How to Lead Across Cultures, Languages, and Geographies (2023)

May 17, 2023

In this era of global business and hybrid work, managers must find ways to unify teams that are geographically and culturally separated.

Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley explains how one real-life manager, who she profiled in a business case, approached the challenge of leading a hugely diverse, underperforming group back to success.

“When you have this level of diversity, this many nationalities represented in a group, you have to have policies to make people effective,” Neeley tells Cold Call host Brian Kenny.

Key topics include: leadership, managing people, cross-cultural management, cultural awareness hybrid work, global teams, managing others, globalization, and motivation.

HBR On Leadership curates the best case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, to help you unlock the best in those around you. New episodes every week.

  • Listen to the original Cold Call episode: How to Fix a Broken Global Team (October 2016)
  • Find more episodes of Cold Call.
  • Discover 100 years of Harvard Business Review articles, case studies, podcasts, and more at

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. In this era of global business and hybrid work, managers are struggling like never before to unify teams that are geographically separated and culturally diverse. In this episode, Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley breaks down how one real-life manager, who she profiled in a business case, approached the challenge of leading a hugely diverse, underperforming group back to success. This episode originally aired on Cold Call in October 2016. Here it is.

BRIAN KENNY: According to the International Monetary Fund, the 10 fastest growing economies are in emerging markets. And McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that 400 mid-size emerging market cities will generate nearly 40% of global growth over the next 15 years. Business across borders is here to stay, yet many firms who operate globally are grappling with what McKinsey calls the globalization penalty. These firms score below average on organizational health, and they have trouble establishing a shared vision, encouraging innovation, and executing on the ground in local markets. Today we’ll hear from Professor Tsedal Neeley about her case entitled, Building a Global Team, Tariq Khan at Tech. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call.

Speaker 2: So, we are all sitting there in the classroom.

Speaker 3: Professor walks in and,

Speaker 4: And they look up and you know it’s coming. Oh, the dreaded cold call.

BRIAN KENNY: Professor Neeley teaches MBA students and executives at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on the challenges that global collaborators face when attempting to coordinate work across national and linguistic boundaries. Those are perfect topics for today’s case. Tsedal, thanks for joining me.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Thanks for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: So, let me ask you to start us off by telling us who’s the protagonist and what’s on his mind in this case.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Terrific. So, Tariq Khan is the protagonist in this case, and he’s a 33-year-old, high potential rising very fast in a company. And he’s kind of at a pivotal point where he can continue to rise in the organization by taking on very global assignment, or he can stay where he is and continue to plug along. So, he has an opportunity to take a position to lead a global team with members that are spread across 27 nationalities.


TSEDAL NEELEY: A team that’s declining in performance, declining in team satisfaction, declining in market share dominance, the team is in trouble, and,

BRIAN KENNY: It sounds like a mess. I would run in the other direction I think.

TSEDAL NEELEY: It is a total mess. And so, he has to decide, do I take this position that’s been offered to me and turn this team around in two years, by the way?


TSEDAL NEELEY: That’s all he has. Or do I stay where I am and look for other opportunities?


TSEDAL NEELEY: That’s the first thing he’s trying to figure out.

BRIAN KENNY: So, is he real? Is this based on a real person that you’ve fictionalized or what’s the deal?

TSEDAL NEELEY: He’s a very real person.

BRIAN KENNY: Oh, okay.

TSEDAL NEELEY: His name is disguised because the case has a lot of tensions, including very difficult team members,


TSEDAL NEELEY: But he’s very real and emblematic of what I find in global organizations where you have people who need to get the global experience at a certain stage of their career development in order to move into the executive ranks. So, this real person is trying to make a real decision that many people face in globalizing organizations.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. I think a lot of listeners will probably have faced this, and if not, they will based on that McKinsey teaser that I read in the beginning. What prompted you to write the case?

