Virtual Teleconferences for Global Project Teams

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A recent project has prompted me to focus this month on the efficiencies of teleconferences.  Lack of agendas, side conversations, audible background noises, late attendees, accent and language difficulties; alongside poorly facilitated calls that seem to go in circles are just some of the everyday teleconference challenges.

Although teleconferences are not a new phenomenon somehow we tolerate the inefficiencies and frustrations that they entail.  Why is this?  Over time we become unconscious and unmindful of the bad habits and irritations that ‘creep in’.  We often accept them as ‘normal’ and for the most part we ‘switch off’ and allow apathy and stagnation to set in, without us possibly even realising it.

For many global project teams teleconferences are the most common meeting format.  They are a critical mode of communication where key decisions are made and everyday production, innovative and creative ideas are thrashed out. Something worth reminding ourselves of is that the success of teleconferences directly impact overall project outcomes, timelines and ultimately budgets.

Here are some simple reminders of things to be aware of when facilitating and participating in culturally dispersed teleconferences:

  • Ensure that the agenda has been circulated at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. It is particularly useful for those in other locations whose native language is not the language that the meeting is being conducted in.  This provides all participants an opportunity to plan what they will say or questions that they want to propose.
  • Be mindful. When most of the participants are in the same room it can be difficult for the remote participants to engage in the conversation.  They are not privy to the same group/room dynamic.
  • Remember that in some cultures people wait to be invited to speak rather than speak up whenever they have something to contribute. Be specific and invite people to speak at various intervals.
  • Ensure everyone identifies who they are before they begin speaking. Don’t assume that everyone knows each other.  It is not uncommon for offshore project teams to have new staff joining the team at different times. Maintain the practice of introductions at all meetings.
  • Use diagrams and visual aids where possible.  They can be of great benefit as an alternative mode of demonstration and explanation, especially for offshore teams.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding language, accents, dialects or tone, speak up. Let people know.  Chances are that they are having difficulty understanding you also.
  • Don’t confuse silence with agreement.  Take the time to ask each person one by one to give their opinion or share their concerns before making a consensus decision.

How does Behaviour Inform our Perceptions?

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One of the challenges of working across borders is that certain behaviours and styles of communication and body language may not have the same meaning.

For example in countries such as Malaysia the etiquette for shaking hands is a soft hand to demonstrate respect; conversely in Australia a soft handshake can be interpreted as a lack of respect, sign of disinterest, weakness and insincerity. Our mental antenna goes up and we start to look for evidence to support these initial impressions. Are we going to find evidence to support our initial impressions? Most likely yes! The person more than likely will do or say something that will support these impressions. Our biases come to the surface. For example, at the conclusion of a meeting you may be thinking to yourself – “That soft handshake reinforced my initial perceptions. I knew I couldn’t trust him/her.” All of these interpretations can be made from a simple handshake.

I advise clients to not squeeze the hand. Often their response is “but you can tell so much about a person by their handshake.” Think about this for a moment. Is this a universal truth or is it culturally bound? When we interpret behaviours we tend to compare them based on our own cultural practices because we are familiar with them.

There are so many subtle cultural nuances. I had a coaching client from Nigeria who would ask me questions such as, how long do you look at someone in the eye, when does a look become a stare? Have you ever thought about this? My guess is probably no. Conversely, if you are in cultural environments where eye contact should be avoided, how would you know how much is too much?

In countries such as Australia if we go to a bar with friends and colleagues the norm is an unspoken assumption and practice of taking turns to buy the rounds of drinks. We don’t discuss this. It doesn’t matter if you are a guest or not, generally it is an equitable practice where payment of the drinks is shared equally. So imagine this scenario that was shared by one of my clients. He had an Indian manager visiting the Australian office. My client invited him out for a drink after work. My client brought all of the rounds of drinks and was annoyed and irritated that it wasn’t reciprocated. My clients’ internal dialogue was telling him ‘this guy is tight, not generous and has no sense of sharing’.   The following day at work he requested a report that wasn’t delivered on time. The thought processes of my client were, not only is he tight with his money, he is also unprofessional and unreliable. This example demonstrates how one misinformed behaviour can lead to inaccurate perceptions and interpretations. The perception of the Indian manager would have been ‘I am the guest, you are the host therefore you pay. I won’t offend you by offering to buy a drink, and when you come to India I will take you out and I will pay because you are the guest and I am the host.’

It is useful to have a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable raising certain conversation topics but communication and cultural awareness and knowledge can be improved immensely when people can pluck up the courage to raise the uncomfortable, awkward conversations.

The questions that we need to be thinking about are:

  • How can I develop flexibility and cultural agility?
  • How can I learn the important behaviours and values of the cultures that I am working across?
  • How can I understand what are the things in my culture that are important; and what impact do they have when I am dealing with people of different cultures?

 

Preparing for Globalisation

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Breaking into new markets, navigating new local landscapes and understanding the behaviour and needs of global consumers are a few daunting issues requiring close consideration when preparing for global growth.

