December 6, 2016

Help! My HQ Doesn’t Get What’s Going On In My Local Market.

For most of his big assignments away from Head Quarters (HQ), Leroy Chiao says communicating back to the main office back in Texas was one of his biggest challenges. He specialized in leading elite teams and they worked in remote locations far, far away from their organization’s hub. Communication was tough. The team back home didn’t always seem to understand the local environment where Chiao and his team had been sent.

What they thought were ‘common sense’ requests were being denied and the team in the foreign location felt they were either being ignored, or overly micromanaged, depending on the situation. Furthermore, they felt they weren’t being heard. It was frustrating at times and relationships frayed. Sometimes it seemed as if both sides just didn’t ‘get it.’

If you work in a satellite office, these issues may sound familiar. Distance from HQ makes a big difference and all organizations who expand into new regions struggle with these adjustments. Chiao and his team may be an extreme example though. You see, Leroy Chiao is an astronaut. His office included NASA shuttles as well as the International Space Station. Chiao’s satellite office was… well, a satellite.

His challenges with communicating back to HQ were similar with what growing companies experience when expanding overseas today.

Here on Earth, things usually start off great in these new satellite offices. Prospects confirm everything you want to hear. You interview local candidates and there’s a lot of good talent to choose from. But somewhere things go off-track. A key employee stops showing up. A prospect who verbally committed to a big deal isn’t responding to your calls. Your re-sellers sales commitments get delayed. Revenues come in lower than expected, costs are higher than ever dreamed possible. What’s happening? You try to explain. You feel like no one at HQ ‘gets it.’ Maybe you feel like you’re searching for intelligent life forms who will listen.

Companies often send a seasoned executive over to lead a new market initiative. They bring their playbook. What the executives learn pretty fast is that their playbook isn’t going to work. It’s at this point when communication back to HQ becomes even more critical.

When trouble starts, HQ gets the call to help. Houston, we have a problem. Maybe local and regional competition was under estimated. Maybe the product or service isn’t exactly right for the local markets. Maybe the pricing is off. Maybe the executives hired the wrong local talent or maybe they aren’t adjusting their management style to be effective. Maybe the managers sent over aren’t happy. Maybe they’re too happy and hardly ever make it into the office. The list of suspects can be long. And this isn’t just for new offices. The same obstacles apply for companies with decades of global experience.

“Things are different over here,” you say. That answer doesn’t fly, nor should it. HQ isn’t going to know what’s going on in distant markets because they aren’t there with you. That’s why you’re there. So it’s important you have a strategy to communicate effectively.

Here are some ideas how to keep HQ supporting your mission: Use S.E.T.I.

Stories. Find them and tell them. Most likely similar companies have gone through this before. Learn from the mistakes of others. What did they do? What worked for them? What didn’t work? Bring these real world case studies back to HQ. Tell these stories to help educate your HQ team.

Explain with data. Stop yourself the next time you are about to say “things are different here.” That statement is meaningless. Use data to help explain market differences. Yes, Asia, may be a fast growing, but look at each market you are trying to work in to get useful insights. Look at each market separately. What are the local trends in your industry? For example, if hiring is a challenge because of a specific government regulation, find data to show why it is affecting the business. Do your research!

Traps. Avoid common traps that negatively impact communication. For example don’t fall into monotonous conference call patterns where attendees multitask and key items get ignored. Put someone in charge to lead every call and keep it focused and on point. Force the change. Also, make sure you spend time chatting informally with colleagues from HQ. People all in the same office don’t have to do this because informal conversations happen naturally, sometimes called the ‘water-cooler effect.’ Without informal communication, teams in other geographies tend to feel excluded causing ‘us versus them’ mentalities. This leads to all kinds of trouble. Make sure you reinforce the collective objectives of the team as a whole and acknowledge the importance of each person’s work and how it contributes to the group’s success.

Intelligence. Develop your cultural intelligence (sometimes called “CQ”) and become the go-to guru in your organization. Put a plan in place to infuse CQ into your HQ. You’ll need patience because this will take time. Here’s a bunch of good books on the subject to get you started.

Some of these ideas may seem like small steps, but they can result in giant leaps for keeping your organization healthy as you grow into new markets. If you can overcome these global challenges, you may become as successful as Leroy Chiao. But I’m not sure you’ll ever have a business card as cool as his…

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