How to Collaborate with Global Teams

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. October 29, 2019
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​PHOENIX—Collaboration with globally dispersed teams requires overcoming language barriers, learning about differences in social customs and endeavoring to include all offices in global meetings, despite time differences. Managers who oversee these teams especially need to learn about the cultures of other countries, said Joseph Perkins, an attorney with regulatory and global business operations for Allison Transmission Inc. in Indianapolis, who spoke at the Association of Corporate Counsel Annual Meeting on Oct. 29.

Language Barriers

When attorneys around the globe began reporting to him, Perkins said, he faced some challenges. He visited Brazil but didn't know any Portuguese, and his new direct reports did not speak a word of English. They used some hand gestures before the company's chief financial officer in Brazil, who spoke fluent English, acted as an interpreter.

Perkins vowed he wouldn't be in that situation again. He began listening to Portuguese-language CDs during his commute instead of morning radio. When he returned to Brazil, which he said he has since visited about 30 times, his team members appreciated that he'd made the effort.

Rodolfo Rivera, chief international counsel for Fidelity National Financial Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., advised, "Don't worry about making mistakes" when speaking a new language. The employees will appreciate that the effort is being made.

To prevent miscommunication, Kathleen Molamphy, general counsel, Americas with ICL Americas in St. Louis, follows up after meetings by sending out a list of the meeting's main points. That can be particularly helpful for colleagues who read English better than they understand it when spoken.

Rivera recommended avoiding colloquialisms commonly used in the U.S.—such as "the deal went south"—at global meetings, as such phrases can be confusing for those who speak English as a second language.

While some employees abroad who don't know English might have trouble advancing in a global organization that conducts international business meetings in English, exceptions can be made. Rivera noted that some of his best lawyers in Mexico don't speak English, so he lines up interpreters for them.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Social Customs

In some parts of the globe, where individuals sit at a conference table is extremely important and signifies the pecking order of employees who are present, Perkins said. Employees with seniority sit across from each other, he noted.

Elsewhere, women may be ignored, even if they are running the meeting. Women should assert their authority in such situations to get the conversation back on track, noted Mary D. Del Balzo, a conference attendee and head of legal, Americas for Siemens Product Lifecycle Management Software Inc. in Wilsonville, Ore.

Another conference attendee, who is Japanese-American, said she led a discussion in Japan where the Japanese men in the room refused to answer her questions and stared at her white American male associates instead of acknowledging that she was running the meeting. After a break, when her colleagues acknowledged that her questions weren't being answered, the male associates started looking down; only then did she start getting the attention of the room and answers to her questions.

Time Zones

Set a time for global conference calls that is "slightly inconvenient for everyone [so that] everyone shares the pain," Perkins said.

That might mean early or late calls in the U.S.

Flexible work arrangements should be encouraged on those days. That may mean allowing someone who comes in at 6 a.m. to attend the conference call to leave at noon, Molamphy said.

Or it may mean allowing the workers who have to call in early or late to telecommute on those days, which can make the calls less painful.

When setting up global calls, she added, don't forget legal holidays observed in offices outside the U.S. 

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