Becoming a Global IT Leader
"IT professionals must be prepared to drive innovation in today’s globally interconnected markets," says Sandra Smith, director of Brown University's IT Leadership Program. "To this end, they need transferable leadership skills effective across all markets, industry and cultures."
A successful global IT leader can come from any background, notes Doug Bordonaro, chief data evangelist at analytics developer ThoughtSpot, where he works with numerous Global 500 companies. Ultimately the most successful business people have three core traits: respect for foreign cultures, a skill that is in demand, and the patience to listen and communicate.
1. Understand the challenge
The most effective global IT leaders are those who make an effort to understand the local business and cultural environments in which their organization operates. The best leaders take from the norms of multiple cultures and disciplines they work with to create a blended strategy, one that leverages the best practices from headquarters and from the local offices.
An IT leader in a multicultural environment must also be aware of his or her own cultural framework. For an American CIO, that may mean a high degree of individualism and personal accountability, a task-based versus relationship-based approach and a linear view of project timing, which is the lens through which the diverse cultures and business styles of the teams abroad will be understood and processed. Practicing empathy is critically important in this environment.
To better understand local markets, practices, challenges and needs, a global leader should be prepared to ask a lot of questions when visiting a local site. Reading about the country’s economic and political environment, the history and culture, is also a good way to understand the context and the rationale for some of the practices observed.
2. Polish your communication skills
Successful global communication requires both listening and respect. Really hear what the other person is saying and think about their point of view before you jump in. Understand that their perspective or method may be different, but ultimately just as valid as yours.
When dealing with a culturally and geographically diverse team, a new global IT leader must remember to keep the message simple and devoid of jargon. To gain trust, it's important to show your human side as well as your business and IT professionalism.
Trust is always the key, no matter where colleagues are located. Say what you mean with no room for error. Don't put the responsibility on the listener to pick up on and correctly interpret the nuances in your communication. This is especially true when making requests and suggestions.
3. Familiarize yourself with local business and IT practices
A new global IT leader shouldn't reflexively impose U.S. business and technology practices on global teams. Nor is it a good idea to completely defer to local preferences. Identify what are the values and practices that matter across the company regardless of location. Prioritize those without compromise, but allow local leadership to drive their own regional execution and approach within guidelines that don't allow for the watering down of the core values.
American IT practices that are team-based with open communication across divisions may face challenges in hierarchical cultures such as India, Mexico or France where team members are used to a top-down management style. Conversely, the explicit communication styles favored by U.S., Canadian and many Western European leaders may seem condescending or overly simplistic to team members in Asian countries that favor a more nuanced, context-based communication style. Teamwork and consensus is in the DNA of the highly collectivist cultures of Asia, although this may be confusing to project managers in Japan, which is both hierarchical in terms of management style but consensual in terms of decision-making.
In the U.S., time-to-market sometimes rules everything. Outside of the U.S. there is a balance between time-to-market, quality and maintainability.
4. Become an international collaborator
People from diverse backgrounds are often the most productive members of a brainstorming group. The key to success is to set aside time for informal discussion and to solicit impact outside a structured meeting or brainstorm. Get to know the members of your global team the same way you know your local team. Do all you can to have social events at each office so you can share local traditions and culture.
A big downside to managing across time zones is that there are fewer opportunities for IT leaders to enjoy informal chats with international colleagues, since they don't ordinarily pass them in the hallway or catch them in the lunchroom or gym. It takes an extra effort to talk during the brief period when you're both awake and working.
As they seek input from their global teams, IT leaders should strive to create an environment of fairness and respect. Team members need to believe that new ideas, regardless of their origin, are welcome and that diverse perspectives are truly valued. Innovation should be rewarded and acknowledged publicly. Testing new ideas and learning from mistakes should be encouraged and expected as a regular part of business. On a practical level, videoconferencing tools should be used for group brainstorming over regular phone-based conferencing.
5. Embrace change, reject fear
Fear is change's unwanted partner. An IT leader suddenly pushed onto the global stage frequently fears rejection, humiliation and, ultimately, failure. Yet fear also visits the remote staff, who worry that their new boss will upset their tidy little world with irrational schemes, procedures, requirements and, worst of all, layoffs.
The good news is that while some fear may be warranted, a change of command rarely plays out as horrifically as either side expects. Much of this is due to the fact that while the world is populated by many different cultures, people generally have similar job-related goals. Respecting the cultural differences while practicing the patience to find the underlying common goal is the key to successful international business.
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