If you are not aware of your own assumptions and idiosyncrasies, you will be unable to understand, let alone control, the impact your leadership style has on your colleagues. 

5. Be explicit 

Misunderstandings often happen because things are assumed and unsaid. 

If you approach a situation with a specific leadership style where another is expected, you can easily be faced with unexpected resistance. That is why it often pays off to be very explicit about both your style and your expectations. 

6. Avoid stereotyping 

As human beings we love patterns. Patterns are our way of making sense of the world we live in, and we therefore easily form stereotypes like “All Swedes are consensus-oriented”, or “Danes are blunt”. 

Yet, you must bear in mind that individual differences are as big in any other culture as in your own. Stereotyping not only offends people, it also make you miss some of the most important aspects of leadership. 

The Challenge of Global Leadership 

Leading distributed and multicultural teams is not inherently different from leading co-located, monocultural ones, but it presents the leader with some additional challenges related to distance and culture. 

To work well a team we must be coherent in terms of team spirit, shared goals, and shared work practices. Team members must be motivated and feel mandated to do their job, and they must trust their leader to lead the team on the rocky path of organisational politics and changes. 

Leading across distance 

We as co-workers have been accustomed to building trust, team spirit and shared goals through daily interactions in meetings, over lunch, around the coffee machine and at social or work-oriented team events. 

When we are hundreds or thousands of miles apart and perhaps in widely different time zones the conditions are very different. 

Meeting in person is costly, and technologies for personal or group interaction offer only a very limited bandwidth compared to the richness of face-to-face communication. 

Virtual meetings can be efficient and to the point, but they are not ideal for inspiring trust, creating personal relations or building team spirit. The global leader thus has to think carefully about how to balance travel and technology and how to blend leadership styles to fit the situation at hand. 

Leading across cultures 

The way we think, work, relate to other people and react to leadership actions is shaped by many factors. 

Inherited and personal traits play an important role, but so do the national, professional and organisational cultures that have shaped our lives. 

Personality profiles can help us a lot as leaders, even in multi-cultural teams, but when it comes to cultural differences there are a large number of pitfalls to beware of. 

In some cultures, for instance, employees expect to be involved and planning and decision-making, whereas other cultures consider that the job of the leader. In many countries, personal relations and trust are a prerequisite for positive working relations. Some cultures consider direct feedback rude, and in some cultures a handshake is more important than a written contract. 

The examples are legio, and the consequences of ignorance of cultural differences can be disastrous to people who work in multicultural settings. 

Read some books 

A lot of research has gone into understanding leadership across culture and distance. We have found a good deal of inspiration in the following: 

  • Richard D Lewis (2006): When Cultures Collide, Leading across cultures 
  • Erin Meyer (2015): The culture map, Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures. 
  • Geert Hoffstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov (2010): Cultures and oganizations; Sotware of the mind; Intercultural coorporation and it’s importance for survival. 
  • Rikke Kristine Nielsen og Jens Boya Nielsen(2016, CBS): Global Leadership Practice and development revisited; Exploring 3 roles, discovering 7 dualities. 
  • Junhee Kim & Gary N. McLean (2015): An integrative framework for global leadership competency; levels and dimensions