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  • Sonia Gavira

Creating and leading a pan european learning organisation

For nearly 4 years I was involved in a global customer experience initiative for Ford Motor Company, the by-product of which was no small thing - a global team of experienced and like-minded professionals inspired to enable positive change in organisations.

As Ford prepared to take on the management of the team, Chris Hunsicker, the global field mentor, asked me some questions about my experience:

CH -Building a global European team – what was one surprise?

SG - I guess that to start with it seemed daunting – how do I find coaches in Mongolia? But it just required me to start. Once I started to talk to people about what I needed, it became possible, so in the end the surprise was that I was able to do it with relative ease. As the process went on it became easier as I got clearer about what exactly I wanted. I let it all evolve and learned as I went. This is how I did everything

CH - What was the most difficult part of putting this team together?

SG - Finding a way that we could use as a team so that more people could recruit and not just me. It got to a stage where it was more than I could handle on my own so I had to translate what I was using as criteria which was based I thought, on lots of intuition, into tangible things that others could understand. Once we had it, it became a much easier thing to do.

CH - How did you use virtual communication strategies to keep the team aligned?

SG - As with everything we did, this also evolved. Different people had different preferences for communicating so we did not prescribe one way. There were formal needs for communication and for these we used email and video conferencing – skype, gotowebinar being the two main tools. However there was a definite need for more informal communication which some teams had more than others. Whatsapp groups were created and some teams used them all the time, people became friends on facebook, linkedin and other social media. The lines were then blurred at times between the formal and more informal messaging. So for example, when I went on holiday or went on one of the many global trips, I made sure I posted photos to the various whatsapp groups and then did a round up in a newsletter too – information was there for people to consume as and when they wanted. Everyone was invited to participate and there was also room for those who wanted to remain more private.

The fact that all interviews were done virtually also started the ball rolling with this. The expectation from the start was that the relationship would be mainly a virtual one and that face to face time was a bonus. Some teams needed the face to face time and found ways on their own to make it happen too. This was always seen as a positive and supported where possible.

CH - You only met in person once a year, what allowed you to keep the team focused through the project?

SG - We all shared the belief that this was some of the most interesting work we had ever done and that the team that had been created was one of the best we had ever worked in and was ours. We didn’t want it to end and we all knew that we each had a responsibility to do our best and that if we did, great things would emerge.

CH - What are the most important lessons learned for you as the leader of a global and mostly virtual team?

SG - Lots of lessons and at the same time when I hear the question there is almost a resistance that I feel in owning being the leader of this group… So one of the key lessons is that the team we have created has lots of leaders. We all “lead” at different times depending on the need. In some ways, as I think about it I see myself more as representing different groups of people at different times in certain arenas – be it to the agency recruiting us all or to different groups at the client.

I have also learned that I am only as good as the people that I represent and that sometimes that means making tough decisions regarding the participation of some people on the team.

The most important thing that I have had validated through this experience, is how important Trust is. It has always been one of my most important values – it is core to who I am and how I behave. If I lost trust in someone or they lost trust in me, then that was the end of the relationship. Skills can be learned, mistakes can be corrected – trust is fundamental and once lost there is no other way but to part company.

CH - What are the most important factors for you in managing, leading and organising a global coach team?

SG - For me the ability to see each and every member of the team as someone I could learn from and who had a lot to teach others was key – there are many times when I am in awe of the experience that people have. It was also important to make sure that people in the team felt the same way about this. It was also important to believe in the power of positive intent – makes it so much easer to see mistakes for what they are and to avoid a lot of them too. Then there is communication – I have always believed that you have to try really really hard in order to over communicate – in fact, it is rare to actually achieve it. So being as open and honest with everyone as I could as quickly as I could was key. And then I suppose, being available. I always made sure that I was available for support whenever I was needed.

CH - How do you deal with the inevitable politics and regional struggles that come with a pan European team?

SG - Interesting question that seems to assume all sorts of things!! The European or global nature of the team didn’t cause any politics or regional struggles in terms of the coaching team we put together – those issues existed more at Ford. Within the team it was more a sense of curiosity about the other cultures and what could be learned from their experience. There was only one incident at one of our European summits where some tensions arose between two groups – The UK team and the German team! There were a number of reasons for it but in the end it can all be summed up by a lack of clarity. There were all sorts of messages going around from different sources and I hadn’t been quick enough to communicate the real messages with clarity and when things came to a head, instead of being very clear, precise and direct in my communication, in order to spare the feelings of certain people, I was vague. It was a big lesson learned for me and one that I have not repeated thankfully.

CH - What were the key successes with the Ford CEM initiative?

