Global conference calls: a great opportunity or a necessary evil?

Alyssa Bantle provides some tips on how to make the most of a multi-cultural conference call.

We’ve all as employees – at one time or another – had to take part in conference call, which has subsequently been hampered by bad connections, background noise, cultural clashes and colleagues with different accents or varying levels of English. Not to mention the people who talk too much, too little, or never say a word!

Following a global call you may well end up thinking “Well that went as well as can be expected.” However is that really good enough for something so time intensive, especially when you take into consideration not just time spent on the call but also preparing for it?

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Here are some tips to not only enable businesses to see conference calls as an opportunity to build global leadership skills, but also to deliver them successfully.

The main thing to remember is there are two main aspects of global conference calls, which often overlap, but which are both critical to the time being spent productively. On the surface level there are all the obvious complications of people talking all at once and misunderstanding each other. But on a deeper level are the underlying reasons for misunderstandings – the cultural differences in the way we listen, interact and communicate. Failing to understand or accommodate those differences can make a call very difficult indeed.

Just imagine a call between David and his team in the UK, Masako and her team in Japan and Gianni in Italy.

Masako is finding it tough to keep up with the fast-paced English, who all feel under pressure to contribute to the call (even, perhaps, when they don’t have something important to add). Meanwhile Masako’s colleagues are waiting for their turn to speak – cultural conditioning prevents them butting in – but it never arrives. Back in the UK they are wondering why Masako’s team don’t say anything. Do they even have an opinion?

Gianni, meanwhile, is talking lots – but isn’t being understood. And, bogged down by British politeness and Japanese cultural reservation, nobody on the call is going to say so.

It’s a mess, right? And research shows, too, that just having global exposure is not enough to increase your global skills.

So, here is a radical solution: see a global conference call as an opportunity. An opportunity to build your global leadership skills.

Next time you have a call, choose just one specific skill from one of the two main aspects and plan an action step around it that you will carry out.

Here are some suggestions:

Surface level: mechanics and language

Turn taking and interrupting – for example, if you are leading the call then perhaps set rules for turn taking. Make a rule for yourself not to interrupt.

Clarifying and confirming – make a point of asking if you have heard correctly; urge people to repeat complicated ideas and phrases.

Understood? – did you understand everything that was said?  If not, do something about it. Acknowledge others so they know they have been understood and don’t repeat themselves.

Deeper level: culture

Use of humour – find out how to use humour to bring people together. But be careful. British irony, word play and poking fun can be endearing – but can also be hard to understand and may even cause offence.

Building relationships – use the call to find out more about your colleagues and build relationships. Reveal something about yourself, perhaps. Ask people to introduce themselves.

Building credibility across cultures – share joint achievements, discuss how the previous call led to even small successes and improvements.

Increasing your own cultural awareness – learn how different cultures work and take it into the next call.

To deliver these improvements successfully I would offer these final tips:

  • Keep action steps small and specific.
  • Tell someone on the call ahead of time what you plan to do.
  • Debrief with someone or write down a few key thoughts afterwards.
  • Celebrate your successes – even if you just make it happen once on the call.
  • Succeeding is all about building momentum so make sure you plan your next step!




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