How to Successfully Build and Lead Multi-Cultural Teams
Minna Vaisanen—a passionate customer success leader who has experience leading international teams across more than 60 countries and has lived and worked in seven different countries herself—was a wonderful guest on the podcast last fall.
Minna currently serves as the Head of Customer Success at Growth Engineering Ltd. At the time of recording, she served as VP of Customer Success at Pace Revenue Management.
With such a broad experience as an ex-pat, Minna was able to share some invaluable insights for building cross-cultural teams, supporting learning and growth, and leading in an international workplace.
How to build a successful team
While it might be a cliché, Minna says that one of the most important things for building a successful team is – being a coach and setting the vision for your team. You have to understand how you want your team to behave and know your “why?” Why are you doing this? Why would people come work for you and dedicate long hours? What do you represent? Then you can develop a robust hiring plan, thinking about what makes a person in this role successful and what kind of skills they need to excel. Only then you can start building the team you need.
Once you start hiring people, it is important to have a very robust onboarding plan to make sure that they understand what the company is about. You want them to understand the company mission and be well-equipped to advocate for the company.
And the coaching doesn’t stop with onboarding. You can’t expect people to just be great at what they do from the very first day. Instead, a good coach should continue to communicate with their team members and play out different scenarios to help prepare them for challenges and growth.
‘I like to ask, what if you had this problem? Or this problem? How would you solve it for yourself? People have to come up with their own answers, and that’s often the best way to learn.’Minna Vaisanen
How to lead multi-cultural teams
A great leader can make a way for helping others achieve their goals and feel supported and empowered in their work. This aspect of leadership needs to be taken to another level when leading multi-cultural and multi-national teams. A leader in this position needs to be able to understand and adapt to multiple different cultures and communication styles.
Minna reflected that in her experience, she has had to think a lot about her people skills and her ability to adapt her leadership style to match other cultures.
‘One of the main things you gain from living and working abroad is an understanding and appreciation for other cultures, and you become more self-aware because the mental model that you bring from your own culture doesn’t necessarily fit in a different culture. So you learn adaptability, and as a leader that teaches you a lot about your personal and leadership skills.’Minna Vaisanen
How to adopt leadership styles to different cultures
Leading a multi-cultural team takes a lot of learning and adaptation. According to Minna, it takes a lot of relationship building and observational skills.
When interacting with people from different cultures in the workplace, one of the most important things to learn is how different cultures are likely to perceive information. For example, Minna says, you might communicate in a very direct way with a co-worker in Finland and they’ll receive that type of feedback well, but a co-worker in China is likely to respond poorly to the same type of direct feedback because that communication style is not in their culture.
Minna recommends focusing your energy on building personal rapport with your team. There are a lot of cultural nuances that Minna has had to work on through one-on-one coaching.
‘For me, it’s always been very important to have one-on-ones and I tend to take the approach of a coach rather than a leader. But I think different cultural nuances do require different leadership styles, especially when you are working with a new team member.’Minna Vaisanen
How to support team-building with a learning and growth culture
While your individual leadership is important, building team culture can also greatly impact your team’s success. According to Minna, the greatest thing you can do for team-building is to create a culture that supports learning and growth. This empowers everyone on the team to come up with great solutions and work collaboratively instead of relying solely on leadership.
One thing Minna does is host regular open-ended meetings that encourage team-wide sharing, such as, “What did I learn this week?” In this meeting, everyone share one thing they learned that week. She’s had great success with these types of meetings because they foster a collaborative environment free from judgement, and usually, anything one person learns can benefit the whole team.
‘It makes people think about what they’ve done during the week and what they want to share with their colleagues. It also creates this culture where people start pushing outside their boundaries and debating different problem-solving approaches with their teammates. I think this is a very powerful thing. So we started having great fun in those meetings learning from each other.’Minna Vaisanen