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Going Global? 3 Strategies to Ensure Nothing's 'Lost in Translation'

In one case, women employees from the Middle East were avoiding eye contact -- a case of cultural nuances that could have ended disastrously.

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Going global is only for established companies, right? Not exactly.

Eric Audras | Getty Images

A 2016 study published in the journal Group and Organization Management found that startups that expand overseas early in their development don't face any greater challenges than do those focused solely on growing in the United States. With today's general acceptance of our global economy -- as well as today's technological advancements -- companies can go global regardless of size.

Related: Should You Go Global, or Consolidate Locally?

There's just one stipulation: communication. Any startup venturing into foreign markets needs a solid grasp on the communication styles of those countries. While countries such as the United States and the U.K. lean heavily on technology, others still prefer face-to-face interactions. Whereas a legal contract may be the accepted route in one country, someone's word may go further in another.

No matter what the country, the inability to perceive, manage and understand cultural richness and diversity is a surefire way to end good performance with a great team.

Bridging cultural business divides

Recently, I had an interaction with a manager based in the United States who was struggling in his dealings with a team of women from the Middle East. The women, he said, were avoiding all eye contact, which their U.S. managers perceived to be shifty behavior.

In fact, the women's action was a simple case of cultural nuances that could have ended disastrously.

In another example, Helen Brown, global head of talent at MediaCom Worldwide, described a pitch between two of the company's teams, one based in the United States and the other in Southeast Asia. When some members of the U.S. team went home at 5 p.m. and didn't stay over the weekend, the Asia team members became aggravated.

Their boss finally spoke to certain people about the frustration and learned why they were counting down hours: child-care responsibilities.

This is where good communication -- and basic know-how -- can directly affect how your team interacts with others. When issues arise, make sure your team lives by the four C's: Is this a culture issue, a collaboration issue, a capacity issue or a capability issue? The answer could help curb communication disasters as you open more doors of opportunity.

Related: 5 Ways to Overcome Cultural Barriers at Work

Also, consider these three actionable strategies to make sure you set the right tone before expanding into regional and global markets:

1. Prioritize clear communication.

Make sure all members of your team have a clear mission. When they don't, misunderstandings may crop up and conflicts arise among your employees. A foreign market will only complicate matters further. So, get ahead of those conflicts by setting clear expectations. First and foremost, keep team members on the same page. Make sure members understand their roles and responsibilities.

When conflicts do arise, address them as soon as possible. This requires a degree of transparency from you as the business leader. When your team members believe they can communicate openly about any issues they're facing, problems can be addressed -- rather than left to brew, making your working environment (and your business deals) hopelessly toxic.

2. Cultivate buy-in, and stress accountability.

Before starting a new partnership in the global market, create a team charter to make sure everyone buys in to the direction of the project and knows what they are responsible for achieving individually. According to Curtis D. Curry, COO of Quality Learning International, buy-in can improve the overall performance of your team. In my experience, it helps ensure that everyone is working in the same direction, that there's no overlap and that no one is sending mixed messages.

Also, because a team charter is created by the team rather than communicated down, it helps create autonomy. It allows employees to set clear guard rails around how to handle specific situations, and specifies how everyone is going to stay in touch and how all will communicate within the market that's involved. The charter will be just another layer of reassurance that everyone knows his or her role and everyone is working toward the same goal.

3. Hire (and educate) values-compatible people.

Working in a global market is about more than hiring for diversity. In fact, the success of any company -- global or not -- rides on your ability to hire top talent on the basis of values. This doesn't necessarily center on increasing diversity of age, race or ethnicity. Being a diverse company is one thing, but possessing the values needed to work compatibly is another.

Related: 3 Tips for Managing a Cross-Cultural Workforce

You may need to educate your team members on cultural differences and help them understand how to bridge any communication gaps. Simply having various teams of different cultural backgrounds won't do you any good if those teams don't know how to communicate with one other.

All in all, internationalization is completely feasible for small startups to undertake, but it should be done with care and respect for other cultures. An open and understanding tone will go a long way toward creating an atmosphere that's mutually beneficial to everyone.

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