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In Spanish, It's Un Equipo

In English, it's a team. Either way, it's tough to build.
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Of all the things Dave Gray worried about when he branched out overseas, tripe never entered the equation.

Gray, founder and chairman of Xplane, a consulting and design firm based in Portland, Oregon, acquired a small firm in Madrid in late 2006, hoping to establish a European outpost and break into Spanish-speaking markets worldwide. Gray was eager to establish rapport between his Spanish and American staff members, and face-to-face meetings seemed like the best way to forge a bond. But during one dinner meeting in Madrid shortly after the acquisition, a visitor from Xplane's St. Louis office refused to sample the tripe -- considered a delicacy in Spain -- and proceeded to make crude jokes about it.

It was a minor incident, but only one in a series of minor incidents that ultimately created tensions between the six employees in Xplane's Madrid office and the 45 in its U.S. offices. "I expected to come in and say, 'This is how we do things,' " says Gray, who relocated to Madrid to oversee the transition. But he quickly learned that the Madrid and American offices were separated by more than just an ocean.

Most companies have a standard formula for team building: Spring for an annual off-site, throw in a few happy hours and a holiday party, and hope for chemistry. That approach may suffice when employees work under the same roof or even in the same country. But in a global workplace, misunderstandings and resentments can pile up, says Anil Gupta, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and co-author of The Quest for Global Dominance: Transforming Global Presence Into Global Competitive Advantage. The result, all too often, is an us-against-them mentality that makes the already challenging task of running a global organization much more difficult. Small companies, Gupta says, need to establish guidelines early, before tensions start to rise.

At Xplane, the culture clashes were starting to hurt morale. Gray noticed, for example, that some Spanish staff members grumbled when they learned that they had been excluded from e-mails sent to everyone in the two U.S. locations. The exclusion sent a clear message to the Spanish staff: You're not one of us. "They would always forget there was a third office," says Stephen O'Flynn, an Irish citizen and a project manager in the Madrid office.

Gray knew he had to make changes. "These cultural aspects don't show up in numbers," he says. "But a good culture is the fuel that keeps things going." He told employees that too much information is better than not enough and that seemingly minor statements could be misinterpreted. Meanwhile, Xplane's CEO, Aric Wood, asked the Madrid staff members to fill out surveys about their experiences, then discussed the results with them during one-on-one sessions last fall.

Lack of communication was a major complaint. "Not only did they feel distant, but technology was a major obstacle," Wood says. To make communicating easier, Xplane switched to Web-based phone service; now, co-workers dial only four numbers to call one another instead of 13. Wood set up a wiki with pictures of employees from all three offices. O'Flynn became an unofficial ambassador to the U.S., going out of his way to call colleagues in Portland and St. Louis for input and urging his office mates to do the same. "I did a lot of brokering to get people talking," he says.

The technology has improved communication, but it's no substitute for face time, Wood says. Instead of spending money on a one-off team building trip, Xplane started a year-round employee exchange program. Last year, the company rented apartments in Madrid and Portland and spent $20,000 flying employees back and forth for weeklong visits. About 16 employees have crossed the Atlantic. "We tried to close the gap through technology," Wood says, "but ultimately we had to buy a lot of airline tickets."

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for building an effective global team. Part of the problem is that each country has its own cultural peccadilloes. In China, for example, many employees are reluctant to disagree with their managers or assume leadership roles -- a trait linked to the legacy of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when speaking out was dangerous. By contrast, companies moving into India often contend with ego clashes and power struggles, according to Gupta, who researched more than 200 companies for his book. "People in India, especially in tech companies, believe they are just as competent as those in the United States," he says. That's a problem if their American counterparts see them as second class.

That's what happened at Approva, a software company that went global as soon as it was founded, in 2000, with 20 employees at a headquarters in Reston, Virginia, and 20 at a research and development center in Pune, on India's west coast. Approva's founder, Prashanth Boccasam, an Indian émigré, had plenty of experience in managing far-flung staff members. His previous software business, Entevo -- which he sold in 2000 -- also had offices in Virginia and in Pune. "I learned from my previous company that building a sense of unity is important," Boccasam says. "It helps for me to be Indian American."

Nonetheless, because Approva and its CEO are based in Virginia, there was a tendency to view the Indian office as a support operation, says Gupta, who studied Approva for his book. What's more, some procedures inadvertently sidelined the employees in Pune. One main issue was that the Indian developers had minimal interaction with customers. After they finished creating an application, they would simply hand it off to the sales and marketing staff in Reston. "In the worst-case scenarios, they would just throw it over the wall, and that was that," says Dana Hamerschlag, senior director of product marketing in Reston. "I think it would be rather unfulfilling to work your tail off and then it disappears."

About a year ago, Approva took a new approach. Now, the R&D staff members in Pune take turns pulling overnight shifts while the company is rolling out its software for a client, so they can deal with any problems that arise. Developers also have more opportunities to interact with clients after product launches -- if they fix a problem, for example, they may deliver the good news to the customer personally rather than letting a rep in Reston do the honors. The small adjustments have given a big morale boost to Approva's Indian staff, says Pranav Mundi, senior director of product development in Pune. "They know how the product is used, and they have a great sense of pride," he says. "That has a motivating effect."

Some changes were more interpersonal than organizational. To encourage chumminess, Approva established a "culture club" with employees from both locations who are responsible for team building programs. Now, employees from Pune and Reston regularly reward one another with tokens, which translate into cash prizes at the end of each quarter. They also can thank one another by passing along the company mascot -- Captain Bizozo, a teddy bear decked out in an Approva T-shirt, sunglasses, and sandals. So far, the bear has logged as many frequent flier miles as has Boccasam, who flies to India at least four times a year. That's the real key to creating a unified global team, he says. "It requires a huge personal effort from the CEO, including a lot of 24-hour commutes and 4 a.m. conference calls," he says. "Globalizing is not for the faint of heart."

IMAGE: Christian Northeast
Last updated: Apr 1, 2008




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