Leading a multi-national team after you’ve launched a startup is no easy task. You still get to deal with the day-to-day worries a regular business owner would. However, you also have thousands of miles separating your various team members, all of which speak their own language, and have unique cultural differences that need to be understood and respected.
A multi-national company is a great challenge, and the opportunity for immense profits is very real. However, you have to wear many hats to successfully cross cultural barriers, and have the proper technology in place to make communication as instant and seamless as possible.
1. Establish firm rules on how communication is conducted
One of the most difficult aspects of running a multi-cultural team is the language barrier. It’s unlikely you’ll be meeting in person on a regular basis, and often email and online chat won’t be enough to communicate across all operations.
While Google Translate and other similar tools can help to fix spelling and grammar issues, when it comes to talking, everyone needs to respect language differences between coworkers.
Some good rules to enact are:
- Non-native speakers shouldn’t be made to feel alienated if they have to ask for information to be repeated, or have something explained in a more concise and easy to understand way.
- In that same thinking, important decisions that require everyone’s input in order to proceed to a next step should be given more lead time, to encourage written communication to be reviewed multiple times, and to allow for questions and clarifications so everyone is on the same page as often as possible.
- Avoid using slang when communicating with non-native speakers, or when holding a conference with a mixed bag of international staffers. The list of North American, UK, and Aussie “English” slang would make for a pretty long read as a book, so make sure you know your team well before introducing slang to business communication.
- Similarly, colloquialisms can lead to confusion, critical mistakes, and overall wasted time. Examples of common English colloquialisms would be contractions like “ya’ll,” “gonna,” “yep,” and phrases like “go nuts,” and “get out of here!”
- Non-native speakers don’t have the same command of the language as English speakers, meaning they’ll take every word you say literally, even when it’s meant as a joke or offhanded comment. Even between those who speak the same language, a seemingly innocent word may be insulting or otherwise offensive to another. For instance, an American telling a UK coworker with little understanding of American English that you have to go “change your pants” because they’re filthy, would literally translate to them that you have to “change your underwear” which is disgusting and inappropriate.
2. Have a virtual meeting space where everyone can meet
The list of online and mobile collaboration apps is so extensive. Google Chat, Slack, Zoho, Wrike, and a zillion others all work very well, and offer something to fit everyone’s needs in both free and paid versions. Whichever method you use, make sure to encourage lots of training and dialogue while everyone learns the features available. Some apps that are common in one country may be completely “foreign” in others.
Centrally located virtual office headquarters are also a great idea, as you’ll want local venues where you and your international teams can meet as needed. Virtual offices, despite their virtual name, are real brick-and-mortar offices complete with reception, mail forwarding services, and much more. This will increase the professionalism and productivity of your business.
3. Respect cultural differences
In many ways, you’ll have to play the role of a student, counselor, and manager at any given time. There are certain to be disagreements between team members. You’ll need to help bridge language and cultural gaps to get everyone back on the same page. It will be very important for you to listen, and respect the different needs between different cultures.
Examples of cultural differences that can affect how business is done:
- Many European countries take up to 6 weeks of vacation throughout the year — in some areas this is legally mandated.
- Each religion has different times of day and/or specific days when they won’t be able to work, in order to celebrate religious obligations and celebrations. The same goes for eating: some staff members may not be able to eat food, drink coffee, or alcohol at certain times, if at all.
- Also, on the subject of food, some religions or cultures may not eat meat, or certain types of meat. For instance, Muslims can only eat halal meat bought from Muslims who can verify the animal was killed according to Islamic law. Another example would be that few Europeans would consider eating a sugary bowl of breakfast cereal, nor do they enjoy corn dogs or meat loaf.
4. Avoid talking about world politics or religion
It’s inevitable that some staff members will find their way into such discussions. However, anything but that which is pertinent to working together (such as holidays and food preferences for meetings) should be strictly avoided. Either topic has a very strong chance of causing in-fighting, with the consequence being fences that can never be mended between staff members and/or management.
Talk about whether you feel ghosts exist, but never question another person’s political or religious beliefs!
5. Don’t forget about your customers
Make sure clients, suppliers, and outsourcers can contact their country of choice with minimal effort. Have emails in place for key contacts in different countries and divisions of your company. Also, consider a centralized reception in the form of a multi-lingual phone answering service. This option is fast becoming very popular.
Calls are answered and diverted to the appropriate team member, from a single location, using a third party, with their own infrastructure and quality control in place. Using this option saves you thousands of dollars a year over hiring your own reception team, while speeding up communication between your team and customers.
Even when you use the tips and tricks listed above, leading a multi-national startup is still going to be tricky. This type of business model inevitably involves more growing pains, and that’s a reality you’ll fast have to embrace in order to achieve success. Best of luck!