Global Team Development: The interplay and dynamics of teams

In chapter 2 of ‘The Power of Global Teams’, where I look at Team Effectiveness – Linking-up Psychology, Culture and Strategy, I have pulled out a case study on global teams at the Rockefeller Foundation. This study highlights some of the transferable best practices and the major differences in organizational development between the profit and not-for-profit sectors.

The Rockefeller Foundation was formed in 1913 and opened its first overseas office in 1914 in Bangkok. “One could say that since that time, Rockefeller employees have been working as global teams,” observes Samantha Gilbert, (the former) Chief Human Resources Officer of the Rockefeller Foundation. “We have an archive which documents the international progress very well. There are letters from the Bangkok office to their colleagues in New York, reporting on their findings, developments and specific needs in Asia, and their New York colleagues responding to them” – examples of international team collaboration in 1914.

When asked about the Rockefeller Foundation’s framework or model for international teams, Samantha Gilbert commented:

We have guiding principles rather than prescriptive frameworks on how to put a team together. These consist of:

  • The importance of regular communication
  • The effective use of technology
  • Sharing the burden of time differences throughout the business
  • Specific training and development for individual members and teams, including some coaching
  • Pointers on how to work when people have dotted-line reporting around the world.

To ensure effective international teams, Samantha Gilbert, who previously worked in a commercial organization, started to introduce some of the best practices from the for-profit sector into this philanthropic organization.

‘One of the major differences in organizational development that I found between the profit and not-for-profit sectors was the use of some successful people-development tools, such as performance coaching. This development tool was fairly new in the philanthropic sector when I introduced it to the Foundation.

‘Although there was slight resistance initially, coaching has been received in a very positive way, once the absolute confidentiality of this intervention was clearly communicated and understood. Coaching has now been successful for five years at our Foundation. It has been particularly effective in helping individuals to bring management and leadership skills to a higher level.   For example, if you are a manager in Karachi and have team members in Nairobi, Jakarta and other locations, you need to make sure to delegate the work evenly and effectively. There is often the temptation to give the most interesting work to people in your own office – which does not generate a well-functioning global team. Coaching managers for skills development, especially in a global context, has positive dividends towards creating high-performance teams.

‘We also focus on team retreats to help the bonding of the team. In a philanthropic organization, the alignment of values of the individual and the team with the organizational goals is paramount. One of the key values, and this is reflected in our selection criteria, is a deep appreciation of the value of diversity. This is best demonstrated through an investment of learning-time together. Apart from the social and emotional bonding, team retreats are essential for effective discussion of the strategy, to hear and apply different perspectives to strategy development to ensure it more robustly reflects the needs of the work. In order to guarantee an external and objective view, and to move the team forward toward embracing and appreciating differences as we formulate strategy, we also often work with facilitators in our team retreats.

Do teams in a philanthropic organization have less stress compared to global teams in a commercial organization?

Stress is probably universal across all sectors: the work here is demanding, coupled with time differences. For teams in Asia, for example, holding conference calls with New York at the end of their busy day, plus the travel component of the Foundation, can easily add up to very stressful work demands. Although the Rockefeller Foundation has not in recent years experienced the burden of downsizing, work/life balance is a big issue and we need to be constantly aware of that. An organization with 100 years of international experience addressing fundamental global issues, such as poverty, and an organization that looks at the long-term impact addressing global issues (while making sure the specific interventions and projects work at the local level) reflects the challenges of international teams.

The selection criteria for international team members at the Rockefeller Foundation illustrate a highly differentiated approach. Samantha Gilbert lists the following as key criteria in selection:

  • People who thrive in international environments
  • Passion for the type of work
  • People who love the dynamics of international work on teams and the complexity of it. This enjoyment and stimulation often makes up for the long hours
  • People who have demonstrated the ability to adapt to changing environments
  • A deep appreciation of the value of diversity
  • High threshold for ambiguity as things are unclear
  • Things take longer in a global context
  • Strong active listening skills, particularly important in the team leaders.

We look at predominantly soft criteria when building internationally effective team members.