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Vernon Roberts is an author, master instructor, coach and speaker. He founded Evoke in 2003.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast on Virtual Teams

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast on Virtual Teams

"The best laid plans of Mice and Men often go awry". This adapted saying from a Robert Burns' work can be leveraged to describe what happens to global virtual teams when cultural issues are ignored. Culture is what makes us all different and interesting. However, culture misunderstood drives a wedge between us.

When I say culture, the mind naturally gravitates to the beliefs and customs of a particular society in a place geographically different from your own. This is one type of culture that can slow us down and damage communication and collaboration if not understood. For example, holding mandatory virtual team meetings during Ramadan could break rapport or using a number of idioms in your communication would create confusion. While this type of culture, which can be easy to spot, is very important, I want to focus on a type of culture that is not always so clear. The definition of this type of culture, also known as corporate culture, is "a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization". This corporate culture could become apparent in a merger/acquisition or it could exist within the same company within different regions and divisions.

Maria was a regional executive for a large pharmaceutical company that was acquired by an even larger pharmaceutical company. She was excited to learn that nothing would change for her. Or so it seemed... She would have the same office, same desk, same region and same direct reports. However, she would have new peers and a new boss. To her surprise, she quickly began to struggle. The philosophies of the companies were very different. Her old company was a “ready, aim, aim, aim, fire” culture. Her new company was a “fire, aim, fire” culture. Information moved quickly and all the regions had a similar structure, look and feel. In her old company, she was able to run the region as she saw fit. While she heard her marching orders from her new boss, she interpreted them through her own lens. Any strategy that her boss was trying to implement was slow to happen in her region, if at all.

This is a well-known situation for any leader who has managed through regional changes and/or corporate acquisition. Where I stopped the story, Maria and her boss are at a critical juncture. It could go either way. Both have a responsibility to learn about the other's way of doing things. If you are the boss, just saying it doesn't make it so. In this situation, if Maria fails now, it's a failure of her boss. The boss needs to take the time to understand where Maria is coming from and be empathetic to the challenges Maria faces in making needed changes. If her boss then lays out a specific plan with frequent touch points over a sixty-day period to bring Maria along, and Maria fails, it's Maria's failure.

Businesses work at the speed of light these days which makes short cuts seem more acceptable. When it comes to the two types of culture that I've mentioned here, there are no short cuts. Whether you've added an existing region or externally acquired a new region, that region will likely have it's own system of beliefs and behaviors. As a leader of a disbursed team or one who is managing virtual teams, it's incumbent upon you to understand that culture BEFORE you make changes. As Steven Covey says in his renowned "7 Habits" book, "first seek to understand before being understood."

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Sunday, 12 July 2020