Managers based in locations such as the U.S, the U.K., or Switzerland tend to have more independent, egalitarian, risk-oriented, direct, and task-focused cultural work styles. They provide what they think are clear instructions for the job they want to delegate, and expect their counterparts in other countries to ask clarifying questions as needed, and to make and keep commitments regarding deliverables.
Those on the receiving end of these communications, however, are often from cultures that are more interdependent, hierarchical, certainty-oriented, indirect, and relationship-oriented. Team members located in places such as the Philippines, India, or Poland are likely to value and expect joint problem-solving, be reluctant to ask too many questions to a more senior person (especially one who is located at headquarters whom they do not know well), and respond in an agreeable manner when asked about deliverables, even if they are not sure whether they can deliver. There is frequently a common understanding within shared services teams that it is better not to say anything that will upset people at headquarters and cause problems. Employees may also assume that because of a distant manager’s perceived tendency to “delegate and disappear” that the job assigned to them is not urgent relative to other priorities.
Here is an example that illustrates both sides of such an interaction:
Michael (Basel): Two weeks ago, I sent a report along to our team member in Surat with the raw data and information on the target audience. I followed up with a check-in call to make sure that Jas, the person in India assigned to this project, had gotten the documents and to see if he had any questions. I told him that, ideally, I needed the report in two weeks, and asked if he was okay with that. He said, ‘sure.’
Two weeks later, I got the report back and saw that while Jas had integrated the raw data, the implications had not been interpreted at all. The key messages were not clear and the nuances in the tone and language were just not right for my European audience. Actually, the report was unfinished in many ways. So it was now up to me to rewrite it, without any cushion time, which then impacted my deadline. I would say that this feels pretty typical of my interaction with the team in Surat, although they are supposed to be providing end-to-end report writing services.
Jas (Surat): The project with Michael could have gone better. When Michael called, I had not yet had time to look at the documents he had sent since I was working on a couple of other reports. So I didn’t have any questions at that time and figured I could rely on my team here in Surat to figure out any elements I didn’t understand. The thing is, I can constantly discuss and get help from my local team if I have an issue, but how can I do this with Michael? I don’t even know him. If I start out by asking a million questions, he will think that I don’t know anything and I will lose credibility with him.
There are several ways that Michael and Jas could each help to ensure that this task is being delegated effectively.
Recommendations for Michael:
- Frequent check-ins: When starting up a new relationship with a Shared Services colleague, Michael could do more initially to set near-term milestones and check in frequently to prevent a mismatch of expectations. His counterpart, especially in their initial interactions, may expect a good leader to update assignments regularly, even daily, and make adjustments as needed.
- Relationship building: In order for Jas to feel he can ask clarification questions, he will need to feel less distance between himself and Michael. In order to build a stronger relationship, Michael should take the initiative in their early conversations to learn more about Jas and his background while also sharing information about himself and his role.
- Understanding indirect responses: The “sure” that Michael hears from Jas does not necessarily mean, “Yes, I will get this done,” but rather “Yes, I am trying to be a good colleague.” Jas may still have no idea whether he can deliver the task by Michael’s deadline, but is trying to show respect toward a manager at headquarters, and to avoid the perception that he lacks the competence to do the job. Good ways to better understand what “sure” signifies in this case could be to break the task down into component parts, and to ask Jas when he thinks he can deliver each one.
- Feedforward: Jas may also need to see a model of a well-done end product and the opportunity to walk through this with Michael, so that Michael has the opportunity to provide him with “feedforward” rather than “feedback.”
Recommendations for Jas:
- Asking questions: Jas could be new to his role and feel that he is already on overload, but he needs to learn that Michael will probably welcome questions, and it is important to ask them. If this is difficult to do during their initial conversation, Jas could still follow up in writing to outline his questions or concerns.
- Clarifying deliverables: If Jas is uncertain about what he can deliver, or feels that Michael’s expectations for output or timing are unfeasible, it is his responsibility to provide input on job specifications and deadlines—this will naturally be easier if Michael asks him for such input.
