Dr. Shantha Mohan
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is among the most misquoted phrases. Peter Drucker never said that. Yet, you find many management consultants using this quote when they want to talk about the importance of workplace culture.
The results are spectacular when everyone in the organization buys into its culture.
Among several definitions of culture in Merriam-Webster, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization” applies to organizational culture.
Netflix, the highly-successful global video-on-demand company, has a culture that places great importance on freedom and responsibility. Its culture appreciates transparency and encourages employees to take ownership of their work.
The Netflix Culture website states:
“What makes Netflix special is how much we:
- Encourage decision-making by employees
- Share information openly, broadly and deliberately
- Communicate candidly and directly
- Keep only our highly effective people
- Avoid rules
The thing we most value is working with talented people in highly creative and productive ways. That’s why our core philosophy is people over process, and why we try to bring great people together as a dream team.”
Among several definitions of culture in Merriam-Webster, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization” applies to organizational culture..
Patagonia is another stellar company known for its culture that promotes environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Its hiring policies reflect the culture. Their website on culture says, “If you care about having a company where employees treat work as play and regard themselves as ultimate customers for the products they produce, then you have to be careful whom you hire, treat them right, and train them to treat other people right,” excerpted from the book, Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
Culture and Global Capability Centers
Global Capability Centers (GCCs) have a heightened need for a robust organizational culture because of the geographical separation between the headquarters (HQs) and the GCCs, and the differences in their national and ethnic cultures and languages.
Three cultural components are essential for the success of GCCs.
- Appreciation for the differences in national and ethnic cultures.
- Collaboration among the teams within GCC and with the HQ.
- Ownership and accountability of work that was mutually agreed upon with HQ.
I. Culture and Global Capability Centers
In the early 2000s, I visited our GCC in Shanghai, China, as a co-founder and product development head. It was a lesson in cultural diversity. It opened my eyes to the differences in cultural norms that influence the working environment. After several productive working sessions in the morning, I had lunch with the team. Post-lunch, I noticed a unique practice by the team members—an afternoon siesta where the developers would rest their heads on pillows at their desks and take a short nap. This practice, which has its basis in science, is absent from my American HQ.
Another cultural practice informed me how national culture affects work schedules. During the Chinese New Year, everything at work comes to a standstill for a week while the employees visit their hometowns to celebrate the event with their families. It highlighted the need for organizations to be aware of their GCCs’ work practices and practice flexibility and adaptability in their work schedules.
Working closely with our Chinese and Indian GCC team members heightened my appreciation for their distinct cultures. Chinese and Indian cultures are characterized by a hierarchical structure, where team members may be reticent in asking questions and voicing opinions. Many team members from Asian GCCs, who are very knowledgeable and well-informed, tend to be humble. Understanding and respecting these cultural nuances is essential for successful collaboration between headquarters and GCCs.
Anyone from HQ working with a GCC must understand the culture and labor practices of the GCC’s country. For example, in India, the time required to give notice when someone leaves a job is significantly longer than the standard two weeks in the USA. Cultural training for the personnel working with GCCs is much needed to ensure a harmonious working relationship.
Assertiveness and open expression of opinions are often celebrated in Western cultures. When Asian GCCs deal with such nationals, they should not hesitate to ask questions. Titles don’t mean as much in Western countries, and one should take the initiative to establish a mutually respectful relationship.
Depending on the headquarters they collaborate with, GCCs should prioritize cultural training for their team members, emphasizing the importance of understanding culture and etiquette while avoiding stereotypes. By providing comprehensive training, GCCs can effectively empower their employees to navigate cultural differences and foster an inclusive and harmonious work environment.
"Alone we go fast; together we go far"
- An African Proverb
The success of GCCs depends on how well they collaborate with the HQ.
A GCC depends on its HQ to achieve its goals. In this regard, GCCs are like product managers. It is rare for product managers to have authority over those they need to work with, for example, engineers, to accomplish the goal of launching new products. Yet the organization’s success depends on their ability to create and sustain products or offerings. They must collaborate with many stakeholders—engineering, finance, accounting, marketing, legal, and sales. Two behavioral attributes—vulnerability and humility— help them in their quest.
The same attributes are essential for those working in GCCs to collaborate with their counterparts at HQ.
Vulnerability is the courage to ask for help. Many of us are afraid to reach out for help, fearing that we might be considered ignorant. Asking for help starts with being curious and asking questions. GCC staff must be trained to approach challenges with a mindset of expanding their understanding. Curiosity can help them look at available resources and independently gather much information. With that knowledge, they can approach their GCC supervisors and HQ team members to validate their understanding and get everyone on the same page before proceeding to problem-solve.
Vulnerability is the courage to ask for help.
The other behavioral attribute of importance is humility, which is based on the fact that none of us know everything, and we sometimes make mistakes. Those who are humble don’t pretend they know everything and are grateful to others for their contributions. They don’t hide their mistakes but own them. They don’t put on airs about their abilities and have high self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. They are not defensive when given critical feedback. Instead, they have a growth mindset and welcome improvements in their abilities.
Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, introduced team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” It is hard for team members to practice vulnerability and humility in an environment that doesn’t have psychological safety.
Training in enhancing team members’ vulnerability and humility can make GCC succeed.
Those in HQ who interact with the GCCs, the GCC management, and GCC team members would benefit from training in psychological safety and fostering a mentality of “we are in this together.”
"Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives."
- Drive, Daniel Pink
III. Ownership and accountability
Neelima was a QA engineer newly hired into one of the GCCs. She noticed that many of the tests were still being done manually. She used an open-source tool to automate a few of them and shared with her manager how much time it would save, given that they are done for every iteration of the regression testing. The manager realized the value of this initiative and allocated time in the schedule for implementing the automation testing broadly. The productivity went up, and the release time for a new system version shrunk. Neelima was praised by her manager at the meeting between GCC and the HQ and was recognized for her initiative with a promotion at her performance review. She was awarded a trip to visit the HQ to understand the business, opening avenues for further growth.
We have an intrinsic motivation that drives us to take the initiative and feel high satisfaction when we accomplish what we set out to do. In employee surveys, job satisfaction ranks very high. When GCCs have full ownership of mutually agreed-upon goals, pass that ownership down to each of the employees, and empower them, the results are outstanding. HQs and GCCs are jointly responsible for defining the ownership and providing the freedom to execute it the best way they see fit.
GCCs must foster a take-charge mentality among their employees.
GCCs must foster a take-charge mentality among their employees. It starts with defining roles and responsibilities clearly, which is essential in any organization with multiple teams. Even more important is that the team members feel they own their responsibilities and are empowered to do the best for the organization.
Ownership and accountability go hand in hand. GCCs need to train and coach their employees in what it means to be responsible for the results. Empowerment starts with goal-setting, and accountability makes it possible to monitor and course-correct when needed. Not surprisingly, trust plays a significant role in empowering and holding employees accountable for the results.
Importance of Culture in Global Capability Centers
Global Capability Centers can bring enormous benefits to an organization. Embracing the unique national culture, fostering a highly collaborative environment, and empowering and holding GCC personnel accountable are three crucial practices that make it worthwhile and bring high returns.
Cultural appreciation, collaboration, ownership and accountability
Dr. Shantha Mohan
Software Engineering Leader, Author, Mentor
Dr. Shantha Mohan is a mentor, project guide, and an Executive in Residence at the iLab, Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global technical leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. She also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing.
Dr. Shantha is a three-time author, has authored Roots and Wings – Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering, and has co-authored Demystifying AI for The Enterprise – A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her newest book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Tips and Tools for Becoming Better at Leading, was published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis in May 2022.