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Managing across borders: It’s the new plumbing of globalization

In an increasingly global world, managers face a new challenge: They’re supervising workers across borders, time zones and cultures.

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It’s a setup that requires managers to learn new skills and to embrace a fresh approach, writes Jo Owen, a British management expert who’s author of Global Teams: How the Best Teams Achieve High Performance.

“Global teams are the plumbing of globalization,” Owen says. “Plumbing is boring until something goes wrong. It’s really, really important to get it right. And this is actually the first book to look at the plumbing of globalization.”

Owen spoke to getAbstract about the challenges and opportunities posed by globalization.

getAbstract: Say you work for a software company in the US and manage engineers in India. How do you navigate the cultural differences?

Owen: It’s a very 21st century challenge. Everything is harder on a global team — which is actually very good news, because what it says is if you have can manage a global team, you can manage any team. It’s leadership on steroids. Is it difficult? Yes. Will it stretch you? Yes. Will you learn more as a result? Yes. Just go for it. You’ll learn a lot.

How should managers approach this challenge?

Owen: The skills you need to manage a global team are very much global skills. In the 19th century, the managers had the brains, and the workers had the hands. Management was about IQ. In the 20th century, workers got educated, and managers had to treat them not as machines but as human beings, so you had the emergence of emotional intelligence, or EQ. Now something else is going on. You have to make things happen through people you don’t control and you don’t even see. Suddenly you have to learn the art of influence, persuasion and trust. The new theme is what I call PQ, or political quotient.

If you’re managing a domestic team, you can see when a team member is struggling. On a global team, you have to have a much higher skill set. You have to have much better communication, because things get lost in translation. And no one has figured out how to do motivation and performance management by email.

Cross-cultural communication is complicated. How do managers cope?

Owen: Communication must be relentlessly and ruthlessly efficient. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of communication. A manager in New York might get frustrated by what’s happening in India, and you can be sure the workers in India are frustrated by what’s happening in New York. This is a two-way street. And the job of being a team member isn’t to be an anthropologist. You can never build enough cultural knowledge. What you need is something better, which is cultural intelligence. That is a mindset about being open, adaptable, quick to learn and positive regard — the willingness to believe the people on the other end of the phone are professional and competent. You’re willing to try the local food, and you’re willing to listen to the local music, so even if you do make some mistakes, you’re going to be forgiven, because everyone knows you’re a foreigner. I lived in Japan for a few years, and it was wonderful. I was treated like a 3-year-old.

So cultural intelligence is key. How else do managers build trust?

Owen: The global team needs to get together face to face once a year, to literally work through how they’re going to work together as a team. You can’t just have a general discussion about how you’re going to work. You’re going to have to have some very specific scenarios. The critical bit is you have to get face to face. You must. It doesn’t matter what you do. You can go hiking in Iceland. You can go drinking in a castle in Transylvania. The point is to get together socially, so that people understand each other as human beings. Once you’ve built trust, you’ll find that the communication goes through the roof. Trust is the glue that holds the global team together. You can’t build trust remotely. You have to do it face to face. Arrange a conference and get together.

How do you impose discipline in communication? Do you recommend time-blocking?

Owen: Whatever system you have, make sure you have a system. A lot of global teams don’t have a system, so therefore, you have chaos. One of the companies I work with has a no-email policy — absolutely no emails. All communications are on a platform where everyone can see what is going on at any point. They have a daily meeting by teleconference.

What’s the biggest mistake global managers make?

Owen: Probably the biggest mistake they make is to adopt the domestic mindset, the home office mindset. You just assume that if it works in Boston, it must work in Berlin, Beijing and Bangalore. If you have that mindset, you probably end up scheduling calls at times that are convenient for you and not convenient for everybody else. And if you have that mindset, you probably end up talking to people remotely. You have to do it face to face; you can’t do everything remotely. The good news is you’ll get a lot of frequent flier miles. The bad news is you’ll never want to see an airplane again.

About Jo Owen

Jo Owen is the UK’s leading social entrepreneur. He is a founder of 8 NGOs with a combined turn-over of £100 Million. He was awarded an OBE for being the starting Teach First, the UK’s largest graduate recruiter. He is currently International Chair of the Education Development Trust and chair of several other NGOs.

He was a partner (Strategy & Change) with Accenture. Before that he built the Japanese and Asian business of the MAC Group/Gemini/CGEY.  He started his career in brand management at Procter & Gamble.

Jo is also an award-winning author; the only business writer to have won three times the Chartered Management Institute Gold Award. His latest book is Global Teams: How the Best Teams Achieve High Performance (FT Publishing) based on a research with 80 companies of different sizes, across the UK, Europe, Asia and the Americas.  Last but not least, Jo is an original, informed, incisive, broad-minded – and, above all, very entertaining – keynote speaker.

He can be contacted at:      See his website:

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