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The “Secret Sauce” of Great Global Companies

September 30, 2013

Global DiversityMost companies will leverage home country operations to increase their footprint.  The better ones recognize the need to scale leadership, acknowledging the human limitations to directly touch all parts of the expanding firm.  But what separates the best from the rest is an ability to create a shared global culture that reflects both the unifying corporate DNA and the diversity of its markets and consumers.

What does this look like?

Think of the company’s various offices around the globe as the different rooms in a house.  And while a kitchen, bedroom, garage, and den are each furnished to meet specific needs, they all share a common foundation and are linked in how they reflect the owner’s personal tastes.  So it is with great global companies:  enter its most far-flung offices and one will know immediately what the firm is about, what it stands for, and how it works.  In other words, one can travel from “room” to “room” and always feel the house is a “home.”

Google Office in China

These companies also know this sense of “home” cannot be dictated by the home office.  It would be akin to requiring a dishwasher in every room or replicating the exact dimensions of the bedroom for the garage.  Using expats to “colonize” its far-flung operations may result in short-term compliance but it will come at the expense of the commitment and engagement needed for the long haul.

Ultimately, these firms have found a way to retain their authenticity and essence even as they “tweak the recipe” so that it is embraced with equal passion and relevance in every office, time zone, language, and culture.  Great global companies endure because they have discovered how to transcend the ebb and flow of market dynamics and to sustain innovation and leadership from one generation to the next.  They have cracked the code for their recipe for success:  it is their “secret sauce.”   While it is unique to each, all share some  common ingredients.

Small is All

Corp DNA picSuccessful global firms understand that the fate of their company culture (purpose, values, reputation) lies in the hands of each individual employee.  Their performance, engagement and trust is the primordial soup from which the culture will emerge and evolve.  And it is the relationships these individuals have with their immediate supervisors, peers and direct reports which will form the molecular “building blocks” upon which this culture — good or bad — will grow.

These building blocks are the battleground:  for the desired culture to prevail, front-line supervisors must be able to provide strategic context to the tasks they assign and they must behave in ways consistent with stated values.  This ripples up to the very top of the organization, as each supervisor will take his or her cues from those at the higher levels.  Knowing that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, senior management cannot give short shrift to those on the front line, especially those engaging directly with the customer.

Play Nice in the Sandbox

Unlocking the potential of the building block requires constant coordination and collaboration.  And supervisors know that this can only happen if they first get each member to commit to the success of the entire team.

Sandbox

They need to create a sense of pride and ownership, where each is prepared to place the team’s goals above their own.  In short, they must be prepared to always play “nice” in their sandbox.  And it is easier to build this trust and commitment when the team is small, co-located, and has a singular focus.  They all sit together, the “toys” are familiar, and they benefit from a sense of immediacy and transparency that makes it more likely they will “share.”

Global companies face additional challenge when teams are geographically dispersed and culturally diverse.  This is a very different “sandbox,” more virtual than physical, where “sharing” requires more effort to achieve understanding and consensus.  Great global companies are thoughtful and creative in finding ways to “bind” these virtual relationships so that they can enjoy similar levels of trust and affiliation.

department_silosHowever, these individual bonds can become too narrowly focused on their immediate sphere or, as is often the case, a specific individual.  And senior leadership cannot condone managers who disparage other parts of the firm as a means to increase loyalty and commitment to their own.   While this “us vs them” may be an expedient rallying cry in the short term, the longer-term polarizing effect can be devastating.  Left unchecked, a firm can quickly find itself sinking under the weight of massive, intractable silos, where global success is repeatedly undone by turf wars, finger-pointing, and a whole host of dysfunctional behaviors.

Global firms, especially those which utilize a matrix structure, are especially vulnerable to silos.   Limited resources and the need to prioritize inevitably leads to trade-off, compromise, and sacrifice.  Green-lighting one division’s project may mean deferring or cancelling those for others.  Deploying enterprise software may require unwinding investments and process that had been functioning successfully,  albeit on a smaller scale, in other parts of the organization.

So how do companies mitigate the inevitable disappointment arising from these tough decisions and move swiftly to implement change that is powered by broad alignment and support for the new initiative?

Go Long to Be Strong

The specific answer will depend on a variety of things:  industry, market, business model, and so forth.  But what is common to all is that each of these great global companies has found a way to infuse their building blocks with a unifying sense of purpose.  They remain sufficiently focused in the present, the task at hand, the month-end close, and the full-year result, but what gets them through the uncertain times, the tough conversations, and the difficult choices is a shared belief in the company’s mission and values.  Good companies may generate spurts of enthusiasm for a particular product or charismatic leader but it is the deep, abiding, underlying passion found in great companies that yields sustained high performance over the long haul.

Bricklayer

The parable of the two bricklayers aptly captures this sense of purpose:  a traveler encounters two bricklayers at a construction site.  Both appear to be performing their task with equal skill and diligence.  The traveler asks the first bricklayer what he is doing.  The man replies, “What does it look like I’m doing?  I am stacking bricks with a layer of cement in between to hold them together.”

st-patricks-cathedral-pictureThe traveler moves on to the second one and asks him the same question.

The man answers:  “I am helping build a place where people will come to worship God.”

He no doubt speaks with pride to family and friends that his contribution will impact people far beyond his immediate circle and that his work will form part of his legacy.  You can easily imagine him years later, a grandchild in hand, pointing to the cathedral and saying, “I helped build that.”

The connection to the broader, deeper purpose is what distinguishes the second bricklayer from the first.  It represents the difference between fulfilling a narrow requirement and engaging in a larger endeavor.  And that broader purpose is the real “cement” that binds the person with engagement and passion.

Great global companies not only project a unifying sense of home in the look and feel of its various rooms but they ensure that its occupants can clearly articulate their connection to the broader organization.  This is what fuels their individual drive to perform, their cooperative spirit to play nice in the sandbox and their sustained commitment to the long-term goals of the firm.

This is the “secret sauce” of great global companies.

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