What drives international success? Keith Hardie speaks to marketing and business development leaders at three international firms and discovers connections, collaboration and culture are the key.
Professional services is increasingly a global industry that requires firms to build operating models and profiles around the world. For marketers, that means balancing the need for consistency with the requirements of markets around the world, as well as creating strong, collaborative teams when individuals are in different time zones and cannot easily meet.
How do leaders of international marketing functions approach these challenges and what are the secrets to their success?
The first issue most leaders raise is the practical challenge created by different time zones, meaning meetings are often squeezed into short windows that are acceptable in all locations.
For many, this may seem like something that could be delegated to PAs, but most leaders stress the need to take personal responsibility for reminding others of this [very practical] issue.
Ed FitzGerald, Director of Brand, Marketing and Sales at RPC, was typical when he said: “I often feel like my job title should be ‘chief international connections officer’ because I spend so much of my time trying to ensure we organise things in a way that includes the entire team. I am certainly not perfect and have made mistakes but, as a leader, you need to constantly champion the issue so that everyone keeps it top of mind. Otherwise, it is all too easy to inadvertently make simple scheduling mistakes which undermine our one-team approach.”
However, in global teams, there are times when it is impossible to avoid some compromises, with Ed pointing to the need for flexibility: “Sometimes, connecting with colleagues in other offices might involve a call early in the morning or require others to join after the end of their normal working day. So, everyone needs to be flexible. But given that we all work in grown-up businesses, this works both ways; the firm will show the same level of flexibility when you need it for yourself.”
These issues relate closely to the challenge of creating strong teams across international borders. Marketing leaders all said trust between colleagues is even more critical in a global team.
Andy Peat, Marketing and Business Development Director for DLA Piper said: “Time zones mean that people have to be able to act more independently since bringing everything back to the centre would just slow things down. As a result, you must have great people on the ground who can take things forward in the right way. One of the main things I have learnt from leading teams internationally is that you cannot be a control freak!”
This means creating tools and systems that are accessible and make life easier for international colleagues, and all three have invested heavily in this area. For example, they have created pitching templates that can be accessed outside of hours or changed shift patterns to maximise availability for colleagues in different time zones.
Sophie Bowkett, Chief Marketing Officer at Bird & Bird, said: “We are very focused on creating consistent guidance, tips and templates. We are trying to get what central specialists have in their brains onto paper and put that in sensible places that everyone can access. That means when a local marketer is trying to do something and everyone else is asleep, they have the starting point of a consistent approach.”
Trust, however, goes both ways, with leaders needing to be open to listening to those who understand their local markets. The leaders we spoke to all recommended being proactive about establishing a strong team spirit and highlighted the importance of activities that encourage social interaction. For example, in Ed’s team, full team meetings are led by a different member of the team each time and the chair is often from one of the international offices. That way, Ed says, the meetings stay fresh and international team members remain highly visible.
Given the lockdowns and travel restrictions of the past few years, this has become more important. “I came into the role about three weeks before we went into lockdown in the UK, so it was all completely coloured by the Covid situation,” explains Sophie. “Obviously, I didn’t get the chance to travel and meet people face to face, but we found that, with the international team, there was a levelling experience with everyone on the screen. So, in a way, the international team felt more connected.
“Also, we were very keen early on to do as much as possible to bring the team together, even if the discussion wasn’t marketing or BD related. For example, we used to have an annual MBD conference but, during Covid, because it was virtual, we switched to having it quarterly, and did more things that were social.”
Building a strong team is not, however, only about meetings. Having a strong purpose and vision is also an important element in ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction, and all leaders point out how important this is in global teams.
Ed said: “We are lucky in that we have a very clear firmwide strategy, so everyone in the firm understands where we are trying to get to. That makes it much easier for everyone to make the right decisions, no matter where they are located.
“If you don’t have a game plan, people can too often be off doing their own thing and they don’t have confidence that any problems are being tackled. In a large international team, that becomes even more apparent, more quickly,” adds Andy.
One might expect cultural issues to be high on our leaders’ lists of challenges. However, while understanding cultural differences is critical, it seems most felt able to take these differences in their stride.
As Andy points out: “The truth is that anyone working in a global firm is part of an international business culture that overlays cultural differences, so it is often quite straightforward to work together. That doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying cultural differences – you have to understand that Dutch people are typically more direct than Asian colleagues, so a different approach to gaining open feedback might be required. However, you tend to be working with culturally astute people, so they know how to work together effectively. That is particularly true in marketing and business development since we need to adjust our approach to individual partners and clients in any case.”
Recruiting the right people
It is perhaps no surprise that all those we spoke to were keen to stress how important their local teams are to their success. Indeed, all of them spoke effusively about the quality of their international colleagues and how much respect they have for them.
Ed points out that even with great templates and guidelines, local marketers typically need to be comfortable acting independently and experts in more things than those in locations where there are larger teams and specialists to call upon during ‘normal’ working hours.
In addition, Andy highlights that you can’t have a team that is completely based in one location and expect it to have a global mindset. As a result, he has been actively looking to recruit new senior members of his team in a broader range of locations around the world. He also looks for opportunities to move individuals between offices, either temporarily or permanently, when there are vacancies. As well as making the team more internationally minded, this also creates more opportunities for local marketers to progress their careers.
Reaping the rewards
All of this may sound daunting, but whatever the challenges Andy points out that managing international teams is very rewarding. “Everybody talks about the challenge of managing international teams rather than the rewards. However, I couldn’t imagine managing a purely domestic team now; I would feel like I was missing out because it makes life a lot more fun.”
He added: “Sometimes it feels like you are conducting a jazz orchestra. There are lots of different beats and my job is not to jump to each of them but to listen for the rhythms that are coming from across the team and address those. When you get that right and you hit the right notes, you can create something really special.”