Views: Getting global organisations and people onto the same page

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ORGANISATIONS increasingly rely on employees who live and work in locations around the globe. From Delhi to Dublin and Tokyo to Toronto, the ability to leverage the right combination of local savvy and global expertise can provide a competitive advantage, writes Mike Klein and Larraine Solomon.

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The ‘work from anywhere’ culture that many of us now enjoy actually has deep roots and a long history in the world of large multinationals. Its practice broadened during the pandemic and will continue to some degree even with some organisations pressuring employees to go “back to the office.” 

What this means is that, in many cases, organisations that had 10 corporate offices now find themselves accommodating employees who work out of more than 300 remote locations, with spare bedrooms permanently converted into office spaces.

Ask any conscientious leader for advice on how to align these dispersed employees, and they are likely to mention that a compelling, unified vision, strategy and approach for the long-term success of the business is essential. 

But such good intentions do not always align with realities on the ground, particularly when that ground is spread around the world.

Typically developed by a senior team, a ‘corporate narrative’ is often imposed or even dictated across the company, without regard to local conditions and cultural nuances.  

Straplines, logos, screensavers and newsletters alert people to top organisational priorities, presented through new, on-brand messages and images. In seeking consistency, many organisations fail to take into account the fact that physical distance and differences in culture can result in misunderstandings, mistrust and a lack of emotional connection, as can conflicting agendas and interests which lurk beneath the surface.  

A huge issue is the role of English as a common business language. While English is understood broadly and widely – words and intent can be interpreted very differently by people across the globe. Sometimes, that’s a result of meanings being “lost in translation,” and sometimes, it’s the result of different leaders and managers working to their own understandings and definitions of those priorities and themes.

Creating an environment that inspires global teams to align on global goals and priorities can be challenging when national languages and local management agendas come into play.  But with conscious focus and a willingness to surface issues honestly, business outcomes will improve. Here are seven tips that will make a difference:

1. Test understanding of the key terms, themes and priorities being commonly used in the business. By asking people to share their own views of organisational priorities and their own definition of the word used to reinforce them, it becomes possible to identify gaps that need to be addressed.

2. Help all employees to connect with the real purpose of the organisation – something larger than their local business. People who understand how they are making a difference to the business, their colleagues, customers and local communities are more likely to try new things, make surprising contributions and tackle even the most difficult problems. To the extent to which there’s a gap between what local employees and global leaders see as the organisational purpose, this approach can help address that gap.

3. Enable ‘global’ planning. Use language that speaks to the head and the heart.  Inviting teams to create a local story, be a part of local goal-setting and term clarification, and contribute to the planning process will help to unify cross-functional teams.

4. Give everyone a voice…and listen to what they say. Involve people from the beginning. Ask good questions and demonstrate that you are acting on the input. Follow up with quick and lean feedback collection exercises, and don’t put words in their mouth.

5. Spread the word through influencers and ambassadors. When employees at every level feel passionate about contributing to strategic goals, a new sense of teamwork is established. Encouraging employees to share their own stories in their own style – with their team members, neighbours and customers, can help to build trust, credibility and loyalty.  

6. Measure and celebrate progress. Measurement provides proof of the impact that your strategy is having on employees, beyond just informing and educating. Connecting your communication approach to the impact on business outcomes like employee engagement, productivity, retention and the customer experience can provide a data rich indicator of the return on the investment. Where possible, start measuring before you start communicating so that you can better measure the difference you make.

7. Lead by example. Employees increasingly choose to work for organizations that align  with their personal values, mission and priorities. Our biggest frame of reference is never the posters on the wall – it’s the tone that leaders set by the way they act every day and the consistency between their words and their actions. When leaders use inclusive language and demonstrably value cultural differences, it can create a space where workers feel welcome and safe, and in turn, extend that welcome and safety further to their colleagues.

The temptation to try to connect and mobilise a dispersed organisation solely from the centre may appear to be convenient; offering leaders an immediate opportunity to drive overall performance. But doing so can either override local factors that work well, diminish enthusiasm beyond the HQ, or paper over fundamental differences in the way different parts of the organisation interpret the same priorities and indeed, the same terminology.  

Effectively aligning across cultures requires a determination to ask good questions, and let the answers inform a more resilient and inclusive approach.

Larraine Solomon is the managing director of Inspiring Conversations, a delivery focused leadership, communication, coaching and business strategy consultancy.

With over 20 years’ experience as a business and change leader in large complex organisations, she specialises in helping leaders and employees to connect with each other, develop meaningful dialogue and achieve significantly better business results.  

Solomon was recently the chief strategy and operations officer at the New Statesman Media Group, which is home to some of the most influential, historic and engaging brands in the media world. She has also held senior global positions at Monster, Thomson Reuters, HMRC and Lloyds Bank as well as leading consultancy organisations.

Mike Klein is a consultant and communication leader focusing on internal and social communication.  An active blogger, his Changing The Terms blog challenges conventional thinking on internal communication and agitates for practical, data-driven alternatives,

An MBA graduate of London Business School, Klein is the founder of #WeLeadComms, an ongoing campaign to celebrate the courage, leadership and initiative shown by communication leaders through their daily work. He is a former US political consultant, a veteran internal comms researcher, and was recently named to the Thought Leadership Circle of the University of Florida’s Internal Communication Research Hub. Klein is also a certified member of the Institute of Internal Communication (CIIC) and a certified Strategic Communication Management Professional (SCMP). He is based in Reykjavik, Iceland.