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Alibaba's Chief Growth Officer On 3 Critical Challenges For International Companies

Identify core values, document communication rigorously, and enable personal connections.

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Growing a company is always difficult, but when that growth crosses borders, scores of new challenges arise. As globalization accelerates, companies to able to navigate the challenges of international business will have real opportunities to get ahead.

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Alibaba is a prime example. Named the most valuable brand outside the U.S. last year, the multinational e-commerce, retail, internet, and technology giant was founded in China in 1999, and has since expanded into a global company with a market cap of around $560 billion. 

But along the way, Alibaba has had growing pains just like any other company. To learn how its team worked through those challenges, I spoke with John Caplan, the company’s Chief Growth Officer. We discussed how entrepreneurs can tackle three of multinational companies' most common hurdles.

Adopt a rigorous system for documenting internal communication — especially when there are language barriers

The rise of collaboration software has made it much easier for us to communicate with team memberseven if they’re working from different offices. But for multinational companies, language barriers still pose significant challenges. A 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit Report showed that nearly half of the 572 senior executives interviewed admitted that "messages lost in translation have halted major international business deals for their companies.” 

When language barriers exist, communicating through multiple mediums can be like playing a game of telephone. As a message gets passed along, it can change slightly based on each individual's translations and perceptions. This was something Alibaba realized as they began to do business beyond the Chinese market, so now, Caplan says, "We're pretty disciplined and rigorous about both documenting what someone said and being very precise about what we heard and learned because ambiguity can lead to inadvertent error, and we work really hard to avoid that.” 

Whether it’s having a translator on your calls to take notes and file them properly or making sure to pair your bilingual employees with those who are working from regions outside of headquarters, it is crucial to adopt a particularly stringent company-wide process of documentation.

Related: Impact Of Ethnic Diversity And Multiculturalism In Corporate Culture

Geographical differences can impact your hiring process — but identify core traits employees should have

Fostering effective communication isn’t just about employees speaking the same language or even working out of the same office space. It starts earlier than that — in the hiring process.

Finding employees that fit your company culture (and add to it) is crucial in ensuring that employees can work together seamlessly. Of course, this is a particularly challenging task for multinational companies. Every locality has its own systems and values, and you can't always perfectly sync cultural norms across international borders. 

In Caplan’s experience at Alibaba, he's found it vital to be willing to get outside your comfort zone. “It is true that there are cultural differences in terms of cultural norms, rituals, habits that take some getting used to," he says. "I have dressed up in a spacesuit and gone on stage at an Alibaba conference in front of thousands of people and danced around. You know, in my career, I've never had to do that before.” 

The point is, people may interact and conduct themselves differently across borders, but being open to nuances in communications and expectations will make it significantly easier to integrate your company across borders.

And in the end, what's most important is that every hire embraces and emobodies the core values of your company. “There's a set of values that operate at Alibaba that, regardless of whether you speak Mandarin as your first language or English as a first language, actually transcend geography,” Caplan says. 

Related: 3 Tips for Managing a Cross-Cultural Workforce

To build corporate culture, emphasize deep personal communication  

According to a 2105 survey of over 1400 CEOs and CFOs on corporate culture, 92% of respondents believed that improving their company’s corporate culture would improve the value of the company. But that can be tough for multinational companies whose employees have never met. 

Caplan agrees, “There is some real value in sitting next to your colleagues and being in the lunchroom together.” But obviously, you can’t share every meal with your colleagues across the globe, so establishing a corporate culture of personal communication is even more crucial for multinational companies.

Instead of just sending messages over Slack, take the time once in a while to get on a call — even if it’s not absolutely necessary. Give your employees time to engage in more casual chat at the beginning of business call. This might seem like a time sink at first, but it really is a good way to have your team build more personal relationships.

And though you clearly can't fly your employees overseas every day, it can be immensely helpful to do it periodically so that every team member can truly put a name to a face. 

Related: The Unique Cultures of 10 Hugely Successful Companies

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