How to build one team culture across a multinational business
This article was originally posted on the Unreasonable Blog
In 2008, when my business partner and I moved to India and China, respectively, to set up offices for our young company, we were wary about imposing a common corporate culture across the teams. As Americans, we wanted to be sensitive to the other cultures we were stepping into. Let the India office figure out its own Indian version of company culture, we told ourselves, and let the China office do it in a way that feels most comfortable for our Chinese staff.
It was one of our biggest mistakes.
The natural ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences between Indian nationals and Chinese nationals led to corporate silos that did not communicate or collaborate well. Each office saw itself as a stand-alone entity, not answerable or responsible to the other. They competed for resources and attention; mistrust and miscommunication were rampant.
We had successfully created two offices, but we had failed to establish one team. What we were missing was a common company culture—shared values and practices and stories—that could bring together our staff members across multiple nationalities and backgrounds. Such a company ethos was essential for counteracting the inherent cultural differences in our multinational team.
If I could do it over again, I would have approached the development of company culture with as much strategic intentionality as we did in developing our sales and marketing plans. A healthy, unifying team culture does not happen on its own—especially in a diverse, cross-national organization.
Though my company and I are still very much still trying to figure this out, here are some of the top lessons I’ve learned about creating a shared and healthy company culture in a multinational business:
1. Name and regularly reiterate your mission and values.
From the moment someone comes in to interview with you, begin talking about the mission of the company and what you value. Emphasize this again during training and orientation, and revisit this in team meetings. Your mission and values are what will most effectively bond your team together, even if they’re scattered across the world.
2. In a global team, multiculturalism is always a cornerstone value.
A unified team culture doesn’t happen on its own in a diverse, cross-national organization.
Promote multiculturalism in your values and practices. Seek hires who respect and are excited to work with people from other countries. Do not tolerate any form of favoritism, harassment, or discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or nationality.
3. Build common practices where you can.
With employees who are native speakers of many different languages and dialects, pick an official company language that everyone can communicate in. Establish a similar rhythm of town-hall style meetings and staff team meetings. Even something as simple as providing shirts, jackets, and hats with the company logo reminds everyone that they are on the same team, working toward the same goals.
4. Make sure everyone can find their place in your company’s story.
The operations of our company are complex and diverse, including product design, engineering, manufacturing, finance, sales, marketing, logistics, business development, communications, and more. Each employee has his or her own niche and area of expertise—yet they each play a critical role in the overall ecosystem of how we operate. When I talk to our teams, I try to let each department know how their work contributes to our mission and our impact.
5. Everyone is part of the solution.
Staff teams that don’t have a healthy culture are quick to point the finger at one another when something goes wrong, which can be exacerbated by cross-cultural dynamics. Accountability is important, but finding solutions is even more valuable. I hope my employees feel empowered to come up with an innovation or solution that addresses a problem—no matter what department he or she is in.
6. Celebrate one another’s success as the entire team’s success. Celebrate company successes with everyone.
When one team, department, or office does well, share this with the rest of the team and celebrate together. For company-wide accomplishments, ensure everyone is included in the celebration. Last year, when d.light reached its 50 millionth customer, I traveled to each field office so I could personally thank all employees for their contribution to this achievement.
None of this is to say I want each office around the world to become clones. Each team should have its own holiday celebrations and team-building activities that make sense in that cultural context, for example. But my hope is that every office, no matter what country it’s located in, will have the same underlying principles and values—passion for our products and our customers, integrity and collaboration, and empowerment to innovate and creatively problem solve.
Today d.light has 400 employees spread across three continents. Creating and maintaining one company culture is no small feat, and we certainly haven’t mastered it yet. But each day, we’re working toward having one team culture that every employee can be proud to be part of.