International Project Management – Grab Your Stein and all will be Fine!

Revellers salute with beer after the opening of the 179th Oktoberfest in Munich

I’ll always remember my first trip to my company’s site in Ludwigshafen, Germany.  The circumstances of my involvement were that I was a local expert in the use of the data collection software application used in our facility.  The same software was being implemented at the German site so that our two laboratory facilities would share a database and thus harmonize business practices.  Prior to my departure, I was warned of the gruffness of our German colleagues, whom we had inherited through acquisition of their company.  The Germans were criticized for passive-aggressively clinging on to their old ways, ostensibly because they feared their site would be divested anyway, and they’d all lose their jobs.  It was in this environment that I needed to form some bonds with my German counterparts to help ensure the successful adoption of the new software.

Even though I had traveled throughout Europe several times after college, I was excited to return and experience a foreign culture again.  I didn’t mind that Ludwigshafen was a mostly industrial city, rebuilt after extensive World War II bombing, that didn’t have much to offer in terms of green space or other urban beauty.  I enjoyed just being there, noticing the subtle differences in architecture, automobiles, public transportation, and how people behaved when walking around.  I brought this enthusiasm to the meetings with our German colleagues.  Although they were somewhat cold and reserved during the initial meetings, things really loosened up after we were able to interact socially.  The Germans were quite eager to show us points of interest in the surrounding area.  We toured castles, churches, breweries, vineyards, and museums, and our hosts were very proud to demonstrate their knowledge of these sites.  Beer was consumed on many a late evening.  I was truly appreciative of their hospitality, and our meetings became more open, honest, and productive because of the fun we were able to share.  Elimination of these barriers helped put the software in place, which is still used by our company.

My bond with our German colleagues remains today, more than nine years after that initial trip.  Trust naturally developed also because they were never laid off as they feared.  I have been able to return the favor of hospitality whenever they visit our site.  Besides our conference calls and WebEx meetings, which are important for our continued collaboration, I find myself frequently calling my German counterpart just as I would do to speak with an American colleague.  We’re able to joke about topics like the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament (the USA women beat Germany in 2015).  Furthermore, I sense something is missing when I don’t check in with my German colleagues often enough.  From these experiences, I learned the importance of building and maintaining relationships with remote colleagues, to ensure success in business.

A recent blog post from the Project Management Institute (PMI) describes the challenges and successes of project managers who traveled to and lived in places far more exotic than Germany.  What experiences have you had in your career with ex-US colleagues, and what tips can you provide for improving collaboration with them?

6 thoughts on “International Project Management – Grab Your Stein and all will be Fine!

  1. Hi Charles,

    I really like the concept of your post. I never really imagined the challenge of collaborating with colleagues in different countries. I can see the importance of building that initial relationship, and then continuing to foster it. Trust is key. I haven’t had any experience with colleagues in different countries but I do often speak to many employees within different states. They have their own lingo and way about them that I find humbling and different. Perhaps because I am given a break from speaking to people within the corporate office, that happen to be more conservative and professional. The people that I onboard in the field, who manage our medical office buildings, are down to earth and I love maintaining that casual relationship with them. Just from that I can see the benefits of relationship building, no matter where you are.

    1. Thanks Jen. One small detail I should have added in the post is that simply learning a few phrases in the foreign language usually goes a long way. Most of the people I’ve met in foreign countries are appreciative of even the most clumsy (but sincere and respectful) attempt to speak in their language.

      1. Great post Charles! This is an area where I have lots of experience, as I have worked closely with colleagues in Germany, China, India, and Brazil. Like you highlighted, understanding and being respectful of your colleagues’ culture is crucial. I try to learn a little bit of the language (my Chinese is rudimentary at best) and spending time in a social setting is always beneficial. I also find it important to reinforce with my teammates that we are all more-or-less the same. We have similar interests, families, and common goals in life. Overall I truly enjoy working in an international setting. Definitely keeps things interesting!

  2. Charles, what a great post. Thank you for sharing it with us. So glad that you were able to establish a good relationship with your German co-workers. Also, very glad that you had the opportunity to interact with them outside of work and develop what turned out to be a long term relationship. I work for a global company with offices in over 39 countries, but it is the folks in South America that I became close friends with. I’ve never meet any of my co-workers from Latin America, but we became close friends through IM, e-mail and phone conversations. It all started with asking how they were doing before asking for work related reports. To Daniel’s point, we all have common goals in life and we all want to do a great job at work. Working with people from other cultures is a great experience. I absolutely love to learn about new cultures, learn new languages, and experience anything that’s unknown and new.

  3. What a nice post, Charles! Your story of traveling to Germany put the reader in your shoes, and your comments about your trips felt genuine. To answer your question, I interact with remote colleagues on a daily basis but they are in the US. Our remote colleagues are required to use Skype or BlueJeans for our team calls. In addition, we talk through IM for quick questions or to catch up. It’s hard for our remote employees to feel integrated into our company because they work remotely. So, our managers use Skype for 1:1’s and other team activities. Plus, our managers encourage us to reach out as frequently as possible to talk with our teammates.

  4. Yes Charles this is a great concept to be able to build relationships and work with people all over the world. With modern technology like WebEx, teleconferences, Skype, and Lynch we can connect and share screens easily to be able to walk through files an collaborate. You no longer have to be in the same room, city or time zone. We have great capabilities to make it relatively easy to work together effectively. I myself have worked with colleagues world wide and often appreciate the different set of lenses other people in other cultures can bring. This really helps so you do not overlook anything.

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