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5 steps to becoming a global IT leader

5 steps to becoming a global IT leader

International management success requires skill, respect and patience. Here’s your game plan for making the most of a global management opportunity.

A successful global IT leader can come from any background

As more organisations expand to new locations around the world, a growing number of IT leaders are finding themselves collaborating with colleagues, staff and business partners in places with drastically different personal, work and ethics practices.

For an IT professional, moving into a global management environment can be both a shock and a matchless career advancement opportunity. "IT professionals must be prepared to drive innovation in today’s globally interconnected markets," says Sandra Smith, director of Brown University's IT Leadership Program. "To this end, they need transferable leadership skills effective across all markets, industry and cultures."

A successful global IT leader can come from any background, notes Doug Bordonaro, chief data evangelist at analytics developer ThoughtSpot, where he works with numerous Global 500 companies. "Although there are many increasingly popular international management programs that can help prepare you for global leadership, ultimately the most successful business people have three core traits: respect for foreign cultures, a skill that is in demand and the patience to listen and communicate openly."

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Yet even IT pros who possess these basic attributes often have difficulty connecting with teams and individuals in diverse global locations. Becoming familiar with foreign customs and practices within a matter of days or weeks, and not inadvertently creating suspicion and mistrust, can be a tall order. The following five steps provide a basic game plan for any IT leader suddenly entrusted with global responsibilities:

1. Understand the challenge

The most effective global IT leaders are those who make an effort to understand the local business and cultural environments in which their organisation operates. "The best leaders take from the norms of multiple cultures and disciplines they work with to create a blended strategy, one that leverages the best practices from headquarters and from the local offices," Smith says. "Creating this blended approach takes time but also generates greater buy-in and a sense of ownership by the local offices."

An IT leader in a multicultural environment must also be aware of his or her own cultural framework, observes Annalisa Nash Fernandez, a New York-based intercultural strategist who advises international executives on cross-cultural communication. "For an American CIO, that may mean a high degree of individualism and personal accountability, a task-based versus relationship-based approach and a linear view of project timing, which is the lens through which the diverse cultures and business styles of the teams abroad will be understood and processed," she explains.

Begin the journey with face-to-face contacts to better know your customers, business partners and team, suggests Keith Collins, executive vice president and CIO of SAS.  "Language and cultural differences make conference calls difficult at best," Collins says. "Practicing empathy is critically important in this environment."

To better understand local markets, practices, challenges and needs, a global leader should be prepared to ask a lot of questions when visiting a local site. "Having a mentor relationship with a peer or counterpart based in other countries, may also help IT leaders become acquainted with market-specific foreign business and IT practices," Smith explains. "Reading about the country’s economic and political environment, the history and culture, is also a good way to understand the context and the rationale for some of the practices observed."

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2. Polish your communication skills

Successful global communication requires both listening and respect. "Really hear what the other person is saying and think about their point of view before you jump in," Bordonaro suggests. "Understand that their perspective or method may be different, but ultimately just as valid as yours."

When dealing with a culturally and geographically diverse team, a new global IT leader must remember to keep the message simple and devoid of jargon, advises Ed Addario, CTO of Currencycloud, a London-based global payment service provider. To gain trust, it's important to show your human side as well as your business and IT professionalism. "Sharing how excited you were to try a new gadget at your last convention is guaranteed to bring a few chuckles from your French team," he quips.

Communicating effectively across cultures requires commitment and preparation. "Proactively seeking opportunities to practice in front of others with different backgrounds who can provide honest and critical feedback is an excellent way to develop communication skills," Smith says. "Reading or taking a course on effective public speaking is also a good way to go," she advises.

Trust is always the key, no matter where colleagues are located. "Do what you say. Follow through. Share responsibility. Be empathetic," Collins suggests.

"Say what you mean with no room for error," adds Frank Auger, CIO of HubSpot, a Cambridge, Mass.-based developer of marketing and sales software. "Don't put the responsibility on the listener to pick up on and correctly interpret the nuances in your communication." This is especially true when making requests and suggestions. "With some cultures, 'I'm just curious' carries as much weight as, 'I'd like you to do this right now,'" he explains.

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3. Familiarise yourself with local business and IT practices

A new global IT leader shouldn't reflexively impose US business and technology practices on global teams. Nor is it a good idea to completely defer to local preferences. "Identify what are the values and practices that matter across the company regardless of location," Auger says. "Prioritize those without compromise, but allow local leadership to drive their own regional execution and approach within guidelines that don't allow for the watering down of the core values."

"American IT practices that are team-based with open communication across divisions may face challenges in hierarchical cultures such as India, Mexico or France where team members are used to a top-down management style," Fernandez warns. Conversely, the explicit communication styles favored by U.S., Canadian and many Western European leaders may seem condescending or overly simplistic to team members in Asian countries that favor a more nuanced, context-based communication style. "Teamwork and consensus is in the DNA of the highly collectivist cultures of Asia, although this may be confusing to project managers in Japan, which is both hierarchical in terms of management style but consensual in terms of decision-making," Fernandez adds.

"Speaking as a German, I can imagine that U.S. business practices will be especially hard to apply to a German engineering department," observes Guido Laures, CTO of Spreadshirt AG, an online apparel retailer located in Leipzig, Germany. "From a German perspective, U.S. business patterns are sometimes very blatant or bold," he notes. According to Laures, Germans like to dig into details, especially when it comes to engineering and IT practices. "In the US, time-to-market sometimes rules everything," he says. "Outside of the US, there is a balance between time-to-market, quality and maintainability."

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4. Become an international collaborator

People from diverse backgrounds are often the most productive members of a brainstorming group. "The key to success is to set aside time for informal discussion and to solicit impact outside a structured meeting or brainstorm," Bordonaro says. "This can be unexpectedly challenging, as everyone gets used to following the defined communication process."

"Get to know the members of your global team the same way you know your local team," Collins advises. "Do all you can to have social events at each office so you can share local traditions and culture."

A big downside to managing across time zones is that there are fewer opportunities for IT leaders to enjoy informal chats with international colleagues, since they don't ordinarily pass them in the hallway or catch them in the lunchroom or gym. "It takes an extra effort to talk during the brief period when you're both awake and working," Bordonaro observes. He recommends scheduling brainstorming and other discussion-heavy meetings at a mutually-convenient time. "You’ll be surprised how diversity and distance quickly become an asset," he notes.

As they seek input from their global teams, IT leaders should strive to create an environment of fairness and respect. "Team members need to believe that new ideas, regardless of their origin, are welcome and that diverse perspectives are truly valued," Smith says. Innovation should be rewarded and acknowledged publicly. "Testing new ideas and learning from mistakes should be encouraged and expected as a regular part of business," she explains. "On a practical level, videoconferencing tools should be used for group brainstorming over regular phone-based conferencing."

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5. Embrace change, reject fear

Fear is change's unwanted partner. An IT leader suddenly pushed onto the global stage frequently fears rejection, humiliation and, ultimately, failure. Yet fear also visits the remote staff, who worry that their new boss will upset their tidy little world with irrational schemes, procedures, requirements and, worst of all, layoffs.

The good news is that while some fear may be warranted, a change of command rarely plays out as horrifically as either side expects. Much of this is due to the fact that while the world is populated by many different cultures, people generally have similar job-related goals. "Respecting the cultural differences while practicing the patience to find the underlying common goal is the key to successful international business," Bordonaro concludes.

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