Success on global teams requires agile talent leaders committed to their people.
by Calvin Coffee
August 22, 2022
According to an ADP survey of more than 32,000 workers across 17 countries, 43 percent of workers have thought about relocating overseas, with 16 percent having made the move. Additionally, seven in 10 remote workers say they are paid fairly for their skills and role, compared to less than half of those in the office.
While many large organizations may already have experience with culturally diverse, global teams, the increasing frequency of remote work for all kinds of organizations allows for more global talent on any team. The available talent pool is broader and more global than ever and this shift will require more agile leaders to capitalize on the benefits of a global workforce.
Sivaram Jambunathan, director of learning and development at General Mills, has led teams from all over the world. As former global lead of executive and leadership development and global manager for Cargill, Jambunathan experienced working on teams from Singapore to Minneapolis and back again. After focusing on regional manager leadership development across Asia, Jambunathan led a global team delivering executive leadership programs. In that role, he worked with team members from Germany, Iran, Singapore and Latin America.
Initially studying to be an engineer, Jumbunathan made the jump to HR and eventually L&D because of his passion for bettering others. “This is the one job where you get up every day wanting to make life better for others,” Jambunathan says. More than quantitative data, he loves it because the people around him will know if he’s impacted their performance gap and team growth: “It’s like an intellectual puzzle.”
After first moving from India to Singapore nearly 20 years ago, Jambunathan had an employee from the U.S. moving to Singapore who he was trying to support by asking questions such as: “What time are you going? Do you have your passport? Do you have this?” Eventually, the new employee stopped Jambunathan and asked if he could stop micromanaging them like he was their father. It was one of his first culture shocks working on a global team. “What I thought was being helpful was actually being intrusive,” he says.
In Singapore, if he ignored how his team members were executing their tasks, the assumption would be that he didn’t care. For a German colleague, it was straight-up brutal feedback; in Minnesota, he had to learn how to read signals. In Vietnam, if you wanted to give a presentation on trust, it would immensely help to have an authority figure give the talk, but in the Netherlands, the social concept of hierarchy is flattened.
“I have grown a lot with such diverse teams,” he says. “You bring programs forward to the audience based on the social culture, social norms and what exists in that group.”
One trick Jambunathan picked up along the way is finding culture translators inside new companies to translate the context of their culture, global or not. “Your translator helps you understand what happened before, why it is a big deal or not,” says Jambunathan. “Think of them as guides in a new country you are visiting.” He says meeting every few months for candid conversations with two or three translators and building trusting relationships is crucial to his success.
Beyond international cultures, there are all kinds of cultures and communities within organizations that influence how employees work and what they value. Hires who come from aggressive competitive company cultures will add a different perspective than those who come from a non-profit organization. But at the end of the day, we’re all looking to make our worlds a better place, Jambunathan says. “It’s a diversity in life experiences that creates great value.”
For HR in general, core rules still hold, especially globally. “People are different, they need different things,” says Heather Beckstead, head of people at Axle. “You can’t just say, ‘Okay, this is how we’re going to do it, and this is how it’s going to work here.’ It’s about how do you flex within that?”
A lot of HR is about embracing people and ensuring everyone is getting what they need to do their best work, “Not much is black and white. A lot of it is in the gray,” Beckstead says. She says talent leaders must “think with a very humanist perspective of what’s best in this situation as opposed to blanketing things.”
Beckstead previously worked with a U.S.-based organization with most employees in Spain and has experience working with groups from Taiwan, Uruguay and Australia. In those roles, she says specific approaches around diversity and inclusion required a lot of stepping back and considering strategies with different perspectives on big picture ideas.
With many companies increasingly co-located or with a mix of central office, remote workers and hybrid workspaces, many organizations are already trying to balance different working cultures, Beckstead adds. She says the future of work will be about flexibility. “It’s hearing people and allowing them the flexibility to decide what is best for them,” she says.
About 47 percent of employees consider being able to choose where they work an important factor when considering a change in work environment. Over the 20 years Beckstead has spent doing engagement surveys, she’s never seen engagement as high as her remote team, often at 94 percent. “People love being here. They love the work that they’re doing, and that just lights me up,” Beckstead says.
Beckstead is moving to work globally herself — from San Francisco to Portugal — all thanks to the fact Axle provides the flexibility to work remotely, an opportunity that would not have been an option five years ago.
Ask her why she’s moving to Portugal, her response is usually, “Why not?” The opportunity to live in another country full time and embrace the culture was all she and her family needed. One of the first things she did was book a ticket to Lisbon’s Web Summit to connect with leaders like herself to see how they think.
“The U.S. can be very myopic. We don’t always consider outside perspectives,” says Beckstead. “Considering different approaches and perspectives will be a great asset.”
And because Axle is a fully remote company, there won’t be much of an adjustment for Beckstead or her team. Working on east coast hours will give her more time to support employees in the morning. And with company-wide quarterly offsites to boost culture and connection, she sees it as a perfect balance with little disruption. For her people team that already had one member move to Hawaii, it’s all part of the new workplace.
Preparing to move overseas, Beckstead knows that for a company growing so quickly and remote, it’s vital to keep a strong organizational culture intact. This year, she helped initiate individual development plans to prepare employees for growth and be ready for the next opportunity.
As the skills gap persists, widening the talent pool globally is an obvious solution. And the further remote work pushes the workforce into the future of work, the larger the opportunity for talent leaders to think globally and connect with people from different communities and cultures. Increasingly global teams requires leaders agile and able enough to meet each employee as an individual with their own values and approaches.
The best advice for a talent leader stepping into a global role? Be open and embrace the mistakes. “I would say the most important thing is vulnerability,” Jambunathan says. “The second thing that really helped me is knowing that there’s nothing wrong with me that needs to be fixed. It’s just that there is something not effective at this point in time.”