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How do global corporations make decisions?

Small businesses have it easy. One person can make most decisions, and for the rest everyone goes into a conference room to hash things out.

Then they grow and add offices around the country — small branch offices at first, but eventually large installations that in some cases exceed the size of corporate headquarters itself. Making big decisions isn’t as simple as calling everyone into a conference room. At the executive level they can make do with quarterly ELT (executive leadership team) summits combined with lots of email and teleconferences or, better, web conferences in between.

Managers lower down on the org chart also have to deal with geographically dispersed management teams, but lack the executive travel budget. With enlightened spending priorities the company might pop for annual management summits. But mostly, managers minimize the need for consensus decisions while encouraging managers to collaborate as best they can with minimal face-to-face interaction and the trust-building that rarely happens without it.

A few more rounds of growth later and you’re dealing with multiple countries, languages, and time zones. Even an annual ELT summit is something of a production. The collaboration that builds on a shared sense of mission and interpersonal trust?

This is not an easily solved problem. It isn’t, in fact, a solvable problem in any way, shape or form. You can mitigate it, and even that is hard. You can’t solve it.

With that, here are a few random thoughts on how to mitigate the challenges of global decision-making and other leadership responsibilities:

> Culture: Engineering business culture is challenging with a face-to-face leadership team (for guidance, pick up a copy of Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World by yours truly).

Beyond that, different countries and ethnicities don’t just have different societal cultures of their own. They have different management cultures.

Global leaders have to choose carefully which aspects of management culture they need to unify and where they should embrace the diversity of assumptions and attitudes that come from a multinational footprint.

> Staff vs Line: In the military, line officers lead troops; staff officers handle supporting administrative responsibilities. A frequent challenge military decision-makers have to deal with is that while line managers know What’s Going On Out There because it’s right in front of them, staff officers have more access because they’re in the same room. As a result, if decision-makers aren’t careful, staff officers have more influence as well.

Business leaders have to resolve exactly the same conundrum.

> The soft bigotry of time zones: I live in Minnesota — Central Time. To collaborate with an Indian colleague we have to find an acceptable schedule when, with a 10.5 hour time difference, there is no slot that’s in normal business hours for both of us.

Working with a colleague in Plano instead means not signing up for exceptionally early or late hours and not asking the colleague to make up the difference, either. Overcoming this calls for self-consciousness and, not to be overly dramatic, self-sacrifice as well.

> The softer bigotry of accents: I’d pay good money for a version of Rosetta that teaches no language but instead makes me more proficient in understanding heavily inflected English.

Given a choice between interacting with a colleague who speaks English as their first language and another who is at least as competent, but with whom I have to ask, “Could you repeat that?” more often than I understand the point the first time round … well, as with time zones, self-consciousness about the decision is mandatory.

> The even softer bigotry of bad circuits combined with accents: Take heavily inflected English. Now, speak it through a bad telephone network. The result: heavily inflected and badly muffled diction that’s so difficult to understand that it’s easier to interact exclusively through e-mail and chat. Or not at all.

> IT has to take the lead: There’s TEAMS/SharePoint/Skype if you like Microsoft solutions. There’s Slack, Webex, and various other alternatives if you don’t. It’s up to IT to establish a rich set of collaboration tools and provide them, not just those who “need” them but to everyone who might take advantage of them.

Then, make sure you first, then your team, then their teams become so proficient that using the tools is as much second nature as grabbing a marker and drawing on a whiteboard in a conference room.

Encourage the CEO to do likewise.

Then make sure Organizational Development establishes training in the tools as well. Beyond that, encourage making proficiency in these tools part of every employee’s performance appraisal.

A carpenter who can only handle a hammer, not a nail gun, doesn’t know his trade.

Isn’t this the same thing?

Comments (4)

  • SO impressed that you mentioned the soft bigotry of accents, and the added complication of networks.10-15 years ago, network quality was an issue even if everyone spoke English. And I found the former a issue even when working in the same location. I once made the mistake of suggesting to a valued colleague that he look into ‘accent reduction’ – something I had read about and apparently is often used by TV personalities. He was quite insulted.

  • email takes care of a lot of that, especially accents and time zones but you do have to have the culture of not answering emails except during your own working hours.

    For line vs staff officers, email also takes care of that if you put the commander someplace where there is no personal interaction with staff on a daily basis and get all reports via emails.

  • Have I got a story for you. I worked for an American company that made audio-conferencing equipment. Got acquired by a European audio-conferencing company. For me it was helpful because I could do a build at the end of the day and they could test it overnight. I’d come in in the morning and see the results.
    We wanted to be able to make our two different systems able to co-control a conference. Should be easy, right? We make audioconf equip. We can communicate remotely. Easy peasy. Well we were having problems. Eventually I went to Europe to meet with my remote counterpart to solve the problems. We were discussing how conferences got constructed and torn down. In the middle of the conversation I saw the look of confusion on my partners face and realized what the problem was. One of the systems set the conference up at its scheduled time. The other one set it up when the first person called in. One of the systems tore it down when the last person hung up. So when the on-time set the conference up, the other one looked, saw that nobody was in the conference and tore it down….I needed to see the look on the guy’s face understand where to look for the problem.
    Due to management issues with the company, the project never got finished and I got laid off, but I got a patent out of the project. But sometimes you just have to look the guy in the eye.

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