I have witnessed organisations expanding into overseas markets for reasons that in hindsight were poorly planned and forecasted; fewer competitors, lower costs and growing local demand were at the forefront; along with time constraints of hitting the market before opportunities are lost. Expanding into new markets can be exciting, financially rewarding, while encouraging innovation, creativity, adaptability and responsiveness. It also requires careful consideration, local knowledge and understanding and in-depth research. Some critical questions to consider are:

  • How will you differentiate your service/product to appeal to local consumers?
  • How/what has the local market/landscape hindered local companies providing this service/product previously?
  • Local consumers often expect company interactions to have a local, relevant ‘feel’ – how can this be achieved?
  • How will you understand specific regions, markets and customers?
  • How will you gain the trust of local customers?
  • How will you incorporate local ideas/skills into your strategies?
  • How will you incorporate cultural intelligence into your organisational goals and visions?
  • How will you know how successful your organisation is performing in terms of interactions with customers and stakeholders?
  • How will you build local supplier relationships?

Successful companies with long-term strategies, that develop and apply carefully considered new approaches to their business conduct, products and services have a greater likelihood of enduring global business success. While tailored strategies to each country’s context can ensure capitalisation on the strengths of particular locations, following are some high level areas for refection.

  • Different cultures have different expectations, needs, perceptions of quality etc. The challenge is often how far to go when modifying products/services for different markets, without compromising the reputation, value or quality of your product/service that has been the backbone of your success.  How do you achieve this without risking your global brand reputation?
  • Finding the balance between being adaptable and flexible in terms of business models, marketing, product design etc when entering new markets is challenging. Understand what the local market and consumer motivators are, their values and the different cultural key drivers and preferences.

The Cultural Barriers

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An interesting study recently released ‘Australia’s International Business Survey 2015’ had some key findings supporting the case for increased cultural intelligence (CQ). The findings provide insight into the nature, needs, concerns and future plans of the overall Australian international business community from an organisational perspective. Over 1200 Australian companies were included in the survey, from 19 industry sectors operating in 114 international markets.

Some of the CQ highlights were:

  • Local language, culture and business practices were sited as the main barriers from an Australian perspective when doing business in overseas markets.
  • 64% identified cultural differences in building long-term business relationships as challenging.
  • 63% identified cultural differences as challenging when negotiating across borders.
  • 58% identified cultural differences as challenging when making buying decisions.
  • 47% identified language barriers as challenging.
  • 93% identified face-to-face meetings with overseas customers as important. It was considered. one of the single most important market development activities.

While these findings are not surprising, they do indicate a strong case for earmarking CQ as an area of significant importance. With these insights at hand the challenge for organisations is to truly appreciate the importance of navigating culture and local business practices, improving soft skills for building relationships, cross-cultural communication and negotiating in the most effective manner.

Bridging the Cultural Gap

This month I invite you to view a short video interview of me with AHRI (Australian Human Resources Institute) where I discuss what individuals can do to become more culturally aware and communicate more effectively.

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I will be speaking about developing culturally intelligent leaders at AHRI’s National Convention on 26 August. Registration is now open. Click here for more information.

Meeting the Challenges of Cultural Diversity

Last week I was a panelist for the discussion “Building Cultural Capability Networks” to further explore findings from Cracking the Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing Your Business in the Asian Century research. The Diversity Council of Australia surveyed over 300 leaders and emerging leaders from Asian cultural backgrounds working in Australia.

One of the challenges that I came away with was a longstanding challenge – how do we get organisations to pay greater attention to cultural diversity in Australia?   There are many compelling reasons to support greater diversity within our organisations, and yet while our diverse workforce continues to expand, we continue to inadequately support it.

Although countries such as Australia (and many other countries around the world) are highly multicultural societies, I believe that part of the cultural diversity apathy that exists in the Australian workplace is in part due to a lack of awareness, education and biases.

Some of the breakthroughs that I believe are needed to overcome these persistent institutional cultural barriers are:

  • Organisations need to review, educate and revise their current practices, strategies and objectives in terms of employee hiring, promotion, mentoring and leadership models; including succession planning to promote cultural diversity.
  • Double sponsorship should be promoted. Companies such as IKEA have a sponsorship/mentorship program that requires two people to be responsible for hiring decisions and sharing the development responsibilities for that individual.
  • Leaders and recruitment staff need greater education around unconscious and conscious cultural biases and the complexities of cultural identity i.e. alternative leadership models and communication styles. They need greater awareness of their own biases and should be made more accountable for their decisions and actions.
  • Improved understanding and appreciation of the value that cultural diversity brings to organisations and the ‘know how’ and skills to actually leverage these differences.
  • Senior Leaders must demonstrate their commitments to cultural diversity programs by truly getting behind them by modelling them through their actions and behaviours.

I urge you to read the Cracking the Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing Your Business in the Asian Century.

The Role of CQ in the Changing World of Business

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Here are a couple of short interviews that Patrick Rundel from ‘Foundation for Young Australians’ conducted with me recently.

What is the role of CQ in the changing workplace?
Has there been a change in how cultures interact in the workplace over the past decade?

Why should young people take an interest in CQ?