Serving teams across time zones, continents and language barriers has unique challenges. Below are tips for leading others in different geographies and cultures

Serving Global Business Team MembersThe modern organization increasingly operates on a global platform. Advances in technology and communications simplify and empower the company that seeks to execute in multiple geographies. As a result, it is more common than ever for leaders to have direct reports in varying countries and even continents. Serving team members across time zones, continents and language barriers presents many unique challenges. As I’ve been fortunate enough to work in such an environment several times in my career, I thought it may help others to share what I’ve learned about serving direct reports around the globe. Below are my top tips for leading others in different geographies and cultures:

1. Serve First: Regardless of where your direct reports are located, it should always be your first objective to serve them and the organization you work for. As a leader, you are entrusted to make decisions and provide services afforded your role for the betterment of the organization. When in doubt, simply ask yourself, “how will this action (or inaction) help the organization?”

2. Be Flexible: I’ve sat on conference calls at 3:00 AM, not because I had to, but because it showed my willingness to support the team and our global operating environment. Certainly, regularly recurring 3 AM meetings is not the objective. However, accommodating different time zones and providing multiple options for meeting times, reflects your support of the team members in other locations.

3. Speak the Language: Speaking fluent Portuguese, Italian, French and a variety of dialects in Asia simply is not possible for me. However, I do make it a point to learn and use the more common words in the language of direct reports. Key words, such as “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank-you” and / or terms specific to your industry reflect the leader’s effort and interest in the team’s local lingo. It also helps to use these words in written communications to broader audiences. Google Translate makes this especially easy. In so doing, you show that while you support the official language of your business, you’re also willing to borrow the best from others – Capisce?

4. Know the Holidays: Wikipedia has a great list of holidays by Country. You do not need to sit down and memorize all the holidays that every employee may celebrate. However, referencing such a calendar of global holidays can help. You should also maintain an open and interested mind. Remember, most countries celebrate more holidays than North America and regional cultures place a great importance on many celebrations. If you don’t know what a particular holiday represents – just ask. This will also reflect your genuine interest in the team and their cultural beliefs.

5. Be Inquisitive: Extending on point #4… whether it is learning the holidays, languages or any other new piece of information, I believe it is even better to ask the team member than to look it up. Having these conversations are a great way to get to know your team on a more personal level. In addition, this practice exposes your willingness to reflect some degree of vulnerability and your attention to continuous learning.

6. Learn the Environment: I’m still working on getting this implemented as a “requirement” with my current employer. However, I believe every manager should visit their direct reports in their working environments, at least once. This means a manager with a new direct report in another country should visit them shortly after the new reporting relationship is established. There are simply too many intangibles for anyone to understand over the phone or video conference. For example, many European cultures get serious work done around coffee station and several cultures place greater value in passion or emotion than others.

7. Know the Law: Ideally, you will have a Human Resources (or “Employee Services”) department to help you with this point. In essence though, you need to know what key variations exist for managers to know about in each region. As you serve the organization, you must know the legal guidelines and regulations set by governments in each region. For example, some regions have unions for different levels and not others. Some countries have strict guidelines on what certain words mean and do not and therefore may establish legal agreements. If you do not know these key variations, seek them out online and / or with your people services support. Once again, Wikipedia’s Labor Laws page is a good starting point.

8. Serve First: Yes, I mentioned this twice – because it is the basis for the rest. Employees located in field offices, remote locations or anywhere other than your headquarters are at a natural disadvantage. As such, they will seek support from you. The greater your emphasis on serving them and the organization, the greater they will respect and appreciate your efforts.

Above all, be genuine. I learned these “tips” because I was truly interested in the global team and their cultures. Therefore, I genuinely wanted to support them. In many cases, such as the language and holidays, my intrigue was the primary motivation. In others, such as learning the laws and maintaining a flexible schedule, I was primarily motivated by pursuing servant leadership principles in supporting our team. While these tips may help, practice only those you are genuinely interested in. That way, your team will perceive your interest and hopefully respond appropriately. Either way, you will ensure your greatest ability to serve and support your team and your organization.

Question: What additional tips do you have for working with teams spread across multiple geographies?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

7 thoughts on “Leading Global Teams”

  1. I just read the post. Excellent it hit the nail on the head. As a European having had several instances of being managed remotingly I now see how it is done well and done badly. Your points go a long way to getting it right. Well done.

  2. Pingback: Inverted Pyramid of Project Success

  3. Ben, your ideas on how to lead global teams closely parallel my own, and I find myself in agreement with every tip you shared.  On the basis of researching my book on virtual teams, “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams” ( I spoke with over 150 virtual managers and team members. Certain core elements were noted again and again.  Many of them you already noted in your seven ‘top tips’.  To those I would add this:

    Stay alert to the potential for conflict.
    When colleagues do not share a physical space there are more opportunities for misunderstandings to arise, especially if they are not equally fluent in the common language used by the entire team. Be vigilant about detecting the early warning signs that a problem may be brewing or that a miscommunication has occurred.

    So, what should you do?

    Ÿ-Take a deep breath before you react!  Don’t let the emotions of those in the situation spill over to you.  That way you can calmly evaluate both sides and determine the best course of action.
    -Make the first move toward resolving the conflict before it deepens.
    -Avoid confrontation in public.  Deal with your colleagues one-on-one.
    -Communicate about the conflict, noting that while these situations often occur in the world of work, they should never derail projects.
    -Encourage team members to speak up and ask for help in solving their conflicts.  Be the coach; have them put themselves in the other person’s shoes to understand that person’s point of view.

    Ben, as you pointed out so well, if you come from the point of view of service, your team will sense that and follow your lead. Thanks for putting these common sense principles out there, for every virtual team’s benefit.  


    1. Thanks Yael. Your book sounds fantastic I appreciate the great contribution here. I’ll have to check out your book and connect with you the next time I’m in NY. Thanks again for sharing. 

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