How to Fix a Broken Global Team

Increasingly, almost every team is a global team in some capacity. This presents a difficult challenge for managers everywhere, and especially for high-potential leaders who want to take their careers to the next level: how do you bring together a team whose members are geographically and culturally dispersed? Professor Tsedal Neeley discusses her case of a real-life executive charged with corralling a hugely diverse, underperforming group and leading it back to success on a global scale.

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Podcast Transcript

Brian Kenny: According to the International Monetary Fund, the 10 fastest growing economies are in emerging markets, and McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that 400 mid-size emerging market cities will generate nearly 40 percent of global growth over the next 15 years.

Business across borders is here to stay, yet many firms who operate globally are grappling with what McKinsey calls the globalization penalty. These firms score below average on organizational health. They have trouble establishing a shared vision, encouraging innovation, and executing on the ground in local markets. Today we'll hear from Professor Tsedal Neeley about her case entitled Building a Global Team: Tariq Khan at Tek.

Professor Neeley teaches MBA students and executives at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on the challenges that global collaborators face when attempting to coordinate work across national and linguistic boundaries. Those are perfect topics for today's case. Neeley, thanks for joining me.

Tsedal Neeley: Thanks for having me.

Kenny: Let me ask you this, start us off by telling us who's the protagonist and what's on his mind in this case.

Neeley: Terrific. Tariq Khan is the protagonist in this case. He's a 33-year-old, high-potential, rising very fast in a company and he's kind of at a pivotal point where he can continue to rise in the organization by taking on very global assignments, or he can stay where he is and continue to plug along. He has an opportunity to take a position, to lead a global team with members that are spread across 27 nationalities, and a team that's declining in performance, declining in team satisfaction, declining in market share dominance. The team is in trouble.

Kenny: It sounds like a mess. I would run in the other direction, I think.

Neeley: It is a total mess, and so he has to decide, “Do I take this position that's been offered to me and turn this team around in two years? (By the way, that's all he has.) Or do I stay where I am and look for other opportunities?” That's the first thing he's trying to figure out.

Kenny: Is he real? Is this based on a real person that you fictionalized or…?

Neeley: He's a very real person. His name is disguised because the case has a lot of tensions including very difficult team members, but he's very real and emblematic of what I find in global organizations where you have people who need to get the global experience at a certain stage of their career development in order to move into the executive ranks. This real person is trying to make a real decision that many people face in globalizing organizations.

Kenny: A lot of listeners probably have faced this, and if not, they will based on that McKinsey teaser that I read in the beginning. What prompted you to write the case?

Neeley: The case was to me was emblematic of a common problem that I encounter in my work, in my research, in my consulting work, in that you reach a stage as an employee in an organization and have to now globalize. Because I encountered a person who was living it at the time, I thought it would be a perfect occasion to write about him.

On top of that, there are so many tensions in this case. You have a very large team, you have 18 languages represented, and the age range of the team members spans from 21 to about 60, so Tariq Khan has to manage a team with extraordinary diversity. By the way, geographically dispersed.

Kenny: So, what are the conditions that are placed on him if he takes this promotion?

Neeley: If he takes this promotion he has to turn this team around and show progress. This team was operating well, and in the last two years, the factors that I mentioned earlier were declining precipitously, and he had to not only stop the decline but turn the team around. The other interesting wrinkle in the story is that there was another high-potential gentleman who had attempted to turn this team around, and not only did he fail, but he ultimately left the organization because his rise as a high-potential was curtailed because of the challenges posed in the team. The person right before him had very similar characteristics, couldn't do it.

Kenny: That person actually told Tariq not to take the job.

Neeley: Exactly. He said, "Don't do it." When we teach this in the classroom, some people say, "You have to listen to him", and others say, "He's a disgruntled employee.” We always have rich debate around: do you even listen to the departing failed global manager about whether you should take this job or not?

Kenny: I'm sure a lot of people have enough confidence to say, "You know what, that person didn't succeed but I think I can." So Tariq doesn't take that at face value though, he does his own research. How did he start to approach this?

Neeley: What he does, because this is a job being offered within the walls of a company that he's an employee of, he has the opportunity to talk to people. He spends many, many hours talking to the senior members of the team to try to identify the root cause of their decline so that if he understood what the problem was with the team, if he diagnosed it well enough, he could then make a decision on whether or not to move forward. For example, one of the things that he has to determine is whether or not the decline in the team's performance in the market is about a shifting market, or a dysfunctional team.

