A Primer on How International Teams Grow Local Businesses


“Putting people first and embracing differences has always been the cornerstone to our success.” Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International

As the world becomes more and more interconnected, we see a visible shift in the workplace landscape. Teams are quickly moving beyond the boundaries of office buildings – sometimes, no longer even working in the same country. Teams are going global.

A study by the US department of labour estimates that by 2050, there will be no single prevalent culture in the workforce (although this may not apply to every country, the trend remains that the workplace is becoming increasingly diverse). For businesses, it means that growing, being competitive and staying ahead of the pack will require a mastery of cross-cultural fluency – the ability to leverage differences and create new business opportunities in the workplace and marketplace by developing trusting relationships with employee and customer alike. Cross-cultural management is a worthwhile consideration for the growth of your business.

International Teams and your Bottom Line

Looking with a wider scope – beyond country borders – provides a simple and clear benefit. The pool of talent is now much more diverse and bigger. By recruiting abroad, many roles can be filled by virtual team members who can be employed for a fraction of the cost of that same team member hired locally. Your bottom line will thank you. Need someone to manage your databases, your blogs and social media or develop a website? Not a problem. The opportunities that lie in building an international team free up resources that you can use to concentrate elsewhere.

Cultural alignment with customers and clients

Working with people of different nationalities and cultures allows your business to understand your increasingly diverse customers. Here’s an actual cross-cultural experience where I walked away thinking to myself: “Cultural differences can definitely be a challenge, but a challenge well worth overcoming!”

I once had a conversation with a sales manager who grew up in Asia. I was hoping to pick his brain about sales and marketing. I asked him several questions about marketing and its role in the business, and to my surprise, the replies become shorter and more severe, concluding with a terse, “marketers just sit behind a computer”, showing his perspective that sales people are really the ones who drive business. He followed that up with a blunt assessment of my communication style that was aggressive and hostile. Wow. That came out of left field for me. What happened there? Two things: context and power distance.

North American and Asian societies differ in that Asian organizational structures are more hierarchal. Title and position provide context and parameters that inform how to honour, respect and show deference to those with titles and position. What I did not realize was that, what I thought to be a friendly and open-ended conversation was, in the sales manager’s perspective, a subordinate talking to a superior. The context was not clearly established. In addition, a discussion that I thought was a friendly back-and-forth exchange was seen as insolence and “talking back.” To him, I was not respecting his title and seniority and this may have been the basis for the tension and undercurrent of conflict in our conversation. I may have fared better keeping my thoughts to myself as a sign of respect.

That night, I thought about the conversation at length and tried to understand the breakdown in communication. Undoubtedly, first-hand experience with cultural differences can be uncomfortable. I described the conversation to others hoping to gain insight and perspective. And gain insight and perspective I did. I was able to appreciate the differences that make us culturally unique. I learned to understand that the scope of the issue was bigger than I had originally thought and not to judge too quickly; it wasn’t simply that he was arrogant or insensitive. Needless to say, this was an eye-opening experience that I was grateful for. The next day, I sent him a short follow-up email thanking him for his time.

You may be thinking at this point, “Wow, that’s a handful. I’m not sure I’m ready for these challenges.”  Consider this statistic taken from Jane Hyun and Audrey S. Lee’s book “Flex”:

A federal Glass Ceiling Commission study found differences that were both measurable and stark in the S&P 500: companies that rated poorly on diversity-related measures, in the bottom 100, earned an average 7.9 percent return on investment, while those in the top 100 more than doubled that rate, coming in at an average of 18.3 percent.

In other words, addressing diversity in the workplace can positively affect your ROI. The workplace is becoming more culturally diverse, and so are your customers and the community around you! To the passerby looking into your shop window (so to speak), taking cultural diversity seriously puts you in a great position in establishing and developing connections with your prospective clients and customers. The experience and expertise addressing those cultural issues make for a more engaging and rewarding customer/client relationship.

As a final word, I want to share this great line from “Flex”:

We must be taught to view difference as latent potential, not as a liability.

What are some of your cross-cultural experiences?  Were they positive experiences? Negative Experiences? How has your understanding of different cultures changed since then? Feel free to comment below!