Hello SOTGC community,
This July I co-led a diverse team of 30 people into another nation for a short-term, high-impact effort in partnership with local leadership. I’d like to share a few lessons I hope will help you lead your diverse teams, whether it’s a cross-cultural experience involving passports or just a bus ride. The July team included people from south Texas, New England, Africa, and Mexico. This team was the tenth team of a similar nature I have led so far, and I plan to keep empowering global leaders.
Many of us have traveled or experienced multiple cultures so I am not going to share about the etiquette, business practices, or cultural competence. Instead, the points I will share are personal lessons I hope are just as helpful. Our nonprofit takes local skilled leaders into other countries to teach specific skills that help national leaders make a difference. The teams I typically lead are filled with men and women ranging in ages from 20 something to 40 something. Each of these individuals is a creative leader, teacher, innovator, and/or entrepreneur. Many of them are also parents, and some of them are joining a team for the first time. Every site we travel to is with the partnership of local leaders and is for a specific purpose that strengthens the national leader’s long-range sustainable plans. Most of the sites are in developing countries with current dangerous situations so team training is essential. I’ve found implementing the following characteristics helps us lead such diverse teams by teaching, empowering, and getting out of their way.
While developing the team, create a team culture. We implement this within our training months before departure. An agreed upon team culture helps us to not only gel as a team but also to understand, trust, and respect one another. A team culture is a strong foundation for when we are in dangerous situations or when we are tired and weary. There were times during this July trip that, as the team leader, I told the team we needed to leave a particular site NOW due to safety conditions, so having this culture allowed us to make this command and the team responded immediately as one.
Our team’s culture includes safety, honor, faith, fun, and unity: to put the safety of myself and others above all else means thinking of others’ needs and having each other’s backs. To honor my leaders, fellow team members, and those I am serving. To keep an attitude of faith in myself and my fellow team members so that we can achieve the best. To strive to create experiences for my team members that makes an impact and is also fun. To do my best to bring unity, love, and camaraderie to my team means assuming nothing, but asking questions any time to understand the bigger picture.
What would be part of your cross-cultural team culture?
Prepare your team, especially newcomers, for the challenges of cross-cultural work. Within this team we had 22 newcomers to cross-cultural work, one who was about to experience her first airline flight. We provided weekly training tips via a Facebook group and an in-person training once a month that accelerated to weekly trainings. The tips covered everything from our travel mantras of “No Kevin’s” (no one alone), to “If you can cook it, peal it, or wash it, then eat it.” We also helped them understand the concept of culture shock and reverse culture shock with tips for application.
What are some preparations your team might need before engaging in cross-cultural work?
Provide daily debriefs even if they are on-the-go. Our team was up with the sun and kept going until after 10 p.m. for over a week so we completed daily debriefs in transit or over lunches. This allowed each of us to be open with our experiences, to ask questions, and to encourage one another. Even if we didn’t have new information to share at these debriefs, we still communicated the same thing. In a constantly changing environment like the ones we were involved in that also included some high-risk areas, providing the constant time increased the team’s safety, honor, and unity. Debriefs are specific for a given need but the typical components include current news, sharing experiences, affirming or encouraging one another, new facts on deck, and action steps.
How would you provide debriefs for your cross-cultural team?
Give your team the freedom to ask lots of questions and also to assume nothing. We often work with individuals who are leaders in their daily roles but take on the role of a follower and developer in-country. So we invite them to ask all their questions during debriefs or between sites. We also remind them of the team culture of safety, honor, and unity, which means there will be times we need them to just follow requests.
Some of these leaders might not understand the ripple effects of a simple behavior like giving away gum or providing their shirt to someone who needs one. We help them understand the effects of this “aid” and what might be a more sustainable way to help the individual. This freedom for questioning also applies to basic needs like where and how to use a bathroom, where and what to eat when a local offers you food, and similar items where we don’t want assumptions but instead welcome questions.
How would your cross-cultural team benefit from having the freedom to ask questions and the power of assuming nothing?
Seek the best, believe the best, and expect the best. This one is similar to our team culture but takes it outside of the team as well. We seek to give our best every day to every person we encounter, which means being authentic about our current limitations. We choose to believe the best about those we work with on our team and in country no matter what logistical difficulties or possible hindrances we experience. We also expect the best possible outcome at every site for the benefit of the national teams. That means getting to understand what would really benefit the nationals the way that best serves them, and not in the way we think it might. Seeking, believing, and expecting the best invites us to think as leaders with others’ needs first.
Where do you see this applying to your cross cultural team?
As we led this diverse cross-cultural team of strong leaders into the partnering nation this summer we saw even more transformation that we expected. We went to meet humanitarian needs to empower the everyday individual and provide leadership training to local leaders to lead the charge. We continue to hear from our national leaders of the ongoing changes they are experiencing.
I hope these lessons also help you lead your diverse teams whether it’s a cross-cultural experience involving passports or just a bus ride.
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