Tips to Manage International Teams at a Startup Technology Company
Successful companies grow quickly. In just a few years, a startup can grow from a small office in a technology incubator to a multinational operation with employees all over the world. But entrepreneurs are trained to build technology, not to scale and manage a dispersed global team. Here are some good principles to follow if you find yourself facing the lucky challenge of managing a growing international team.
Have a clear, global vision
A common vision can unify people of different cultures, personalities and temperaments. Your company may need to deploy slightly different strategies in each country where it operates, but everyone should be working toward the same goal. Boku’s vision is to make the mobile number the world’s most convenient way to pay online and on your phone. But, the technology underlying each transaction works differently in Japan than it does in India, a fact that requires devoting considerably different resources to each market. The India team makes decisions that would never work in Japan. But because everyone is on the same page with regard to the overall goal, the results are the same.
Promote consistent values
Sharing the same values across the company will lead to consistent approaches to thinking and processes across the company. Listing, sharing, and reinforcing these values with the team are critical to creating a global company culture. Rakuten has a value system all employees have memorized:
- Always improve, always advance
- Passionately Professional
- Hypothesize, Practice, Validate, and Shikumika (Systemize)
- Maximize Customer Satisfaction
- Speed, Speed, Speed
Whatever your values are, make sure everyone in your company — in all locations — knows them.
Treat employees as equally as possible
Living standards and salaries may vary widely by country but vacation policies and work-from-home days should not. Holding employees accountable and rewarding them similarly, regardless of where they are stationed, also creates an important sense of equality. When employees are treated differently, they may feel as if their contribution is less valuable. This can be demotivating and must be avoided.
Hiring managers — especially in Silicon Valley — tend to recruit people who come from similar schools, backgrounds, and even share similar hobbies. People around the world may not value the same qualifications (such as a Harvard MBA) that many U.S. companies do. Hiring people with different backgrounds fills the environment with people who have different opinions, perspectives, and insights. Access to these insights and opinions is especially useful when making important decisions. Diversity also breeds an environment of meritocracy where skills, performance, and abilities outweigh all other factors.
Maintain a consistent organizational structure
Keeping a similar organizational structure across different countries helps employees — who may not have met — correspond with each other. Calling a team “Technical Account Management in one country and “Customer Technical Support” in another may confuse people about their actual roles. Adding and budgeting for new functions around the world will be easier if the organizational structures are consistent.
Encourage face-to-face meetings
Creating consistent face-to-face interaction will help strengthen relationships within the company. HQ employees should visit satellite offices to understand the situation and cultural differences of other countries. And satellite employees should visit HQ. But the Country Manager is not the only employee who should get to have fun and travel. Other members need to be invited too. Quarterly meetings where all global managers attend to discuss topics are another good practice.
Set up cross-border reporting lines
Creating cross-border reporting lines is another way to integrate employees. Satellite employees can directly report to people in HQ, with a dotted line to the country manager. Creating a system where all employees report to the country manager may create an unwelcome fiefdom. This separates the organization, limits the sharing of information, and could result in high turnover.
Share information globally
Collecting and sharing information can be a huge competitive advantage for a company. It not only helps the company operate smoothly but can also influence a company’s strategic decisions. Employees in a satellite office may have knowledge of a unique technology or a local deal that’s critical to the success of the company. Software tools such as Salesforce, Basecamp, Asana and Confluence are useful. But the importance and simplicity of setting up a global call cannot be overlooked. One of the core values of the Japanese trading firm, Mitsui, is to share information globally so investment decisions can be made quickly and clearly.
Moreover, when word needs to go out to the entire company, don’t leave anyone out of the loop. Spreading important company news close to the same time across the world creates trust with employees and puts everyone on the same page. When information is communicated asynchronously, those who receive the information later may feel less important.
Information sharing isn’t just about managing workers. Peers should be able to interact internationally too and across teams. Boku has a buddy program where people in one office interview someone in another office. These lessons are shared across the company. It’s like Henry Ford said: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Enjoy learning about each other’s cultures
In Japan it is a custom for all who travel to bring omiyage or snacks to the office for others to share. At Boku, anyone who travels abroad brings snacks to the other office. Hosting your own employees at favorite local restaurants when visiting is also a good experience. Learning to speak new languages is slightly more challenging but a fun way to begin to understand another’s culture. Learning about each other’s culture creates a mutual respect between individuals, builds relationships, and makes the integration process much more human.