Lauren: Hi I’m Lauren Stiebing and welcome to this episode of the Career Success Podcast. Working internationally comes with great challenges but also great rewards. Today, we we’ve invited Remko Tetenburg to address the challenges and opportunities of leading international teams. Remko has 28 years’ experience in the FMCG industry where he developed a broad knowledge in marketing and sales and for the last 10 years, he has been in general management positions where he has been responsible for the full business including manufacturing operations. He is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Melitta Sales Europe where he is responsible for over a half a billion euros and is the leader of 450 employees. He has a highly international background: he has lived in 6 different countries and he is fluent in 5 languages. Welcome Remko!
Remko: Thank you, Lauren!
Lauren: So, yes, leading international teams or even diverse teams in general can be very challenging at times, so what would you say are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in your career?
Remko: Yeah, I would say the single, biggest challenge of leading an international team is for sure the very different cultural backgrounds and with that the related different work and meeting culture that brings to the table. These differences will be noticeable and play an important role in the way you communicate with people, or the way you involve and engage with people, the way you delegate, the way you give feedback, the way you lead meetings or workshops, for example, the way you set targets or you do performance reviews. So, basically, in all critical aspects of leadership and management international teams can be really challenging and will require special attention if you want to be successful. Related to this, other challenges can be language as such, and also in case of remote teams that are spread across a region, the physical distance. In terms of the common language in corporate culture when leading international teams for sure is always English and if you are leading an international team where most of the team members are not native speakers, there are several traps to consider, one of them is the different interpretation of words or what is being said, and another trap is the different level people might be at ease expressing themselves in an other language which pared with cultural differences may lead to the wrong interpretation of team-members abilities. When it comes to remote teams, this brings in a further challenge of communication and interpretation, although with modern communication tools we have increased efficiency of leading teams that are spread across a region, but it must also be recognized that the just described challenges of leading an international team are even more complicated when you start using video conferences or skype meetings: effectively communicating, interpreting what is understood or sensing the understanding of people when not being in the same room is significantly more challenging.
Lauren: So, how do you overcome these challenges or how is the approach that you’ve used?
Remko: Yes, I think there are several things that you can do to overcome these challenges. To start with as a leader, you have to prepare yourself and profound your understanding of the people you are working with. So, have a lot of individual talks with all your team members, ask questions about their understanding of leadership, their expectations to you as a leader, and also their own role as a team member, and try to get an understanding of where someone is coming from, and what their most important values stand for. And then, you should take time to do the same as a team, it is important that the team members of an international team understand each other well, as well as it is important that leader of the team understands the background and the dynamics of his team. Make sure that every team member develops a in depth understanding of the cultural backgrounds of all the other team members, talk about the values that you as a team would like to subscribe to and ensure a common understanding of these values, and clarify the way of working: the do’s and don’ts of the team. This is of course also relevant for team leaders of more homogeneous teams, but the chances of success for an international team leader will depend critically, I think, on creating this common understanding within the team.
Remko: I think, you should spend a proportionate time on communication, you would have to be even more observing of team dynamics, and reactions of each individual team-member, and when dealing with people from different cultures it is also of great importance to understand that for most of us our cultural background is something extremely important and highly valued, this means that, you know, that the wrong joke, and indeed, the sense of humor differs a lot from country to country, or a laugh, can really ruin a lot. So, be respectful of different cultures, approaches, and appreciate the diversity in your team. At the same time, if you want to be successful, you should not be overemphasizing the differences, but actually, you should really look also for communalities. I think as this is a challenge, so additional language training or cultural training can be a really good investment. In certain regions, the cultural differences might be subtler, but they could nevertheless, play an important role and it is worthwhile to dive into that, and if you go to a region where the cultural differences are much bigger you can often find interesting intercultural trading. We also talked about this aspect of remote teams, and the challenge of managing a remote team, and that happens a lot when you are leading an international teams, so you just have to be aware of its limitations and insure enough physical contact to keep in touch and insure alignment across the team: use skype meetings, in particular when you it comes to sharing information and updates, but also, understand its limitations and make sure that when you lead teams across a region you are regularly onsite, instead of always having meeting in headquarters. It is important to see the interaction in a local environment, having regular exposure to the different cultures in the office but also outside of the office. I think that is a prerequisite of any successful leader of an international team.