TSEDAL NEELEY: The case to me, because it was emblematic of a common problem that I encounter in my work, in my research, in my consulting work, in that you reach a stage as an employee in an organization and have to now globalize. And so because I encountered a person who was living it at the time, I thought it would be a perfect occasion to write about him. On top of that, there’s so many tensions in this case. You have a very large team, you have 18 languages represented, and the age ranges of the team members spans from 21 to about 60. So Tariq Khan has to manage a team with extraordinary diversity and oh, by the way, geographically dispersed.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. So what are the conditions that are placed on him if he takes this promotion?

TSEDAL NEELEY: If he takes this promotions, he has to turn this team around and show progress. This team was operating well, and in the last two years, the factors that I mentioned earlier were declining precipitously. And he had to not only stop the decline, but turn the team around. The other interesting wrinkle in the story is that there was another high potential gentleman who had attempted to turn this team around, and not only did he fail, but he ultimately left the organization because his rise as a high potential was curtailed because of the challenges posed in the team. So the person right before him had very similar characteristics. Couldn’t do it.


TSEDAL NEELEY: Can Tariq do it though?

BRIAN KENNY: And that person actually told Tariq not to take the job.



TSEDAL NEELEY: He said, don’t do it. When we teach this in the classroom, some people say you have to listen to him and others say he’s a disgruntled employee. We always have a rich debate around, do you even listen to the departing failed global manager about whether you should take this job or not.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And I’m sure a lot of people have enough confidence to say, you know what? That person didn’t succeed, but I think I can.


BRIAN KENNY: So, Tariq doesn’t take that at face value, though. He does his own research. How does he start to approach this?

TSEDAL NEELEY: So, what he does, because this is a job being offered within the walls of a company that he’s an employee of, he has the opportunity to talk to people. So he spends many, many hours talking to the senior members of the team to try to identify the root cause of their decline, so that if he understood what the problem was with the team, if he diagnosed it well enough, he could then make a decision on whether or not to move forward. For example, one of the things that he has to determine is whether or not the decline in the team’s performance in the market is about a shifting market or a dysfunctional team.

BRIAN KENNY: Now, when you talk about the challenges that you mentioned before, the 18 different languages, the age range, you’ve done a lot of research on Englishnization.


BRIAN KENNY: Can you talk a little bit about that challenge? Because I’m sure a lot of companies are dealing with this.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Right. The Englishnization that you’re mentioning is really about what do you do when you have such profound language diversity in a team or work environment, a unit as they did in this case. And the language diversity oftentimes is mitigated by introducing a common lingua franca or language, typically English in today’s business world. But the problems arise when you have language fluency, asymmetry. Not everyone is going to have adequate fluency in the English language. So you have language fluency differential right from the start, and you end up with groups and cliques that form based on linguistic abilities. So you have all sorts of subgroup polarization that you have to overcome.

BRIAN KENNY: So, Tariq actually witnesses this happening because he goes to a meeting. Can you describe what he sees?

TSEDAL NEELEY: So, he goes to a meeting and he sees the various team members that he would manage, should he take this position, spending their time with other members of the team who shared their native language. So, if they were Arab speakers, they would be together. If they were German speakers, they would be together. If they were French speakers, they would be together. And the problem with that is you don’t have any kind of cross-cutting or interaction across members of the team. And what we know from research as well as Tariq’s experience that we witness in the case, is that when you have people who polarize in those ways, you get into these us versus them dynamics very, very quickly. So, he witnesses this firsthand, and at this time, his team and this organization didn’t have any policies around language. When you have this level of diversity, this level of widespread nationalities represented in a group, you have to have policies to make people effective. And in this case, there wasn’t any.

