International Expansion: Building a Global Team

International Expansion: Building a Global Team

Who is in your international team is just as important as choosing the right market or the right distributor. The team is the vehicle that will deliver your global vision for you – these are the folks who are going to get stuff done.

Pre-COVID19, there was a lot of scepticism about whether virtual teams could actually work because, for the majority of people, they did not. While I believe that, overall, people’s ability to work remotely has improved since the pandemic began and other options were removed, it is still not an area that is well understood. Most companies have no process for creating a virtual team, and no tools or strategy for managing one. The result can be a lot of team dysfunction because the wrong people are running in all directions without knowing where they are heading, why they are heading there, or how they will get there. Here are some of the symptoms.

  • No one is really clear about what they are supposed to be doing
  • Nobody is across what anyone else is doing
  • People are not clear on the ‘big vision’
  • Work is over budget and behind schedule
  • The team feels demotivated

The secret to global teamwork is having the right team, with the right tools and managing them the right way. Global team building is a huge topic. In this blog, I will just focus on the initial steps to create a strong global team.

Choose the right process to create your global team

Thinking internationally when it comes to team recruitment does not just increase the size of your talent pool. It makes you more fit to tackle global markets, because you work with people who understand the customers in the countries you are in. For example, if you are selling to Japan, having someone on your team who speaks Japanese and understands Japan’s commercial environment is a huge plus.

Who do we need on the team?

The first step to creating your global team is to work out who you need. I suggest you review your strategic plan and your three-, two- and one-year goals for international expansion. Use those as a guide to who you should be hiring, where and when.

Options for creating a global team

You have several options when it comes to creating a global team. You can:

  • Send some of your existing staff to the new market
  • Build a new team in the new market
  • Hire contractors in the new market
  • Use team members in third countries (especially for back-office roles such as, virtual assistants, designers and accountants)

Send staff overseas

Sending one of your existing team members overseas can be an effective strategy, if you have the right person making the move for the right reasons. There are a couple of arguments in favour of this approach: The person or people who are moving overseas already know the company and their role in it. They understand the company culture, know what needs to be done, and have already earned a high level of trust.

On the downside, taking a team member from the home team and sending them to a new country can disrupt the domestic operation and be personally disruptive for the team member. He or she may not know the new country, how it works, or how to do business there, all of which can be stressful. It is also expensive to relocate a team member to a new country.

This approach only works if you have a highly competent and trustworthy team member who is willing and able to take on the challenge of moving overseas and personally resilient enough to deal with the challenges that will inevitably crop up.

Establish your team in-country

If you do not have people on your team who are willing to relocate to a new country, you might also choose to establish a completely new team in your target market. The upsides of this option are that local hires know the culture of the target market and how things work. You get immediate ears and eyes on the ground, and insights into what you need to do to succeed in the new place. Depending on where you are operating, building a team in-country may also be much less expensive and disruptive than relocating a team member from headquarters.

One of my clients is an Australian manufacturing firm which sells products to 35 countries, primarily via distributors. It also has an office in Chicago, Illinois, which is its North American headquarters. Pre-COVID, the founder and his wife relocated to the United States on a semi-permanent basis and split their time between Australia and the US for three or four years. During that time, they built and managed a team on the ground, which continued to run when they returned to Australia.

It is not all upside though. For starters, you will have a lower initial level of trust with a new hire, working outside the company headquarters. It will take time to build this trust and for the new hire to adjust the culture of your company. This can sometimes be quite a process, as you juggle both international and corporate cultural differences.

Building a team in-country can also be expensive if your team needs a physical office to work from, and there can be complexity in dealing with local labour laws and regulations.

If you want to build a team in-country without having to set up the management and back-office infrastructure, you may want to consider using an Employer of Record (EOR) arrangement. An Employer of Record is a company or organisation that is legally responsible for paying employees. You manage the performance of your employee, but the EOR takes care of everything else.

Hire contractors in-country

If you like the idea of a team on the ground in your target market, but do not want the risk of full-time staff, you may prefer to hire contractors on the ground.

The advantage of the contractor model is that it is often less expensive and disruptive than relocating a team member from HQ. The approach may also be more flexible, as you can hire and fire more easily, or hire for fixed periods of time, depending on your requirements.

However, there are downsides to working with contractors in-market. You will almost certainly experience a lower initial level of trust between your company and a new contractor, working outside your headquarters.

