Unless you have been living in a cave or steered clear of all forms of media, you will no doubt be aware of the current situation we find ourselves in.
Indulge me for a moment while I add to the noise around COVID-19. Unless you have been living in a cave or steered clear of all forms of media, you will no doubt be aware of the current situation we find ourselves in. Worldwide, there isn’t a person, place or business that hasn’t been impacted in some way by the coronavirus and the restrictions it has placed on society.
A few months ago - which seems like years ago now - I was speaking at the Elite Business Live event in London. Representing as a female business leader on the panel, we discussed global expansion of business, the barriers to growth and advice to make it work from those who have done it. In keeping with this topic, I wanted to give my suggestions and advice to help multi-locational organisations maintain as much normality as possible.
As the Founder and Managing Director of the global business that is SmartPA, I have had first-hand experience of dealing with the imposed challenges and rapid changes that the pandemic has brought with it.
Running a business internationally is no small feat on a good day, far less when the world has been turned on its head. I believe those who can offer their support and guidance have a moral obligation to do so, now more than ever. Here is my advice for keeping your business afloat during these times and long into the future.
1. Communication is key
Communication is everything to us at SmartPA and one of the main reasons why our business model runs so seamlessly. When maintaining business internationally, strong communication is essential. It can be difficult enough to manage a team all under one roof, but even more difficult when you add time zones, language barriers and culture differences into the mix.
In order to manage workload, it’s imperative to have ongoing, open dialogue and regular online team meetings. I encourage my team to meet up virtually for team lunches, end of the day catch-ups and Friday drinks. It is so important for your team to feel connected regardless of where they are in the world and a virtual call can inject positivity when our human interaction is limited.
It is also important to set in place clear protocol if your employees should feel unwell or contract coronavirus. It is important to eliminate as much anxiety around the situation and reassure them of all support that is available. Check in on those who are unwell, alone or appear to be struggling, and especially check in on those who say they’re fine - you never know how beneficial a 5-minute Facetime can be.
It is equally important to keep strong communication with clients and customers as well. ‘Putting your customers first’ is a platitude that is often spouted but rarely lived by. However, in the aftermath of COVID-19, consumers will remember the brands that actually helped in their time of need. Customers and clients need to be reassured that it is business as usual and that you are there to support them. This requires more than just a canvassing email with your signature, but a tailored message that is specific to each and every business. Although time consuming, this will separate the good from the elite.
2. Bridge the gap with technology
Growing an international business requires various trips to and from the country for countless meetings and to gain crucial local knowledge. A personal connection is always important and I have found myself travelling for weeks on end to ensure that I am establishing these overseas connections. However, with transport restrictions worldwide, there is a lot more risk attached than just hopping on and off a plane.
To manage an international team effectively, we must look beyond the old-fashioned hand-shake meeting and utilise technology to strengthen and maintain these relationships.
With the right tech in place, remote working becomes a seamless process; shared calendars, shared storage, to-do lists and a CRM are but a few tools that you must have in place.
With differing time-zones, flexibility is key to ensuring deadlines are met. Arrange your day making sure you have time to catch up with your remote team. This may mean working outwith the typical 9-5, but staying organised is fundamental to running a successful international business.
3. Embrace cultural differences
Working with and among different countries adds an exciting dimension to your business and offers eye-opening perspectives. However, with new countries of course come new challenges in the shape of cultures and religions.
Despite naturally wanting to keep tight control of your business parameters and brand, it is very important to embrace new perspectives and allow your business to be moulded by its location. Ultimately, the people living in these countries that you may have visited numerous times, are still the people that know it best.
If you invest in people who clearly share your vision, you can trust that the core of your business will remain. You must be flexible and allow everything else to fall into place.
4. Invest in your people
I always strive to be the best part of someone’s day. This can be through a check in email to a client, sending a card to a customer on their birthday or a shout out on our team forum for a successful week.
Living half-a-world away means that you have to work twice as hard to maintain employee and customer relationships. I like to make sure I call people, regardless of the phone bill – a call can go a long way. It’s often hard to gauge tone over email and with time zones, it’s not always the quickest way of communication. Hearing someone’s voice can be very beneficial for both time and to form a more personal connection.
When we return to ‘normal’, make time to travel to see your team, customers or clients in person. This will go a long way to forming and maintaining a strong culture or business relationship.
I believe that if you invest in your people, you can’t go far wrong.
5. Lead, don’t manage.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of ‘managing’ when you grow your business overseas. You may think that because your team is not in front of you, you must lay down discipline and rigid structure from the get go; i.e. setting deadlines with no plan of how to get there or setting KPI’s without understanding your team’s capabilities. This authoritative approach can give you a sense of control, but can do more damage than good.
For all of us now, we have been forced to adopt remote working and for many sceptics who like to watch over their employees, this has been a challenge. Freedom and trust are the most important aspects of being a leader and that is why I believe so strongly in the power of the remote workforce. Lead your team with compassion, empathy and guidance while holding them accountable for their successes and achievements. If they feel empowered and entrusted to perform, more often than not you will find that they outperform those who are dictated too.
With a team of virtual PA’s spread out across the world supporting businesses in every sector, effective communication has always been crucial to ensure brand consistency and business continuity. However, for many that have recently embarked on international expansion or do not have strong infrastructure in place, the virus has imposed many unforeseen difficulties.
Covid-19 has brought with it a whole host of challenges for me as a global business leader. Whilst spinning plates of motherhood, launching new products, trying to find some me time and drink enough water – it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the situation. As much as possible, it is important to remain the level-headed face of the business. Doing so will instil faith, trust and empowerment to your team, your customers and clients. Remember you are doing the best that you can and we are all in this together.