BRIAN KENNY: And then you add to that, the challenge of the sort of cultural differences that emerge in this case as well. I thought the anecdote about Lars.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Lars, yes. So Lars gets people going when you teach this case. I mean, you can actually do an entire session about Lars. So Lars being the highest financial performance and senior member of the team is also slightly racist, makes derogatory comments, and shows a great deal of intolerance in a profoundly diverse team. And so Lars made the environment toxic for people. And a big debate in the class is, is whether or not Lars is coachable or you need to get rid of Lars, given the global nature of the work, given the diversity in the team. And there’s another question too about Lars, did the team culture create Lars? In other words, it’s not the person, it’s the situation.


TSEDAL NEELEY: Big debate points.

BRIAN KENNY: And if you’re Tariq in this case, you go in with that question in your mind about, Lars is toxic, but Lars is a high performer and I need to turn this thing around, and how do I do that if I get rid of Lars?

TSEDAL NEELEY: What do I do? What do I do? And so when we get into the action planning of this case, we have to figure out, what do you do with Lars? Do you keep him to make sure that you meet some financial results, or do you get rid of him? Is he bad for the team or is he good for the team?


TSEDAL NEELEY: Big question.

BRIAN KENNY: You’ve taught the case,


BRIAN KENNY: And obviously you’ve talked about that a little bit. Have you taught it in an MBA and an exec ed,


BRIAN KENNY: Setting? Because I’m curious how different the reactions might be,


BRIAN KENNY: Between those two groups.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Yes, yes. Yes. Interestingly enough, the commonality in the way in which they react, it’s probably as noteworthy as the differences that you see. The tension points that you see, should he take this job or not, are probably much more intense in the MBA classroom because they can identify, wow, this is me eight, 10 years from now. And there’s a lot of arguing around whether or not he should take the job. In the executive classroom on the other hand, people are a bit more experienced, so it’s less about should he take the job? It’s more about what’s going on here?


TSEDAL NEELEY: How do we diagnose this problem in the case? That’s less intense. And the Lars conversation drives everyone crazy, MBA as well as the executives, because it’s a real concern. What do you do with your high performer who’s demonstrating serious cross-cultural insensitivity in a team that’s widely and geographically dispersed?


TSEDAL NEELEY: I would also say that MBA students are much more intimidated by the prospects of a job like this than non-MBAs. MBA students may even get into arguments like is there such a thing as a team being too diverse? This team is too diverse.

BRIAN KENNY: Interesting.

TSEDAL NEELEY: Tariq should run, whereas executives have a different way of categorizing the diversity or even thinking about structural issues, design issues, et cetera.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And there’s no avoiding this really for people who are listening, who are getting into business careers. But let me ask you, do you think this is going to be a growing phenomenon that business leaders face?

TSEDAL NEELEY: Absolutely. I can even tell you over the last decade, the extent to which I’m observing firsthand the demands that people have around being able to lead globally distributed teams. It could be anywhere from in your opening, you talked about the growth of emerging markets and otherwise, but it could also be that organizations make acquisitions that are in foreign countries, and now they have to integrate and lead. It could be organizations are developing partnerships and alliances that are globally distributed. It’s truly a global context, and the price of admission or the entry opportunity for many companies is not that difficult. So they enter, they expand, and then problems come because now you have to lead a distributed workforce. You may not see people regularly, face-to-face contact, it may not always be there, and boy do you have differences in local and global practices that you have to overcome. It’s really the wave of the future, and people have to develop real skills in this area if they think they want to get into leadership positions in the company.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Thank you so much for joining me today.

TSEDAL NEELEY: It’s such a pleasure. Thank you so much, Brian.

BRIAN KENNY: You can find this case along with thousands of others in the Harvard Business School case collection at I’m Brian Kenny. Thanks for listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley – in conversation with Brian Kenny on Cold Call. If you liked this episode and want to hear more of Harvard Business School’s legendary case studies in podcast form – check out Cold Call wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. If you’re looking for another weekly dose of hand-curated business and management expertise, check out HBR On Strategy to help you unlock new ways of doing business. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, be sure to subscribe to HBR at This episode was created and produced by Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me, Hannah Bates. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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