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Article:  Effective International Project Leadership

An American senior program manager was looking for the fastest way to develop a key product for an attractive emerging market segment.  His primary product development resources were located in the United States, Israel, and Japan.  Thinking that “nothing works better than a little competition”, he commissioned both the Israeli and the Japanese teams to independently develop a similar product.  Each was to collaborate with the American side.  The winner, i.e., the team that had a viable product first, would “take all”.  The potential market return more than warranted the investment, since the executive believed the approach would significantly reduce precious time to market.

You can probably guess what happened: Neither team did particularly well.  The Japanese procrastinated, going through several loops of questions and clarifications, and generally seemed to give the project only low priority.  The Israelis complained a lot, demonstrated low team morale, and a few key players left the company.

The project was a failure.  It took major efforts, including redefining the structure and re-launching the project, to ultimately get a product out of the door.  It was late to market and thus struggled to compete successfully with other solutions.

What happened here?

The executive ignored one of the most important principles of any international project work: the need to understand one’s own values and those of the other culture(s) involved.  Setting up two teams to compete with each other internally works well in the American work environment, where competitiveness is often highly valued and people will go to great lengths to win.  In Israel and Japan (as well as in many other cultures), the approach sent a very different message to the teams: that their competence was not being trusted.  Accordingly, their motivation was low and they didn’t put in their best efforts.  Each team predictably reacted in ways typical of their culture.  The end result was the same for both of them: not much got accomplished.

International project work, especially in cross-cultural co-development environments where teams collaborate and compete simultaneously, requires special skills.  Effective project leaders strike a careful balance between the various values and preferences of each of the (domestic and foreign) cultures involved.  They do this by demonstrating six key leadership behaviors, each of which is discussed below.

#1  Effective international project leaders understand their own and others’ cultural values

Everyone grows up with a set of cultural values that influence their behaviors and beliefs.  These can be exceptionally powerful, determining the way we interact with others and how we make decisions.  In international project management, such influences can become huge obstacles if not understood and managed correctly.  For example, many Americans expect project team members to speak up when they identify an issue that could jeopardize their project’s success.  In many other cultures, this is not a reasonable expectation.  People there will view it a project leader’s responsibility to identify such issues, and they will not raise the issue themselves for fear of irritating the leader, losing face, or disturbing the team’s harmony.

In a cross-cultural team environment, a project leader who is either unaware of or insensitive to such differences likely faces consequences like project delays or increased execution risk.  Competent international project leadership requires an understanding of one’s own beliefs and assumptions and an ability to recognize other team members’ cultural values and behaviors.

#2  Effective international project leaders understand the role of time

Among the values engrained in American business culture are a high sense of urgency and a preference for acting rather than analyzing.  American teams often move quickly through the early project planning phase, preferring to start executing as soon as possible with further detailed planning done along the way.  This sometimes introduces unforeseen delays and rework loops.  The sense of urgency nevertheless remains high throughout most of the project.  In fact, a motivated team’s work pace can become almost frantic when key milestones are approaching, which increases the risk of introducing human errors.

In contrast, people in many other cultures have, or may appear to have, a much lower sense of urgency.  This is especially true in the early phases of projects with teams in countries like Germany or Japan, where there is a tendency to spend much more time putting the project plan together, analyzing and understanding the risks involved, aligning the tasks of all team members, and so on.  In these cultures, projects can still be completed within similar overall cycle times since they often progress very smoothly throughout the subsequent execution phases, with the whole team moving in lockstep.  In contrast, this is less common in the U.S.  Another approach is found in cultures that have a greater focus on parallelized efforts, such as France or India.  While incompatible with some American’s preference for sequential, step-by-step planning and execution, it can be very effective with some types of projects, shortening the required cycle time.