Not only do you not know each other, the new contractor is also unfamiliar with your company culture. In addition, because contractors often do not work for your company full-time, they can be less ‘tethered’ to the company than permanent staff. This sometimes makes them harder to monitor and more of a flight risk, especially if they find a full-time opportunity elsewhere. None of these factors are insurmountable hurdles, but it does take time to build trust and a solid working relationship.

Hire distributors in-country

Depending on what you sell, you may prefer to create your first ‘global team’ by setting up distribution agreements for your new territory.

Working with distributors is similar to working with contractors, insofar as it relieves you of HR risk. Remember, however, that even if you sign on with a distributor, you cannot just walk away and leave them to get on with it. Managing distributors is a little like managing staff, you need to motivate and inspire them and measure their performance on an ongoing basis. It is a relationship that requires an active approach if you want to get the best from a distributor team. And, in many markets, distribution agreements are hard to terminate, so if things go sour, you may be left with a sticky situation on your hands.

Create a Global Virtual Team

At the other end of the spectrum, you can source your team from around the world and run a global virtual team (GVT) – 100% remote and virtual.

The upside of this approach is that it’s cost effective, you get access to great talent, and you can service multiple time zones.

One of my clients is an Australian affiliate marketing company expanding to South East Asia. The company is headquartered in Sydney. Before it began its global play, the CEO set up a team in Malaysia, to service the Australian market. The Malaysia office became the regional headquarters for the South East Asian expansion and is staffed by a Malay team. The company has also begun hiring developers in other locations in Asia, to keep up with its product development demands.

Often GVTs involve more complexity than monocultural teams located in one place. This is because they are diverse and there are greater cultural differences between team members. Decision-making may also be more complex and all these factors make them harder to manage. GVTs require robust systems and a highly structured team culture to work well.

Your first task is to work out which kind of global team is most suitable for you, now and in the future.

Hiring a global team

As you start to think about where to recruit your global team, it’s important to realise that supply may exist in ‘hubs’ that hold remarkable potential for geo-targeted global recruiting. In other words, if you know where to look, there may be lots of suitable candidates who would fit the role you are trying to fill, and who may be willing to do so on a competitive basis. For example, in 2022, Vietnam is the place to source a full-stack developer, the Philippines is great for operations roles and designers, and you cannot go past India for accountants.

Depending on the role, you might look to recruit in your new target market, from your home market or a third market.

As you survey the world for talent, be aware that regional priorities and perceptions of total compensation and non-financial compensation can vary significantly. Despite the rapid globalisation that the world has experienced over the last decade, candidates’ perceptions of what they are looking for in a role are shaped by regional culture and other factors.

For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, people generally expect to work in only a few jobs or for long periods throughout their careers. In Europe, workers are sceptical that companies will allow them to define their own work schedules. What you offer candidates needs to line up with regional expectations: APAC talent’s intent is to be loyal to an employer and European talent’s desire is to have flexible workplace arrangements. If you understand the trends in regional perception and priorities, you will be more successful at attracting the right staff to grow your company overseas.

What kind of people are we looking for?

When it comes down to it there are three questions you need to answer when it comes to any potential new recruit, at home or offshore.

  • Can they do the work?
  • Will they do the work?
  • Will they ‘fit’ with the rest of the team?

That being said, exactly what sort of people do you want in your global team? I believe that, as you build a global team, you should ideally be looking for people with the following traits:

  1. Deep understanding of your industry and the markets you want to operate in.

    If it is relevant to the role, they should be willing to travel, make cold calls to other companies as needed and work odd hours to accommodate different time zones.

  2. Share your drive and mission to make your company global.

    This is even more important when your team is dispersed rather than centralised, because you have fewer means of motivating them. They need to be able to get excited without you pushing them on a daily basis.

  3. Autonomous by nature and comfortable working without explicit instructions and fixed schedules.

    To be a virtual worker requires the ability to work independently and to take initiative, because you are not surrounded by team members who will prompt you to act. A person who is not self-directed may have a hard time fitting into a GVT. They will constantly feel that the manager is not giving enough instructions and will feel lost because the work environment lacks structure.

  4. Good communicators.

    A lot of your interaction is likely to be through written communication, so make sure the person can write to-the-point messages that are easy to understand. Communication is the only tool in the manager’s toolbox for improving the team and achieving goals.

These skills and traits can be taught and are acquired with experience, but I recommend that you check them off before hiring a new person – otherwise, the team, the employee, and the manager will struggle during the adaptation process.

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