- Point of negotiation: Jas should understand that once he agrees to specific deliverables and deadlines with Michael, there is little space for negotiating changes without harming his credibility. The best point for such negotiation is before making an agreement.
Stage 2: Ownership
Many organizations seek to upgrade the quality and value of their shared services by asking employees involved in these operations to become more full-fledged global team members, provide their input during strategic conversations, and take on larger responsibilities with a sense of Ownership for achieving the team’s objectives. Remote team members with more interdependent and relationship-oriented cultural styles are often particularly sensitive to the question of whether they truly “belong” to the team or not. At the same time, hierarchical cultural norms may also shape a reluctance on the part of these team members to take initiative on their own, as they prefer to wait for clear directions and greater role clarity.
Here are comments from an employee at an organization in this stage:
Zofia (Kraków): There is a lot of talk about this whole transition to more ownership, about integrating us into the global team. But the reality is that we are not one team. Here we are still treated like an outsourcing center and do not have as much say or respect within the organization. Ultimately, I am working for someone else—so they have the final say in what is good or not. At the end of the day, it is their responsibility. They are paid the big bucks and work out of headquarters so they know what is needed. We are only providing a service, and because they are driving the decisions, it is their responsibility to tell us what they need and to provide detailed requirements.
Often they give us only a small amount of information and then get angry when we aren’t able to read their minds. If they would give me more information or be more readily available—or if we had a relationship—that would be different. But the work is still just thrown over the wall to me and then there is silence. I try to match the specifications they send, but they often want me to make things up out of thin air. It is not my job to be offering my opinions in this kind of task. I am just trying to give them what they want.
- Big-picture orientation: In order to transition shared services operations from “throwing things over the wall,” to a more integrated global team approach, a key initial step is usually to share the big picture with everyone: why this project is significant, what are its most critical objectives, and how each person’s role will support the implementation process.
- Joint objective-setting: Whenever possible, it is useful to involve shared services employees in upstream project phases such as customer or stakeholder interviews, project scoping discussions, and objective-setting. This encourages team members to move from simply following the specifications they have been given to becoming more engaged in generating ideas, solving problems, and creating solutions.
- Matrix stakeholders: Many shared services teams are supporting multiple parts of the business, with various stakeholders, competing priorities, and sometimes mixed messages. Those who are delegating work need to ask, “What else is on your plate currently; what else are you working on?” and then help them to understand how they should prioritize and sequence the various tasks on their plates. When all global team members are aware of the different stakeholders and their demands, and there is a process for aligning stakeholders and reconciling conflicting priorities, it becomes much easier to build realistic expectations for employee participation and ownership.
- Information-sharing: At every stage of a project, there are often critical updates as circumstances change. Remote team members may receive such updates belatedly, if at all. Team members who feel fully informed and included in the flow of information are likely to be much more active contributors than those who feel that “something is going on that they’re not telling me about,” and that on this team “I’m a second class citizen.”
- Influence and building trust: It can be challenging for shared services team members to exert influence across boundaries that have been shaped by culture, distance, and organizational structures, especially when they lack any direct authority. Building trust among all team participants and creating a climate of psychological safety that enables them to share ideas and take risks without fear of punishment. A transition to having shared services team members take on greater responsibilities typically involves a phase of uncertainty and change for everyone, particularly when there are concerns about job security. The delegating party must learn to let go of some tasks, and the receiving party is often on unfamiliar territory, with a wider set of deliverables, and needs to cultivate a mindset and skills suited to this larger role.
- Project reviews: As projects are completed, asking team members for their feedback and suggestions—and incorporating these into future initiatives—can help them feel a sense of ownership. Team members who see their ideas implemented will know that their input is meaningful, and become more committed to increasing their efforts.
Stage #3: Leadership
As shared services operations mature, they face new hurdles in recognizing and developing talent from around the world. Previous practices of filling Leadership positions primarily with headquarters-based talent become outmoded and could affect employee engagement: “No matter how long I’m here or how well I perform, nobody from my location is promoted into higher leadership.” Many talented service center employees, too, aspire to work in leadership roles, and they may choose to leave an organization where this does not appear to be an option. At the same time, reversing reporting relationships between headquarters and shared services employees, with the latter taking on leadership roles, requires careful preparation and skill-building.
