I took two suitcases to Paris and the address of a temporary apartment where we could stay until the rest of our stuff could be shipped over.
Looking back, I was incredibly optimistic and positive about leaving the UK – France is just across the water on a short train ride. It wasn’t as if I was going far or to a job I wasn’t sure of.
When I turned up for work it wasn’t what I expected. The projects I worked on were different too. Being in a corporate head office was good in many respects, but trying to get time with local offices to rollout corporate projects was, let’s say, a challenge.
However, I quickly got to know my incredible team and the beautiful city I called home for a couple of years. And I adapted to the way of managing projects that seemed to work best: keeping everything moving forward while streamlining to the point that it made the work easy (for everyone else at least).
At the time I didn’t consciously identify the traits that made the transition to an overseas assignment easier. And I certainly didn’t have all of the ones I have identified below in equal measure. If you’re managing international projects, whether from a local base or remotely through a multi-national virtual team, here are the things that I think make it possible for you to be a success.
Taking an overseas assignment isn’t an easy choice. I remember that our time in temporary accommodation was coming to an end in Paris and we needed to find somewhere to live, fast.
After one particularly difficult interview (in French) for an apartment, I was almost ready to give in and go home. Luckily my colleagues were far more laid back about the whole housing situation than I was, and they helped me sort out a lease, taking it in turns to come with me to viewings and then the agencies. Their calmness rubbed off on me, eventually.
Being able to stay calm, to work together and diffuse situations is a particularly good trait to have when working overseas.
What happens when you can’t quite get the same food as you do at home? Just get creative about how you cook.
Creativity is the ability to be able to see things in a different light and to use what you have in different ways to get a decent end result. It’s about enjoying the challenge of something new, looking for ways to do things differently and coping with uncertainty.
Whether you work abroad or manage a multi-national team remotely, patience is a virtue. Especially when you are working with cultures with a different take on time commitments.
Polychronic cultures, which are highly relationship based, have a different take on time and task management to monochronic cultures.
Some of your team might seem time commitments as a general goal, whereas others will see them as firm commitments not to be missed. Patience when dealing with differences and ‘missed’ deadlines will help you adapt to the challenges of multinational project teams.
No one is going to tell you how to manage your project on an international basis. OK, your company might give you some training for an overseas assignment. They might help you with a local mentor. They might offer you language lessons. But every project and every team is different and you are going to have to put what you know into practice.
Take the initiative. Deal with the fact that everything is a bit vague – it always is on a project and being part of an international team just makes that even more likely. If you can work your way through the ambiguity by leading your team, they’ll follow you and you’ll all pop out the other end with a much clearer idea of what to do.
But you need to have the initiative to do that, as no one is going to spoon feed it to you.
International projects are an opportunity to learn more about different working practices and cultures. But you have to want to learn.
Curiosity and an interest in other people will help you adapt to difficult situations because you’ll be looking for what you can deduce from the situation. Take time to read the local papers and find out what’s happening that builds the national context for your project team. You’ll be able to better support them if you are willing to learn about their culture.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In order to make a success of an international project you’re going to need to be adaptable.
That goes for work environments and social settings too.
It helps if you can show an interest in other people and your surroundings. Watch what they are doing and try to fit in. you don’t have to lose your own identity, and you probably wouldn’t be able to do that even if you tried. But being able to spot and adapt to local customs is going to go a long way to impressing your country hosts and helping you work with a wide range of customs.
You already know that part of the project manager’s job is communication and that it’s best to switch up the way you communicate with stakeholders to best suit their needs and communications preferences. This is just the same, but on a global scale!
You need to be confident enough to take responsibility for your own actions. Even when you mess up. It’s not going to be luck that gets you through your project. It’s going to be taking ownership of your actions and those of your team.
This is trait that project managers need regardless of the international setting of their project. Whether your team is a few people in the same office as you or a huge group of multi-national players, you are responsible for the way you act and lead that team.
Set a good example and make sure they know they can trust you do to the right thing.
If you have the opportunity to work on an international team, take it. It’s so valuable.
I have learned so much both through working abroad for a couple of years and also with a wide mix of nationalities on project teams in a more virtual environment. It really does broaden your horizons and give you a deep insight into what makes projects successful.
These 7 traits are a good starting point: whatever the nature of your team, developing these will help you deal with the challenges of managing projects in the shrinking business environment.