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Coaching corner

Coaching Corner

Global team leadership: What got you here may not get you there

IbyIMD+Published 19 October 2023 in Coaching Corner • 4 min read

The challenge 

Charlie works with a multinational fast-moving goods company. For many years, Charlie has led a tight, highly productive team based out of the company’s regional HQ in Paris. Charlie enjoys a strong relationship with each of these team members and is known in the organization for a style of leadership that engenders trust and empowerment. In recognition of this, Charlie has been invited to head up a newly formed international team – the result of a round of re-organization and organizational restructuring. This new team is multinational and spans three continents. Team members speak several languages and work in different time zones. 

The promotion to global team leadership is a strong endorsement of Charlie’s leadership capabilities, which were becoming highly stretched out. After a few months, the team’s interpersonal dynamics began to feel off, and sluggish performance meant that new, ambitious targets were not being met. To make things worse, Charlie’s line manager received indirect complaints: certain team members felt “marginalized,” and that the team was “segregated” and “disjointed.” 

Demoralized by this criticism and with team engagement plummeting, Charlie came to IMD for help from an executive coach. 

The coaching journey

Until then, Charlie’s approach to leadership had produced excellent results. But that leadership approach was always underpinned by a strong familiarity with the culture, practices, and language spoken by teammates. Under Charlie’s stewardship, communication and decision-making between these relatively homogenous colleagues was always fluid. Using transitional coaching techniques, Charlie and the coach explored what might be going wrong in a multicultural and virtual context. A few key insights emerged.  

First was familiarity. Charlie lacked experience dealing with the different ways cultures communicate and express needs and concerns, and it didn’t help that team meetings were held primarily on Zoom or Teams. There was also process. Getting things done virtually and across different time zones, languages, and cultures presented wholly new challenges and risks compared to Charlie’s original team, who shared office space and was able to have spontaneous conversations and decisions being made on the go. For instance, Charlie realized that the historic team would frequently and spontaneously chat and joke quickly in French, unconsciously excluding the rest of the virtual team from group bonding.  

Then there was the need for empathy. First, considering that his leadership capabilities “were not the issue”, Charlie, working with the IMD coach, began to see how it felt to be in the shoes of different team members, and how cultural and linguistic barriers, left unattenuated, could make individuals feel sidelined or disenfranchised.  

Addressing these issues and bringing this team together as an integrated whole meant finding cognitive and emotional solutions. It also meant purposefully learning about different cultures and building empathy for others, so they feel heard, valued, and empowered. Above all, it meant reconnecting with this fractured team and repositioning Charlie as a leader for everyone within it, which required deep self-awareness.  

Key tactics, insights, and impact 

Charlie’s coach convened a coaching workshop with the whole team via Zoom to accomplish three things: first to capture how engaged and empowered different team members felt, second to clarify designed roles and responsibilities within team members spread over regions, and third to set mutual expectations and agree processes and ways of working that worked for all moving forward. For instance, during this session, Charlie discovered that team meetings during CET office hours alone were unfair to the whole team, and that decision-making needed to be inclusive and process-driven – not something that happened in the corridors of the French HQ.  

Subsequent one-to-one sessions with the IMD coach challenged Charlie to set learning goals around working cultures in Asia and Africa by talking and connecting individually with team members to clarify their expectations towards him both in terms of behaviors and global leadership capabilities. Role-playing the part of diverse colleagues in transactional situations empowered Charlie to appreciate how a Euro-centric approach disadvantaged non-European colleagues. 

Armed with new insights, Charlie now embarked on a personal repositioning exercise, visualizing and articulating a new leadership posture as the head of a global team. Part of this meant setting out and committing to becoming a leader for everyone.  

A six-month pulse survey has revealed that this interior work is paying off. The team is now fulsome in their support for Charlie’s new leadership style and processes and engagement has increased. 

Questions to ask yourself 

  • As your leadership evolves, how sure are you that what got you here will get you there? 
  • Faced with criticism, how easy is it for you to accept that maybe it’s not them, but you? 
  • If you lead a multicultural team, how well do you understand the perspectives and norms of everyone in your team? Are there gaps in your knowledge?   
  • How do you know that you and your diverse team members are clear on what you can expect from them, and they from you?

As you ponder these questions, remember that the IMD coaching ecosystem is here to help you at every step of the way. 

In the Coaching Corner series, we share real-world, practical coaching scenarios. Read on to discover the specific challenges highlighted in the cases and the insights that could help you navigate and find solutions to your own multifaceted challenges. How might these insights and questions apply to you? 


SĂ©verine Jourdain

SĂ©verine Jourdain

Executive Director of Coaching and Leadership Excellence, IMD

Séverine Jourdain is a recognized executive leadership and business senior coach with 20+ years’ experience, ICF MCC credentialed, supporting C-Suite individuals, leadership teams, and full organizations to thrive.


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