Starting a new job is a momentous occasion as you face new challenges, and stretch yourself in a new environment. Those taking on an international leadership role have additional complications. Not only do they need to learn a new role and potentially a new organizational culture, they also need to understand how to get the best out of their international team as well.

1. Collective responsibility

Leaders are judged not just by their individual performance, but by the performance of their team as well. A mono-cultural workplace is a myth – companies are as diverse as the societies we live in, and many new leaders are not prepared for the reality of working in a team with conflicting cultural attitudes and values.

Paraphrasing Shakespeare: some are born good leaders, some achieve good international leadership and others never quite make the mark.

Most organizations, regardless of size, will have a formal set of corporate values, which are, for the most part, an aspiration – they are not necessarily a good guide to determine the cultural values of individual team members.

So, what can you do to ease the transition into leading a new team, department or division?

Further reading

How Diversity in the Workplace is Key to Profitable Organizations

The Rise of the Global Leader

2. What is expected of a leader?

The first step is to understand as quickly as possible what the expectations of a leader are. Is the leader a facilitator who guides the team in the right direction; or is the leader a director, who stands back and expects the team to follow instructions?

For the former, team members will expect a more informal style, and will hope to be trusted to get on with their work; for the latter, formality and micro-management are essential to keep the team on track.

A leader needs to be an individual, and has been recruited for those individual characteristics and strengths

You also need to make the decision as to whether you want to stamp your style on the team, regardless of what went before, or whether you want to adapt your style to meet the existing norms.

Most people would agree that the best answer lies somewhere in the middle of the two. A leader needs to be an individual, and has been recruited for those individual characteristics and strengths – the recruiter has already chosen you for your cultural fit as well as your technical talents – but at the same time, you cannot afford to be too far from expectations if you want to increase your team’s performance.

There are some tools to help you measure the cultural preferences of your team: The International Profiler is one tool that goes beyond a simple measurement and can help you assess what competencies you and your team need to develop to increase professional effectiveness.

3. Building a team culture

Having identified the expectations of the team, the next phase is building a team culture. If the team is a new one, work will need to be done to negotiate a third culture – one that accounts for the values of each member, but explicitly sets out the “normal” practices for the team.

This can be a lengthy process of trial and error; however, it has the advantage that everyone is learning together. The best way to do this is as part of a more formal team-building event.

Soft Skills Development

Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

For an existing team, the situation is more complicated. Whether your role is to turn around a dysfunctional team, or merely to make a great team out of a good team, the norms and routines that make up a team culture are largely fixed already. Frequency and style of communication is already established, and you will need to find the quickest way to learn these unwritten rules.

It would be reckless to overturn these practices immediately, especially if the team works well together already, and it may be perceived as weakness if you submit to them completely without challenging them.

Here the best approach is careful curiosity. Rather than accept behaviour without question, ask, why do you have the weekly meeting with half the team? Why do you all go home early on the Friday? Is there a reason why one person is always missing from team meetings? What motivates each member?

4. Don’t be a loner

As you go through these steps, your own international leadership style will emerge. This process itself will begin to shape your approach and will highlight the areas that you may need to develop further.

The debate about whether leaders are born or “made” will continue indefinitely

As you shape your team in a collaborative manner, you will be practicing the very skills that you will define you as a leader: motivation, decision making, problem solving, time management, change management and many others.

Ideally you will have a coach or a mentor to guide you along the journey: if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough, and a coach will help you to reduce the impact of those mistakes, as well as giving you tools to help you learn from them.

The debate about whether leaders are born or “made” will continue indefinitely. In a Forbes article the argument is put that we do not necessarily need to decide either way – in effect some are born, some are made, others will never be good leaders. Paraphrasing Shakespeare: some are born good leaders, some achieve good international leadership and others never quite make the mark.

What is clear is that even natural leaders need to continue to develop their leadership profile, enhancing their natural abilities with refined skills. Don’t be fooled – international leadership can never be perfected, but is a constantly evolving development.