SG - For the client there were great wins with the vast majority of dealers that we worked with – not only financial ones for them but importantly huge buy in and time given to this initiative by all their people. Many of the dealers really started to run their businesses as people businesses and needless to say, their customers noticed. Ford is one of the very few automotive manufacturers that were looking at their relationship with the customer as something that is long term and integral to their business. They are investing in something that could very well be industry changing rather than using a sticky plaster approach to customer engagement.

The fact Ford are looking at ways to take CEM from a dealer initiative to something that also happens in house is a huge win too – without this it will fail as whatever the dealer does will be curtailed by behaviours that are not in line with what they are trying to do, at the manufacturer. I only hope that they do manage to do it in house in a holistic way.

CH - As a leader how did you handle cross-cultural difference and keep your team aligned and on point?

SG - To be brutally honest, I didn’t always get this bit right! So I guess I learned by making mistakes and learning from them. The mistakes I made happened when I made assumptions based on my cultural background or on others I had come to understand. This happens when you are busy or against time constraints. But this is no excuse. The best way to manage this is to think of everyone as a human being who has the same basic needs as you of connection. If you let them connect with you and show you how they do it and what makes them comfortable, you are a long way towards understanding their culture. In terms of keeping the team aligned, we all worked under the premise of “global principles applied locally”. We all knew where we were heading, the vision was clear and compelling and we all knew that in order to achieve it we would need to make sure it worked on a local level. We then recruited local coaches to ensure that they could translate those global principles and execute them locally.

CH - As a leader how did your strengths help you lead this team?

SG - I love to learn and I learn best from others so this was an amazing opportunity to surround myself with a team of highly skilled professionals who also love learning. Trust is a value that I live by, I give my trust freely and have an expectation that it will be respected and returned. This is what happened and this is what allowed people to do their best work and develop within the team.

CH - What principles are you taking from this project that apply to most global/European work?

SG - People are people are people and everyone can teach you something.

Everyone wakes up in the morning with a desire to do the right things, do them well and have some fun.

Trust begets trust. In a global context you have to trust that your team will do what they need to do to get things done and done well as you cannot be there all the time.

Saying that, be there for the team when they need you.

The principles for working well globally are no different from working locally, there are just a few different obstacles to navigate that change the landscape so that you need different vehicles, but the outcomes you want are the same.

CH - What are three principles that must be kept in mind when building global virtual teams?

SG - Communication is key – find the ways that suit you all best and be aware that it is not necessarily one system for all, so use a variety of tools.


Shared values

And can I have a fourth? Probably the most important one really – have a clear vision and purpose.

In fact thinking about it- it’s no different from building any team

CH - Why are they so important?

SG - As I have said, they are no different from what you need in any team – I believe that they are just magnified because of the physical distance between people. As a leader you have a responsibility to enable this in the team and then everyone has a responsibility to nurture it.

CH - What 3 or 4 things get global teams in trouble?

SG - Thinking that, how it happens in your world is the best and only way to do things.

Forgetting about the value of “the coffee machine conversation” – you have to provide ways for people to communicate informally too.

As a leader, trying to control rather than enable.

CH - Why do so many virtual teams struggle when they have very talented individuals but cannot perform as a team?

SG - It’s so easy to get isolated when you work virtually which is why it is key that whomever is leading the team enables communication on all levels and acts as a role model too. I remember having to leave the team in Europe for a while whilst I went to central America to rescue a situation there with a new coach. I had set up whatsapp groups for the various country teams so I sent a picture diary of our trip to central America. Then I spent a day in New York by accident (another story) so I went on walkabout and sent pictures to everyone then with funny comments. What happened subsequently was that any time someone went on holiday somewhere exotic or saw something they could take a picture of on their travels to a dealer which amused them, they would send it to the group too. We all started to communicate socially as well as about work. I also used the groups to send out questions that I needed to answer for the project but needed their support and advice on. This enabled them to start doing it also. Very talented people sharing their doubts, questions, insecurities and obviously their successes.

CH - How did you deal with isolated excellence, and help the full team to learn together?

SG - By celebrating it and letting everyone know! And I always made sure that lessons learned were presented as such so that no matter where you were in the process, you could learn from it.

CH - You basically created a learning organisation that was quick to share insights and warnings, how did you do that?

SG - By sharing successes and failures, by highlighting lessons, by ensuring that everyone felt able to share both, by trusting that everyone in the team wants to do their best and will do everything they can to do that. By being there for anyone who was having a hard time and ensuring that they had the support to move forwards. It really is an amazing team!

CH - What will you be doing next?

SG - My intention is two-fold - firstly help companies leverage the power of all their customer and people initiatives by helping them take a holistic approach to them. Too many organisations work in silos and there are very few where the commercial and human side of the business actually work together, something that is critical for success; and secondly leverage the team we have built to do so. The team we have is global, of unrivalled quality professionally speaking and a joy to work with.

If you would like to discuss any of this further with me, please email me on

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