Kenny: You talked about the challenges that you mentioned before, the 18 different languages, the age range. You've done a lot of research on Englishnization. Can you talk a little bit about that challenge because I'm sure a lot of companies are dealing with this?

Neeley: The Englishnization that you're mentioning is really about what do you do when you have such profound language diversity in a team or work environment, a unit, as they did in this case? The language diversity oftentimes is mitigated by introducing a common lingua franca or language, typically English in today's business world. But the problems arise when you have language fluency asymmetry.

Not everyone is going to have adequate fluency in the English language, so you have language fluency differential right from the start, and you end up with groups and cliques that form based on linguistic abilities. You have all sorts of sub-group polarization that you have to overcome.

Kenny: Tariq actually witnesses this happening because he goes to a meeting. Can you describe what he sees?

Neeley: He goes to a meeting and he sees the various team members (that he would manage should he take this position) spending their time with other members of the team who shared their native language. If they were Arab speakers they would be together, if they were German speakers they would be together, if they were French speakers they would be together. The problem with that is you don't have any kind of crosscutting or interaction across members of the team. What we know from research as well as Tariq's experience that we witnessed in the case is that when you have people who polarize in those ways, you get into this us versus them dynamic very, very quickly. He witnesses this first hand and at this time his team and this organization didn't have any policies around language. If you have this level of diversity, this level of widespread nationalities represented in a group, you have to have policies to make people effective. In this case, there wasn't any.

Kenny: Then you add to that the challenge of the sort of cultural differences that emerge in this case as well. I thought the anecdote about Lars…

Neeley: Lars, yes. Lars gets people going when you teach this case. I mean, you can actually do an entire session about Lars. Lars being the highest financial performance and senior member of the team is also slightly racist, makes derogatory comments, and shows a great deal of intolerance in a profoundly diverse team. So Lars made the environment toxic for people, and a big debate in the classes is whether or not Lars is coachable, or you need to get rid of Lars given the global nature of the work, given the diversity in the team. There's another question too about Lars, did the team culture create Lars? In other words, it's not the person, it's the situation. Big debate points.

Kenny: If you're Tariq in this case, you know you go in with that question in your mind about Lars is toxic, but Lars is a high-performer, and I need to turn this thing around, and how do I do that if I get rid of Lars?

Neeley: What do I do? When we get into the action planning of this case, we have to figure out what do you do with Lars? Do you keep him to make sure that you meet some financial results? Or do you get rid of him? Is he bad for the team, or is he good for the team? Good question.

Kenny: You've taught the case, obviously, you've talked about that a little bit. Have you taught it in an MBA and an Executive Education setting? Because I'm curious how different the reactions might be between those two groups.

Neeley: Yes. Interestingly enough the commonality in the way in which they react is probably as noteworthy as the difference that you see. The tension points that you see, should he take this job or not, are probably much more intense in the MBA classroom because they can identify, "Wow, this is me, 8 to 10 years from now." There's a lot of arguing around whether or not he should take the job.

In the executive classroom on the other hand, people are a bit more experienced so it's less about, "Should he take the job?" and it's more about, "What's going on here, how do we diagnose this problem in the case?" That's less intense. The Lars conversation drives everyone crazy, MBA as well as the executives, because it's a real concern. What do you do with your high-performer who's demonstrating serious cross-cultural insensitivity in a team that's widely and geographically dispersed?

I would also say that MBA students are much more intimidated by the prospects of a job like this. MBA students may even get into arguments like, "Is there such a thing as a team being too diverse?" [or] "This team is too diverse, Tariq should run." Whereas executives have a different way of categorizing the diversity, or even thinking about structural issues, design issues.

Kenny: There's no avoiding this really, for people who are listening, who are getting into business careers. Let me ask you, do you think this is going to be a growing phenomenon that business leaders face?

Neeley: Absolutely. I can even tell you over the last decade, the extent to which I'm observing firsthand the demands that people have around being able to lead globally distributed teams. In your opening you talked about the growth of emerging markets, and otherwise, but it could also be that organizations make acquisitions that are in foreign countries and now they have to integrate and lead. It could be organizations are developing partnerships and alliances that are globally distributed.

