The Elusive Prize – achieving a Common Corporate Identity when expanding overseas

by Oliver Dowson, CEO, International Corporate Creations Ltd

When expanding abroad – especially when setting up operations like Shared Service Centres that will take over work previously done in-country – there’s always an aspiration to achieve and maintain a common “Company Culture”. Unfortunately, many companies fail. I’ve met with management of many international subsidiaries of multinationals all around the world – and conclude that finding common corporate identity at the human level is disappointingly rare. Often it feels like the only thing that’s common is the logo over the reception desk!
This is nothing new. On my first day at work for a US multinational in London, long ago, I received a telex from my new opposite number in Minneapolis welcoming me and asking me to send him some stats for the UK company. I asked my boss how I should reply, and he screwed up the paper and threw it in the bin. Stunned, I asked “and?”. “And you wait and see if he remembers to ask again. If you get a third reminder, I’ll explain what to do” came the answer. I found out that the London management mantra was that “the money might be American, but here it’s a British company”.
Years later, in a new job, I was reminded of this at the German HQ of a US car manufacturer. Waiting in the lobby for a meeting, I watched a workman put up a new corporate poster – and then carefully stick the German company’s logo over the corporate one. Reversing nationalities, I’ve had executives of the US subsidiaries of two of the biggest German companies tell me that they try to ignore anything coming from Frankfurt or Munich.
Therefore, when I started to take my own businesses abroad, I resolved to make it a priority from the outset to try for “one company thinking”, for which the key is to get everyone respecting each other and working together.
It’s not so hard where the new overseas operation is a sales office, or is dedicated to expand the business with a new market, product or service. The real challenge comes where work is being transferred abroad – for example, taking accounts processing or customer call centres to a lower cost economy. Whilst most companies dedicate effort to inspiring the new overseas workforce with the corporate identity and values, many pay scant attention to staff in existing operations, except those destined to lose their jobs as a result of the change.
Overseas expansion and business change is actually a great opportunity to build global corporate identity at all levels. Staff at the new overseas operation can probably be enthused quite easily, but the home office always needs great care. Even those not affected directly may have negative feelings, perhaps because they have friends in an affected department, perhaps because they fear they “will be next”, perhaps because they think they will end up with more work to do – or perhaps simply just because they are prejudiced (almost certainly unjustifiably) against the country in question.
The approach I’ve used and recommend has several elements. Fundamentally, you need to make your management teams understand that the move will not only make the company stronger, it will make their jobs easier, and they will be able to deliver better results, making them look good.
• When you set up a new overseas operation, don’t just use it to transfer work abroad. Add a small number of staff that will work on exploiting the new base to expand your company’s market, or to deliver extra services back to the home base that are new and valuable.
• In conjunction with that, establish people in both operations – home and abroad – who will need to depend on and communicate with each other every day. Pick individuals who are likely to build a rapport and share a little social chit-chat (this can dictate who you hire for the new overseas operation).
• Hire better-educated staff for your new operation than you actually need
• Consult your management team about the job functions that you may have previously cut out in your home country to make savings, and that have loaded extra work onto them – then re-staff them in the new overseas operation.
• Educate the home office staff (all of them) about the country and city where you’re establishing your new operation, and the people you’re hiring. Admit to making efficiency savings, but also make it clear that your company is deliberately trying to help the development of the country you are moving work to. Give as many of them as possible the opportunity of visiting the new operation – but only once it is up and running smoothly.
• Don’t switch over operations until you have fully QA’d the entire operation. If it doesn’t work perfectly from Day One, you’ll have to climb the mountain again.
• Never forget time differences! Don’t expect overseas staff to always have to work unsocial hours to fit in with the home office – try to compromise on scheduling.
• At least for the first year, directors or senior management should play the role of Company Evangelists, visiting the overseas operation regularly, and spending at least a few days each time getting into details and meeting all the staff – and then spend time reporting back to the home office team when they return.
There’s never a single solution, of course – but all of these ideas have been proven to work. Another set of ideas apply to how you should manage corporate identity in your new overseas operation – but that’s a subject that needs another article!

 

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