Lauren: And have you seen these international teams or diverse teams, have a direct effect on business results?
Remko: Yeah, I like this question, because we tend to always talk about the challenges and difficulties but to my personal experience working with international teams has great rewards. In terms of business, something I learned early on in my career, is that there are many different ways you can do things and they could all lead in their own way to success. At the same time, what is very successful in one country, could very well be successful in another country, so sharing best practices could be of a great value, and obvious as this may seem, and as much as everybody is always talking about it, it is really not easy to have an effective and fast best practice sharing inside a company, so you must ensure there is an open an safe culture to talk about success and, above all, also failure. Do you really understand the underlying effects of success? and check if these can be applied in other settings as well, so that is another very important aspect that can boost your business results. And another one I would mention is benchmarking, so again, being respectful for differences between countries and regions, it is always worthwhile to benchmark, learn from each other and also, I would say this brings in some healthy competition which is also a bit of fun.
Lauren: And, have you adjusted your leadership style depending on where are you based or the cultures of the individuals who you are leading?
Remko: Yes, I always do up to a certain level, of course depending on the situation. To give you an example, some work cultures in Europe are more hierarchical than others, and in these cultures, people would look more up to the hierarchy to give clear instructions, versus more participative work cultures, where this could be counterproductive. Personally, as strong believer of engagement trough involvement, involved cultural backgrounds I would insists for example, in a strategy development process on a high real level of participation of the teams, but the way I would organize it would be different: in an organization which is more hierarchical I would involve different levels of the organization at different stages, so I would adjust this to the specific situation. Another example, it is a way of giving feedback: in the Netherlands for example, negative feedback is given straight forward, very direct, and it is also very clear that it is always a two-way street. If I think of a Mediterranean work-culture I would take definitely more caution when giving negative feedback, and to get feedback up the ladder you would need to make some encouragement for people to do so.
Lauren: And what would you say are some of the tips you would give someone who is going into their first leadership position abroad?
Remko: Number one, I would say, prepare yourself: read about the country that will be hosting you. There are often interesting books written by foreigners who have lived and worked several years in a specific country. Most of the time these are entertaining books, where you can read about the challenges they have gone through, and that most likely you will be going through, so you can relate quickly to their perspective. I would also say, know the history of the country you are in, but also stay out of politics. Then of course, language, I think even if it is a very difficult language, I would encourage everybody to make the effort to learn the language even if you don’t need it for day-to-day work, it will help you to adjust faster, and it will also gain you respect and acceptance. Another tip I would give, is not to forget you are a guest, so of course you don’t have to like all the local habits, values or food stuff for that matter, but you must understand them and treat them with respect, and you can, of course, cheer for you national sports team, but if worst comes to worst, be a good loser and be happy also for your host if they make a win. Another tip I would say is, communication is key, that is also obvious from what I said before, though observe very well, ask lots of questions, listen very attentively, and at the same time communicate clearly and openly about where you come from and what you stand for. Last but not least, I would say it is also very important to remain true to yourself, so of course as previously mentioned, to be successful you must learn and adapt to your environment, at the same time, your different experience and background can definitely be an added value to the team and the situation, and you should not lose this by adapting too much, so look also at the values, you should make a clear decision for yourself on which of your values are more flexible, adjustable to a certain situation, and which are not negotiable, your core values you will always stick to no matter where you are working. Basically, that would be my tips or anyone going into a leadership position abroad.
Lauren: Well, Remko, thank you so much for joining me today, and I hope our guests have taken some learnings away from this.
It is my pleasure, thank you very much Lauren!