It's truly a global context, and the price of admission or the entry opportunity for many companies is not that difficult, so they enter, they expand, and then problems come because now you have to lead a distributed work force. You may not see people regularly, face to face contact, it may not always be there, and boy do you have differences in local and global practices that you have to overcome. It's really the wave of the future, and people have to develop real skills in this area if they think they want to get into leadership positions in the company.

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Podcast Transcript

Brian Kenny: According to the International Monetary Fund, the 10 fastest growing economies are in emerging markets, and McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that 400 mid-size emerging market cities will generate nearly 40 percent of global growth over the next 15 years.

Business across borders is here to stay, yet many firms who operate globally are grappling with what McKinsey calls the globalization penalty. These firms score below average on organizational health. They have trouble establishing a shared vision, encouraging innovation, and executing on the ground in local markets. Today we'll hear from Professor Tsedal Neeley about her case entitled Building a Global Team: Tariq Khan at Tek.

Professor Neeley teaches MBA students and executives at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on the challenges that global collaborators face when attempting to coordinate work across national and linguistic boundaries. Those are perfect topics for today's case. Neeley, thanks for joining me.

Tsedal Neeley: Thanks for having me.

Kenny: Let me ask you this, start us off by telling us who's the protagonist and what's on his mind in this case.

Neeley: Terrific. Tariq Khan is the protagonist in this case. He's a 33-year-old, high-potential, rising very fast in a company and he's kind of at a pivotal point where he can continue to rise in the organization by taking on very global assignments, or he can stay where he is and continue to plug along. He has an opportunity to take a position, to lead a global team with members that are spread across 27 nationalities, and a team that's declining in performance, declining in team satisfaction, declining in market share dominance. The team is in trouble.

Kenny: It sounds like a mess. I would run in the other direction, I think.

Neeley: It is a total mess, and so he has to decide, “Do I take this position that's been offered to me and turn this team around in two years? (By the way, that's all he has.) Or do I stay where I am and look for other opportunities?” That's the first thing he's trying to figure out.

Kenny: Is he real? Is this based on a real person that you fictionalized or…?

Neeley: He's a very real person. His name is disguised because the case has a lot of tensions including very difficult team members, but he's very real and emblematic of what I find in global organizations where you have people who need to get the global experience at a certain stage of their career development in order to move into the executive ranks. This real person is trying to make a real decision that many people face in globalizing organizations.

Kenny: A lot of listeners probably have faced this, and if not, they will based on that McKinsey teaser that I read in the beginning. What prompted you to write the case?

Neeley: The case was to me was emblematic of a common problem that I encounter in my work, in my research, in my consulting work, in that you reach a stage as an employee in an organization and have to now globalize. Because I encountered a person who was living it at the time, I thought it would be a perfect occasion to write about him.

On top of that, there are so many tensions in this case. You have a very large team, you have 18 languages represented, and the age range of the team members spans from 21 to about 60, so Tariq Khan has to manage a team with extraordinary diversity. By the way, geographically dispersed.

Kenny: So, what are the conditions that are placed on him if he takes this promotion?

Neeley: If he takes this promotion he has to turn this team around and show progress. This team was operating well, and in the last two years, the factors that I mentioned earlier were declining precipitously, and he had to not only stop the decline but turn the team around. The other interesting wrinkle in the story is that there was another high-potential gentleman who had attempted to turn this team around, and not only did he fail, but he ultimately left the organization because his rise as a high-potential was curtailed because of the challenges posed in the team. The person right before him had very similar characteristics, couldn't do it.

Kenny: That person actually told Tariq not to take the job.

Neeley: Exactly. He said, "Don't do it." When we teach this in the classroom, some people say, "You have to listen to him", and others say, "He's a disgruntled employee.” We always have rich debate around: do you even listen to the departing failed global manager about whether you should take this job or not?

Kenny: I'm sure a lot of people have enough confidence to say, "You know what, that person didn't succeed but I think I can." So Tariq doesn't take that at face value though, he does his own research. How did he start to approach this?

Neeley: What he does, because this is a job being offered within the walls of a company that he's an employee of, he has the opportunity to talk to people. He spends many, many hours talking to the senior members of the team to try to identify the root cause of their decline so that if he understood what the problem was with the team, if he diagnosed it well enough, he could then make a decision on whether or not to move forward. For example, one of the things that he has to determine is whether or not the decline in the team's performance in the market is about a shifting market, or a dysfunctional team.

Kenny: You talked about the challenges that you mentioned before, the 18 different languages, the age range. You've done a lot of research on Englishnization. Can you talk a little bit about that challenge because I'm sure a lot of companies are dealing with this?