#3  Effective international project leaders over-communicate and know how to get the right information

In an international project environment, there is no such thing as “over-communicating”.  It is hard to underestimate the difficulty in communicating across language and cultural barriers.  The competent project leader uses multiple channels, both written and oral, to convey key information and ensure that all team members share a common understanding of a project’s purpose, objectives, approach, risks, as well as each team member’s roles & responsibilities.  He or she knows that repeatedly communicating the same information serves the purpose of ensuring that the team members understand and recognize its importance.  This is obviously also true in a domestic-only environment.

An effective project leader also understands that getting accurate and complete information from team members is no easy task.  A project team in India, for instance, may be so eager to please their leader and so uncomfortable with “breaking bad news” that they never volunteer negative or potentially critical information regarding key issues and risks.  Rather than asking questions like “what problems do you see?” the skilled international project leader will ask more detailed and directed questions.  “What do you view the most important issues that could jeopardize the project’s success?” is a question that will substantially improve the odds of receiving the right information from a foreign team.

#4  Effective international project leaders build relationships and trust

Strong relationships help when doing business in the U.S., but they are not essential.  Often, some evidence that a person represents a valid and trustworthy company is sufficient for doing business together, even if you have never met him or her before.

It doesn’t work that way in most international settings.  Many Asians, for example, will remain distant and reserved as long as they don’t know you well, even when both of you work for the same company.  In many cultures around the world, establishing relationships requires getting to know one another and developing a mutual trust.  This is often a precondition for people to effectively work together, whether in a formal business interaction (e.g., a negotiation setting) or in a teaming environment.  Culture-savvy project leaders spend significant time building relationships with and between project team members, supporters, sponsors, and other stakeholders.  They extensively use formal settings, such as meetings, business meals, or teaming events, as well as informal ones such as hallway gatherings, after-work parties, or other social events to stimulate and nurture relationship and trust building at all levels.

#5  Effective international project leaders support local ownership and pride

International product co-development settings are rarely free of competitive elements.  Whether a company is using owned resources across different countries, leveraging a foreign outsourcing vendor, or cooperating with a development partner in a joint venture, inevitably there will be an expectation for each side to prove itself and demonstrate its value.  Americans will mostly be at ease with this and may even thrive on it, given the highly competitive nature of U.S. business culture.  Foreign teams, on the other hand, may be nervous or even feel threatened.  This, combined with the intense national pride found in many countries, results in team members who look for frequent and clear confirmation that their contributions are recognized and valued.

Competent international project leaders realize the value of making each local team feel important.  They avoid highly centralized project ownership as it makes remote entities feel less valued.  These leaders assign local ownership of sub-projects and tasks whenever feasible, promoting a stronger team commitment and often stimulating better information flows between the different entities.

#6  Effective international project leaders motivate their whole team

Strong team motivation is a cornerstone of successful project leadership.  Yet only the best project leaders recognize that the most effective ways to motivate project teams may vary greatly across cultures.  What works in one culture may have the opposite effect in another.  For example, praising and rewarding individuals for their contributions can be a great motivator in many Western cultures but can stir huge individual and collective embarrassment in several Asian and Latin American countries, where employees may subsequently “make sure they won’t stand out again”.  Similarly, after-work celebrations may be highly effective in motivating teams in India while having minimum response in some other cultures.  Effective international project leaders carefully select the best methods that stimulate and nurture the motivation levels of their teams and individual team members.

A Difficult Learning Process

Mastering all six of the key behaviors of effective international project leaders is challenging, especially when several domestic and foreign teams co-develop products.  Success in such an environment requires leadership skills, sensitivity, experience, and a commitment to continuous learning.  Development for people earmarked for such roles should include extensive leadership, cross-cultural, and communications training as well as a variety of experiential learning opportunities.  On top of that, the person’s cultural sensitivity and flexibility must be realistically assessed.  Many good project leaders, including some who have consistently achieved impressive results within a domestic environment, fail when facing the additional challenges of working across borders and cultures.

Printable PDF version written by  Lothar Katz

( Copyright 2004, Leadership CrossroadsTM )

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