Ask any business professional anywhere in the world, and it will be difficult to find an individual who does not believe that effective leadership and high performing teams are essential for success. Yet almost everywhere, people are struggling to become effective leaders and high performing teams. So, why is that? Of course, it’s a complex issue and there are multiple dimensions but one very basic factor is that team and leadership have very different meanings for different people; driven by different values, lived with very different behaviours, and … to make matters even more challenging, people claim their own model to be the best. And when diverse international teams are created, the very different expectations of team and leadership can quickly become a very real problem for effective … teamwork.
Maybe a story will make this clearer. It’s a true story, using cultural stereotypes, sorry for that, but … sometimes cultural stereotypes can be useful to surface and talk about what I would call just everyday human challenges.
The story begins in Dusseldorf, Germany. And I was talking to an American leader who had lived and worked there for almost five years. I was asking him about the experience, particularly what he had found most challenging. His answer? ‘You know, Bob, my biggest problem is that teams don’t exist in Germany.’ Now that was a strange comment. Of course, teams do exist in Germany. What was he saying? But rather than disagree, I asked him to tell me more. And he stood up, went to the whiteboard, and drew a picture which I have been sharing for the last fifteen years with teams across the world.
The first picture he drew was what he called the ‘German approach’ to team. What is core to this model, for him, is very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. A is responsible for As tasks. B is responsible for Bs tasks. And C is responsible for Cs tasks. A does not do the tasks of B or C. Neither does B or C do the tasks of the others. And everything is held together by a clear leader, with clear decision-making authority, often with more expertise than the team members, so the leader can give the right advice to guide A, B and C to think in the right way. It’s what I would call Structured Leadership. As I said, clear roles and responsibility. Clear leadership. Structure delivers efficiency and results.
However, for my American client this was nonsense. This was actually not a team. For him, a team looked very different. For him, roles and responsibilities should overlap. Individuals should collaborate and cooperate. People should share tasks. They should be creative together. And yes, there is a leader still, but this person is very small, at the centre, ready to coordinate only if necessary. Importantly, much more important than leader is leadership, shared leadership. Everybody in the team is responsible for leading, not just the formal leader. It’s all about collaboration, agility, creativity and shared responsibility.
Now both models are interesting. Both models are actually valid for me. Both models connect to deep and important values. And individuals adopt each model because they want to deliver results. That’s the shared belief. But, of course, when a person who believes in a structured approach to team and leadership meets a person who believes in a more flexible approach – what do you get? The structured person often sees the flexibles as chaotic, unstructured and inefficient. The person leading at the centre, almost invisible, they’re weak and incompetent. For the flexibles, the more structured approach is old fashioned, lacking trust in team members, and simply too rigid to meet a dynamic reality. These negative perspectives of the other – I hear every day in my working life as a coach.
So, what’s the solution. Well, obviously, don’t assume that your view of international team and leadership is shared. You need to discuss and explore expectations in your international team about these basics. In fact, you can use these two visuals to explore and explain different approaches to team and leadership. And then the fun part, you can try to create a visual with your team which shows what you want your team to look like. Draw a unique picture which shows the roles and responsibilities for your unique team in your unique situation. Designing together is a great team building exercise, creates great clarity on the fundamentals of working together, and is a reference point which you can always come back to and look at again – and ask, are we living this? Yes, no? Why? Do we need to change? How?
In the end, effective international teams and leaders openly discuss and design the collaboration model which is right for them, and right for their situation. Try it yourself. I think this will give you a better chance to achieve the results you want.