Ingrid (London): When we originally went into India and the Philippines, the plan was really to outsource our business processes and make things cheaper. And it was cheaper initially, but then we started to move India from an outsourcing center into a more strategic position, with business and revenue driven out of the Bangalore office. We recently celebrated fifteen years in India. I was passed over for promotion, there was a structural change, and I started reporting to an Indian manager for the first time. My new manager Atul was also new to a global role, and was doing part of the role I used to perform. When I tried to give him suggestions on how the company worked, he would always say, “Let’s see what others say.” He wasn’t receptive to hearing things from me. Then he started micromanaging my team and they came to me panicking because they were used to being very empowered with my management style. So I sat down to tell him that the team knows their priorities in a day, please trust them to do this. He responded, “Ingrid, I’ve managed people for ten years, I think that you are new to this.” Any advice I offered was shut down because of the hierarchy.
- Succession Planning: Succession strategies for leadership roles must be expanded so they are global in scope and assess candidates fairly regardless of their point of origin. High-performing employees in shared services operations may have the impression that they are “Out of sight, out of mind.” Having few or no local precedents for promotions to higher levels, especially women in leadership, reinforces this perception. When a service center employee is promoted, they can have a tremendous impact, bringing new perspectives to the leadership team and becoming an inspirational role model for their junior colleagues.
- Skill-Building: Leaders from offshore locations such as Atul in the example above may be accustomed to working in a very hierarchical environment with young employees who need detailed instructions and guidance. However, leadership in a multicultural team setting requires the ability to accommodate different cultural patterns—this could mean “style-switching” to work with more experienced employee team members who prefer broader forms of delegation. Leading across distance in an inclusive way is another common skill-building priority.
- Business Acumen: Shared services employees serve business units without always becoming integral members. Their local service entity develops its own culture and context without having direct exposure to the organizational norms, history, or strategy of the parent company. They are also commonly located at sites that do not have business operations. This could mean that they have seen only smaller pieces of the overall business puzzle, and don’t yet have the knowledge or experience they will need to take on higher leadership responsibilities. Organizations seeking to retain and develop high potential future leaders from their shared services operations should consider offering a series of developmental opportunities that will help employees to build broader business acumen. These could include participation on regional teams, assignments to other locations, and/or mentor relationships with more senior leaders.
- Individual Career Planning: Employees in every location will benefit from knowing when and how they can earn opportunities for promotion to leadership roles. It is also vital for employees to know that their ability to work effectively with colleagues from different cultures is one important criterion for advancement. Focusing on career development from the start in shared services operations helps to avoid creating the perception that “there is no leadership talent in this location.” Helping each person understand a transparent set of promotion criteria along with their own prospects can reduce possible sources of friction and resentment.
- Change Management: Shared services operations have changed and evolved dramatically over time. Artificial intelligence, geopolitics, cost factors, communications technologies, remote work, and customer demands continue to drive rapid change. Current and prospective leaders have to read industry trends and incorporate disruptive innovations in order to keep pace with and surpass the competition. Global leaders with experience in embracing and implementing changes while keeping their employees fully engaged are most likely to thrive going forward.
Global Shared Services operations typically require major investments and incur substantial risks during each developmental stage. Managing these stages effectively is crucial not only to achieve anticipated cost savings, but also to avoid common pitfalls and to ensure higher levels of performance. Inclusion on a global scale is not easy, and employees at all levels and locations must be able to broaden their perspectives and their skill sets. Ultimately nobody wants to feel like a second class citizen, and it is far more powerful to have an organization of employees who perform as fully engaged global citizens. Shared services leaders will benefit from knowing what developmental stage they are in, anticipating key obstacles to success, and working proactively to promote inclusion at each step along the way.
Start a free trial of Aperian to grow your cultural awareness and get access to custom inclusion insights based on your work style.