How do you build a cultural infrastructure if you don’t have an office? Or, if you’re working with teams dispersed across the globe? Most importantly, how do you connect your local team’s culture to the international headquarters located an ocean and continent away?
So many businesses today are facing these same challenges. I’ve had a lot of experience building local teams inside global organizations, and I thrive on building culture.
The last time I decided to look for a new adventure professionally, I very consciously targeted international businesses with a local team that needed to be developed and scaled. My interviews led me to HiBob.
HiBob had a strong global culture and a small team that needed its own local identity within that global culture. When I started working at the company’s New York City branch, it had a small presence in the United States. The US Customer Success team had just one customer experience specialist and one customer success manager.
This was a small footprint compared to the more established headquarters in Tel Aviv and large office in London. The size of the team and the challenge to grow it and take it to new heights laid the foundation of my most important focus: Scaling and nurturing the US CS team every day and scaling it to over 25 people.
Building a strong local team that fits into the global cultural
Building a strong local team with a unique identity that fits within a solid, global company culture isn’t easy. Getting it right takes time and patience. For my first 90 days at HiBob, I did research and focused on feeling, hearing, and asking about what the management team felt the culture was and why it was such a big part of what created a strong product and team.
The beauty of HiBob was that culture was something the people here already seriously valued and felt was a core part of their DNA.
At the end of my first 90 days, I took what I learned from the research at HiBob and combined those findings with what I learned from previous roles. To put it simply, strong company cultures at the local and global levels depend on embedding the following five principles across the business, from management to individual contributors:
- Transparency is critical
- Agility and a go-getter attitude are what will allow us to win
- Take a “we,” not “me” approach to building the team, or as the HiBob value says, “Bring me, win as we”
- Nurture a growth mindset that focuses the team on being market disruptors
- Shift the mentality of how people work across teams, knowing this will take time and consistency
These five principles are fundamental to the company’s core ideology and are the key to building a great company culture for global teams.
Getting down to business. What happens from here?
Building a core ideology is just the first step when creating a great company culture that works for local and global teams. Now, the fun part starts!
Once I had a good grasp of HiBob’s core ideology, I took a step back to look at our processes, communication style, and everything in between to understand better how they each constitute an essential part of HiBob’s DNA. To get a better understanding, I asked these questions:
- How are we communicating on Slack and email?
- Do we have the right meeting format to promote the ideology we’re preaching (Transparency and Accountability)?
- Are we using our tools and data to make big decisions?
- What’s our shared success? How do we define success?
- Where and how can I shout out people who go above and beyond and match these qualities? And how can I highlight them to show that this is what “good” looks like?
Ultimately, there are three stages to building a strong team culture that aligns with the culture of the global company:
- Long-term expansion
Build: What are your core focuses when hiring?
People are the foundation of your company culture. When the people on your team have the qualities you know are essential to building your ideal culture, the culture you’re aiming to construct will build itself. It all starts with hiring.
Finding the right people
The focus for me is on what we need from the team members we plan to hire: First, we need agile, genuinely empathetic people. Next, we need people who find joy in working on a team and in the constant change that comes with working in scale-ups and startups.
I believe every one of our team members should be someone who can be selfless. Even more importantly, each team member should be someone who defines success as much more than just individual KPIs. To nurture a great culture, everyone on our team must be excited about what we are doing now and in the future—and about winning together.
Getting to this point takes a certain way of thinking about prioritizing and achieving consistent success compared to just a flash in the pan. This is my general philosophy when it comes to building a best-in-class team.
Nurture your core ideology and lead through example
On top of hiring the right people, building a culture supported by a great team is about finding ways to consistently nurture the core ideology you defined at the beginning of this process. As a leader, ensuring you represent these ideologies in team meetings and interactions is paramount.
As you continue to grow and hire managers, you need to make sure they have the same core focus you do. Nurturing the ideal culture depends on this. Your new managers must view success and culture as two parts of a greater whole and not one or the other.
This shared focus is key to building and maintaining your team identity. As your team grows, hiring managers who are heavily invested in the one-to-one touch ideology is critical. This will enable teams to maintain a close-knit culture between team members and managers, even as they scale. A general rule of thumb that helps build consistent culture is to try to match each externally hired manager with a promotion.
This gives your management team the benefit of an outside perspective. But pairing every external hire with an internal promotion helps ensure you don’t compromise what you just built. People who receive promotions are already connected to the mission and ideology. Internal hires also know the product and company. Combining external and internal hires is essential for balancing new ideas with internal realities.