Neeley: The Englishnization that you're mentioning is really about what do you do when you have such profound language diversity in a team or work environment, a unit, as they did in this case? The language diversity oftentimes is mitigated by introducing a common lingua franca or language, typically English in today's business world. But the problems arise when you have language fluency asymmetry.

Not everyone is going to have adequate fluency in the English language, so you have language fluency differential right from the start, and you end up with groups and cliques that form based on linguistic abilities. You have all sorts of sub-group polarization that you have to overcome.

Kenny: Tariq actually witnesses this happening because he goes to a meeting. Can you describe what he sees?

Neeley: He goes to a meeting and he sees the various team members (that he would manage should he take this position) spending their time with other members of the team who shared their native language. If they were Arab speakers they would be together, if they were German speakers they would be together, if they were French speakers they would be together. The problem with that is you don't have any kind of crosscutting or interaction across members of the team. What we know from research as well as Tariq's experience that we witnessed in the case is that when you have people who polarize in those ways, you get into this us versus them dynamic very, very quickly. He witnesses this first hand and at this time his team and this organization didn't have any policies around language. If you have this level of diversity, this level of widespread nationalities represented in a group, you have to have policies to make people effective. In this case, there wasn't any.

Kenny: Then you add to that the challenge of the sort of cultural differences that emerge in this case as well. I thought the anecdote about Lars…

Neeley: Lars, yes. Lars gets people going when you teach this case. I mean, you can actually do an entire session about Lars. Lars being the highest financial performance and senior member of the team is also slightly racist, makes derogatory comments, and shows a great deal of intolerance in a profoundly diverse team. So Lars made the environment toxic for people, and a big debate in the classes is whether or not Lars is coachable, or you need to get rid of Lars given the global nature of the work, given the diversity in the team. There's another question too about Lars, did the team culture create Lars? In other words, it's not the person, it's the situation. Big debate points.

Kenny: If you're Tariq in this case, you know you go in with that question in your mind about Lars is toxic, but Lars is a high-performer, and I need to turn this thing around, and how do I do that if I get rid of Lars?

Neeley: What do I do? When we get into the action planning of this case, we have to figure out what do you do with Lars? Do you keep him to make sure that you meet some financial results? Or do you get rid of him? Is he bad for the team, or is he good for the team? Good question.

Kenny: You've taught the case, obviously, you've talked about that a little bit. Have you taught it in an MBA and an Executive Education setting? Because I'm curious how different the reactions might be between those two groups.

Neeley: Yes. Interestingly enough the commonality in the way in which they react is probably as noteworthy as the difference that you see. The tension points that you see, should he take this job or not, are probably much more intense in the MBA classroom because they can identify, "Wow, this is me, 8 to 10 years from now." There's a lot of arguing around whether or not he should take the job.

In the executive classroom on the other hand, people are a bit more experienced so it's less about, "Should he take the job?" and it's more about, "What's going on here, how do we diagnose this problem in the case?" That's less intense. The Lars conversation drives everyone crazy, MBA as well as the executives, because it's a real concern. What do you do with your high-performer who's demonstrating serious cross-cultural insensitivity in a team that's widely and geographically dispersed?

I would also say that MBA students are much more intimidated by the prospects of a job like this. MBA students may even get into arguments like, "Is there such a thing as a team being too diverse?" [or] "This team is too diverse, Tariq should run." Whereas executives have a different way of categorizing the diversity, or even thinking about structural issues, design issues.

Kenny: There's no avoiding this really, for people who are listening, who are getting into business careers. Let me ask you, do you think this is going to be a growing phenomenon that business leaders face?

Neeley: Absolutely. I can even tell you over the last decade, the extent to which I'm observing firsthand the demands that people have around being able to lead globally distributed teams. In your opening you talked about the growth of emerging markets, and otherwise, but it could also be that organizations make acquisitions that are in foreign countries and now they have to integrate and lead. It could be organizations are developing partnerships and alliances that are globally distributed.

It's truly a global context, and the price of admission or the entry opportunity for many companies is not that difficult, so they enter, they expand, and then problems come because now you have to lead a distributed work force. You may not see people regularly, face to face contact, it may not always be there, and boy do you have differences in local and global practices that you have to overcome. It's really the wave of the future, and people have to develop real skills in this area if they think they want to get into leadership positions in the company.

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