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Question: A Trans-Atlantic Team Learns the Ropes Of all things Dave Gray worried about when he branched out overseas, tripe never entered the equation. Gray, founder and chairman of Xplane, a consulting and design firm based in Portland, OR, acquired a small firm in Madrid in late 2006, hoping to establish a European outpost and break into Spanish-speaking markets worldwide. Gray was eager to establish rapport between his Spanish and American staff members, and face-to-face meetings seemed like the best way to forge a bond. But during one dinner meeting in Madrid shortly after the acquisition, a visitor from Xplane’s St. Louis office refused to sample the tripe - - considered a delicacy in Spain - - and proceeded to make crude jokes about it. It was a minor incident, but only one in a series of minor incidents that ultimately created tensions between the six employees in Xplane’s Madrid office and the 45 in its U. S. offices. “I expected to come in and say, ‘This is how we do things,’” says Gray, who relocated to Madrid to oversee the transition. But he quickly learned that the Madrid and American offices were separated by more than just an ocean. There was a wholly different work culture in the Madrid office. The employees there, in addition to feeling that they had ‘been sold’ resented the Americans insisting that American technology be used in all design discussions. The software that the Spaniards had been used to was to be jettisoned in favor of the software in use in St. Louis and Portland Most companies have standard formula for team building: Spring for an annual off-site, throw in a few happy hours and a holiday party, and hope for chemistry. That approach may suffice when employees work under the same roof or even in the same country. But in a global workplace, misunderstanding and resentments can pile up, says Anil Gupta, a professor at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and co-author of The Quest for Global Dominance: Transforming Global Presence into Global Competitive Advantage. The result, all too often, is an “us-against-them” mentality that makes the already challenging task of running a global organization much more difficult. It was clear that ‘us-against-them’ had taken hold at Xplane. The culture clashes were starting to hurt morale, not just in Madrid but also in St. Louis and Portland. Gray noticed, for example, that some Spanish staff members grumbled when they learned that they had been excluded from e-mails sent to everyone in the two U. S. locations. The exclusion sent a clear message to the Spanish staff: You’re not one of us. “They would always forget there was a third office,” says Stephen O’Flynn, an Irish citizen and a project manager in the Madrid office. Managers in Portland insisted that the only reason the Spanish office had been left out was that this was a project that really didn’t need their input. Gray recognized that the Portland managers were factually correct, but that didn’t do anything to change the Spanish perception of the situation. Gray knew that he had to make changes. “These cultural aspects don’t show up in the numbers,” he says. “But a good culture is the fuel that keeps things going.” He told employees that too much information is better than not enough and that seemingly minor statements could be misinterpreted. Meanwhile, Xplane’s CEO, Eric Wood, asked the Madrid staff members to fill out surveys about their experiences, then he discussed the results with them during one-on-one sessions over the telephone. The only problem with this was that Wood insisted on handling these discussions during his lunch hour - - which was six o’clock p.m. in Madrid. The Spanish could not understand why Wood could not call earlier. Lack of communication was also a major complaint. “Not only did they feel distant, but technology was a major obstacle,” Wood says. To make communicating easier, Xplane switched to Web-based phone service; now, co-workers dial only four numbers to call one another instead of 13. Wood set up a wiki with pictures of employees from all three offices. O’Flynn became an unofficial ambassador to the U. S., going out of his way to call colleagues in Portland and St. Louis for input and urging his office mates to do the same. “I did a lot of brokering to get people talking,” he says. The talking did help some. Employees in Portland and St. Louis did communicate more with their colleagues in Madrid, but there was still a lot of behind the scenes grumbling about the other offices. Then the firm landed a new project - - a very large project that would necessitate all the offices working together. Moreover, the project involved a European Consortium that the Spanish had inside knowledge of. Gray and Wood both recognized that it was time to fish or cut bait, but neither of them had a clue as to how to make the three offices work together effectively. They call your consulting group in to make recommendations: How can Xplane overcome its culture and communication problems and perform successfully in the new project?
How can it foster a culture of interdependence among its three offices?
Feb. 3, 2023, 5:47 p.m.
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