Leading an international company often feels like fighting a war on two fronts: Troops advance independently to capture more territory, and the general is tasked with keeping every maneuver aligned with the overarching strategy.
Take Uber: The company is seeking to succeed overseas by establishing itself as a cheap, convenient alternative to traditional taxis. But, as the ride-sharing company expands, it faces pushback in countries where laws and industry standards differ from those in the United States.
In China, for example, Uber has seen its progress stymied by a ban on “ black cabs.” In Germany, the company has failed to impress consumers used to riding in Mercedes-Benz sedans. In Ireland, it’s struggling to upset the incumbent app Hailo; and in the Netherlands, uberPOP drivers are actually facing intimidation and threats of violence. To succeed in these and other new international markets, then, Uber must identify each country's unique advantages and capitalize on those opportunities.
I know what I'm talking about, having learned to juggle teams in the United States and China simultaneously. From my experience, there are five key considerations for any leader of a globally dispersed company:
1. Develop a flexible but consistent leadership style.
When my physician-father, Rongxiang Xu, and I started Mebo International, I let employees call me either President Xu or Kevin, depending on their cultural preferences. I wanted to connect with employees in both countries, but trying to reconcile two very different cultures made me feel like I was having an identify crisis.
The message here? Instead of developing two (or even more!) different approaches to leadership, think about combining the elements of both cultures. I’ve done this in my own company by bringing Chinese celebrations such as the Chinese Moon Festival to my U.S. team to emphasize the importance of family.
2. Create a shared history.
Running an international company requires extra work, to unite employees at separate offices.
When compiling a company history to train new employees, I interwove the history of our Chinese and U.S. branches, to give new hires a complete picture of how the company developed. I also like to rewrite company news for the other country’s website to make the offices feel more in sync. This effort boosts employee confidence and injects a dose of healthy competition.
3. Ask employees to share the obstacles they encounter.
The biggest challenge to running a business in multiple countries is a lack of presence, which can lead to gaps in communication. A leader must bridge those gaps. To connect employees halfway around the world, I ask them to share the difficulties they see in their work and then seek suggestions from the other office.
4. Look for unexpected opportunities.
One benefit of running an international company is the ability to use different countries’ laws and regulations to my advantage. For instance, a company that has developed a promising new drug might decide to launch its product in a country that offers greater labeling flexibility than the country in which it was created. Or, if a company is looking to patent a certain new method or feature, it may decide to pursue that patent in a country with fewer restrictions.
5. Circle back to the big picture.
Leaders face pressure, on a daily basis, to make decisions quickly; but taking time to consider a big-picture strategy is always more important than expedience or convenience. What’s best for the company in the long run is always the most important consideration.
Finally, what's clear is that entrepreneurs "invite chaos" the moment they decide to launch businesses. For international companies, geographical distance and competing priorities magnify that chaos. But running a business in multiple countries can also be more interesting and rewarding than operating in just one.
With a clear vision, shared goals and a little old-fashioned opportunism, multiple fronts can function as cooperating parts of a well-oiled machine. That's what we've achieved with our international company; and it's something you can achieve with yours.