When searching for external talent, it is so important to stay realistic. An external hire isn’t necessarily going to solve all your problems and provide you with the experience you’re looking for. The world changes so fast, throwing completely new scenarios and challenges at us every day. We all have to learn and gain experience on the go. At the same time, external hires are still critical. On the other hand, it’s equally important to make external hires because they’ll challenge you with an outside perspective and give your team an invaluable edge and fresh viewpoints.
Remember: Too many external hires (and too many internal promotions) will dilute what you are building and may cause blind spots. The trick is to find the perfect balance.
Encourage deep connection and integrate yourself with the global team
When a team works continents away from its global headquarters, it can be difficult to forge connections with colleagues in other locations. It’s important to remember that the relationships between people working on dispersed teams are very different from those between colleagues working at the same office. This is why it’s so critical to always be empathetic, especially when you’re communicating with people over a distance.
Start by setting the example through your leadership style: Shout out people who have accomplished empathetic communication, and talk openly about the long-tail impact it may have on KPIs. Show people the data if it’s available.
Lead with radical candor
As a leader, I always come back to the ideology Kim Scott describes in her book Radical Candor. Her ideology allows for strong leadership but also great culture builders. You can’t cut corners in getting to know your people. You need to understand what makes them tick, what makes them excited, what areas they find joy in, what activities or policies can be detractors, and what makes them really want to work hard. When you start here, you’ll be able to let your people grow and get to the point where you can deliver feedback with real impact.
Be intentional and connect with your global teams
It is also important to remember that you don’t want to isolate yourself within your regional bubble. Always be intentional and build connections globally. Encourage your people to do the same.
Find leaders and individual contributors whose core ideology and approach align with yours, and encourage communication and relationship-building. For example, let’s say your team is US-based, and you know a CSM in the UK who is great to work with. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage your team members to connect with them. You can do this by assigning international buddies or letting international team members run training for your local team.
Never forget: Always lead from the front. If you believe in what you are doing, you’ll naturally demonstrate the connections and relationships between yourself and global team members. Give your people the same kind of feedback you expect your leaders to give. Set the example for what great leadership looks like.
Plan for long-term expansion
Once you’ve built and nurtured, how do you continue to build and scale without losing your local team identity? The important thing to remember is that as your company grows, your culture will change—and it’s important to lean into the change.
Adjusting to growing teams
The change doesn’t mean you have to lose your vision. It just means you may have to try different tactics to achieve them. For instance, a call focused on getting to know each other may be easier with five people compared to 40. So it doesn’t mean you don’t do it. You just have to adjust the approach.
A good example is taking an icebreaker game initially designed to focus on a small audience and playing a Guess Who game via Slack to get to know each other. It reaches your team and portrays the value, but the tweaked execution allows you to accommodate your scaling team.
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Crafting interview processes with a long-term view
On top of that, it is important to think long-term when you hire. You need to be ferocious in your pursuit of the right people and your leaders of the future. Your North Star should be knowing that culture is equally as crucial as business goals.
The most successful management hires happen when current leaders make sure your interview processes focus just as much on achieving business-critical targets as they do on the fabric of the team they are building or inheriting.
It starts with asking the right questions:
- How do you nurture your people?
- How do you share feedback?
- What do your first 30 days as a team lead look like, and what are your priorities?
- How do you handle underperforming team members?
I’ve seen these questions too often removed from the process, and it leads to challenging hires who end up taking up a ton of time trying to get on the right path. But you can learn a lot from people’s answers to these questions. Do yourself a favor and get ahead of the game.
You will never get hiring 100 percent right, but do your best to remove as many unknowns as possible. Asking these critical questions is the perfect place to start.
The bottom line: Don’t overcomplicate it
It is extremely easy to overcomplicate the hiring process when you’re aiming to build a great local team and culture that fits in seamlessly with teams around the world. The most important lesson to take away is to trust your gut and hire genuine people. The more genuine the individual, the more they’ll identify with what you are doing and become a part of what you are building.
This mindset has become a lost art. I see so many recruiters and hiring managers prioritize a candidate’s skills over choosing someone genuine who would make a great team fit. In my time as a leader building teams within high-growth global startups, I’ve learned that it’s better to hire someone who has things to learn but is a genuine and strong professional than a person who has a lot of experience but could poison the well of our team.
Remember that it’s critical to weigh everything—not just hard skills—when evaluating talent. The last thing to remember is that you will mess up, and that is okay. It’s not about the mistake but about how you learn and correct it. No one is demanding perfection. Remember that as you build.
From Duncan Pratt-Stephen
Duncan is HiBob’s director of customer success in North America and has spent the majority of his career building unique and sustainable cultures for international companies looking to move into the Americas. When not geeking out about CS or books around culture, he’s watching one of the NY-based sports teams or buried in a good book!