Leading a Team in Different Geographies
18 March, 2021
Teams dispersed across different geographies are becoming increasingly common. While the benefits are many, product managers leading those teams encounter many challenges. I singled out three key challenges that I had to deal with:
- Different time zones and a lack of time zone overlap;
- Cultural differences (in its every aspect);
- Building relationships and overcoming a lack of interconnectedness.
Different time zones and a lack of time zone overlap
Even when there is a convenient time zone overlap, the team’s work/life rhythms would often collide. To mitigate that problem, most of our communication would be in writing, and I had to both increase and improve my written communication. My messaging had to be more precise, context-rich, and tailored for a specific audience.
Using collaborative whiteboards that help people do mockups or reiterate on ideas is critical and facilitates remote communication. However, team members should also have space to do their work offline and nurture their focus.
Sharing audio messages asynchronously also ramped up our communication because I could respond to their messages faster on my mobile. I would try to have regular catch-ups by designating a specific time during the overlap where I would be able to connect with people and be available to answer their questions. That would also allow me to track the team’s progress closely. Even if the team has nothing to discuss, I will maintain it as a touchpoint that will enable me to stay connected.
Cultural differences (in its every aspect)
Culture is a complex concept open to various interpretations. Nevertheless, as a product manager, you should be open and adaptive to cultural differences. For example, you should be able to grasp subtle nuances in communication between developers from the US and India or understand how launching a product in Japan and Latin America would differ and cater to your audience.
The best way to acquaint yourself with another culture is to travel and spend some time with a team in their own environment. I remember having a team of developers in Singapore and how I was trying to learn as much as I could about the country, its customs, and history. I would also try to find some movies, TV shows, even YouTubers from those countries that would help me understand popular culture. Reading about cultural differences from an anthropological perspective was particularly useful. I became intrigued by how culture shapes the way people communicate and how that affects their workplace communication. For example, I found it interesting to read why people from some countries are more direct in their communication or more straightforward when delivering feedback. “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer is a fantastic reference to decode and navigate through cultural differences.
Building relationships and overcoming a lack of interconnectedness
Building relationships is tightly connected to your willingness to learn about and understand other cultures. It helped me a lot -- and my company was encouraging that pre-Covid -- to travel and meet people and their cultures firsthand. During those stays, I would try to get to know people better outside of work; we would go for a coffee or lunch. If you are unable to travel, you can at least host virtual happy hours to connect with people online.
There is something about physical proximity that helps build trust and connectedness among people. The global pandemic impacted the way we work, and for most managers, building relationships in these stressful circumstances stands out as the main challenge. I am still exploring different approaches and doing my best to keep my team motivated and engaged.
- Be open to learning about different cultures. If you haven’t been exposed to a particular country or traveled there before, study the country, its people, and culture before you go. All the effort you will make to familiarize yourself with another culture will be worth it.
- The beauty of the multicultural world is embodied in the diversity that spans communication, working styles, habits, etc. It is not about others; it is also about us, reflecting on our own culture and understanding where we are coming from. For example, it didn’t come easy for me to accept direct feedback as I was trying to avoid conflicts, while for my teammates from other cultures, conflicts and confrontations were an integral part of their daily communication.
- Building relationships will require a time investment. But strong relationships are the foundation for accomplishing your business goals. It is an investment you will have to make if you want to lead a successful team.
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