Five Things to Remember When You are “the American” on a Global Research Team

Five Things to Remember When You are “the American” on a Global Research Team

When I was a young man, I spent six years doing global research projects.  Some of that time, I was working in the public sector.  However, I spent the majority of that time as a global researcher in the CPG industry.  At the time, it seemed very glamorous to always be a member of one global research team or another.  I got to travel.  I got to see the world.  And lastly, I made (and still have) many friends in foreign countries.  However, anyone who tells you that work on a global research team is glamorous is kidding themselves.  It’s tough work.  The travel alone is exhausting.  However, it can be self-inflictedly difficult if you are “the American” on the team.

As “the American” on many different global research teams at many different employers, I’ve found that extra-effort is required to best collaborate with my overseas business partners.  If you work for a multi-national CPG company or even if you work with researchers across different countries, here are five guardrails to remember as “the American” on your global research team:

As “the American” on a Global Research Team, You are Not the De Facto Leader:

This was a big surprise for me.  It actually took a couple of international research projects  for me to realize it too.  There were several reasons why.  First, as American business people, we are constantly pushed to both act and think of ourselves as leaders.  Second, whether I was working in the public or private sector, the “headquarters” was always located in America.  Finally, because of the wealth of data available in the US I (sometimes rightly) felt that I had the biggest responsibility and the most to contribute to my global research team.

The reality was, I was just annoying most of the time.  The de facto leader of the global research team is whoever is officially assigned to lead.  As I learned over time, my international counterparts were extremely talented.  Most had attended the best, most prestigious schools in their countries (and mine).  The CPG world is full of excellent pound-for-pound talent.  There is a lot in America, but we by no means have the monopoly on it.  Although I was right about my ability to contribute, it simply meant the team leader expected more from my contributions.  A wealth of data didn’t make me the leader, it made me the lead contributor.  There is a fine distinction.

Once I honed my humility and realized my global research team wasn’t waiting for me to lead, I could focus my energies on the roles they did need me to play.

As “the American” on a Global Research Team, You Need to Understand if the Project is Top-Down or Bottom-Up:

However, the role expected of me seemed to change from project-to-project.  As a result, I created my own terminology for global research projects:  top-down or bottom-up.  This distinction may not be obvious at first.  Allow me to explain:

  • A “top-down” research project is one where the global research team has been given a central directive that they must deliver.  There isn’t much room for creativity or localization.  An example of this is a successful product launch in the home market that is being scaled to other countries.  They have to take it, and its the responsibility of the global research team to deliver the insights and consultancy necessary to make that happen successfully.
  • A “bottom-up” research project is one where the countries involved are seated at a “round table.”  It’s the job of the team to identify the common strategic needs across regions and deliver solutions for them in a scaled way.  An example could be a new global advertising campaign to address trial barriers.  The global research team would identify the common issues and barriers across the product’s largest markets and design a solution that worked well for all.

As “the American” you have to be aware of which kind of project you are working on.  If the US was the lead market for a top-down project, and you have all the data and history, you are the lead contributor.  In fact, every other country on the team will depend on your data and insights as their jumping-off point.

In contrast, if you are part of a global research team working on a “bottom-up” project, your efforts to push your US data may be construed as railroading the project to be US-centric.  The size of the US market typically demands some deference, but the result of a bottom-up global project should still arrive at a global solution.

As “the American” on a Global Research Team, You May Have the Most Data, But it May Not Be the “Best” Data:

Whether you are working on a top-down global project, or a bottom-up global project, you are still working on a global project.  What is true of American consumers may not be true of Japanese consumers.  It may not be true of German consumers.  In fact, it may not even be true of Canadian consumers.  As my Canadian friends remind me, “You can’t just multiply the US by 10% and call it Canada.”

One of the worst things you can do as “the American” on a global research team is to assume that American culture is universal.  This is hard to do since you live in America.  America is kind of an “echo-chamber” of American culture.  This “echo-chamber” is (sometimes) even more convincing if you are working at a headquarters in a major US metropolis.

My best advice is, “Offer, don’t assume.”  Offer that you have data from a US perspective.  Don’t assume that it will transfer to every country.  The best thing you can do on your global research team is treat your data as “additional points on the line.”

If you adopt this “multiple points on a line” approach, it will help your global research team when it comes time to scale.  Your project budget is not infinite.  You may only be able to test in the 3-5 largest markets in the world.  You might choose instead to test in the 3-5 most representative markets around the world.  Either way, you are still short ~190 countries.  Having a spectrum of shopper attitudes to offer will make scaling to other countries easier.

Think about it if the roles were reversed.  If the US was asked to take product that had only been tested in Japan, the American team would probably balk.  However, if the product has shown promise in the UK, Mexico, and Japan, it’s easier to believe the product will succeed in the US.

As “the American” on a Global Research Team, Make Sure You Meet Your Global Counterparts Face-to-Face on Their Soil:

There are two important points about this recommendation.  First, meet your global counterparts face-to-face.  Second, do it on their soil.  Whether it is academia, government work, or consumer goods, the people you work with are still people.  If they know you personally, they are more willing to work with you.  A voice over a phone, or a name in an inbox, are still pretty abstract and impersonal.  If you can meet your counterparts face-to-face and break bread with them, you will have a much stronger working relationship.

Second, do it on their home turf.  At least try to make it to their continent for a face-to-face.  Another way of saying this is, “Go to them.  Don’t make them come to you.”  Just because you work at the company headquarters doesn’t mean all the meetings should be in the US.  Further, if you are trying to do truly global research, shouldn’t you be getting primary exposure to consumers in other countries?  At a bare minimum, shouldn’t you wake-up at “their time” to live-stream the focus groups?  That was a rhetorical question.  The answer is emphatically, “Yes.”

For your own credibility, you need to get hands-on exposure to consumers outside your home country.  That goes for everyone on the global research team.  However, as “the American” you will have a higher bar of expectation to participate in non-US research.  Embrace it.  Isn’t that why you took your global assignment in the first place?

As “the American” on Your Global Research Team, Be Ready to Work as if You Lived in Every Time Zone:

This statement is a bundle of three ideas.  First, understand when your global counterparts are working.  Second, be willing to work when they do.  Third be gracious, self-giving, and polite about both of those things.

Once I let-go of my self-imposed notion that I was the de facto leader of my global research team, I realized I didn’t have a right to make everyone adjust their schedule to US Central Time. I discovered a function in Outlook that allowed me to list multiple time zones in my calendar.  This enabled/encouraged me to stop scheduling meetings during my team members’ sleep, dinner, or family time.  As soon as that happened, I noticed they started to like me more.

Further, once I recognized that I was a contributor and not the team leader, it changed my work ethic too.  Even before I met my counterparts in-person, I started gaining credibility by joining optional regional calls at all-hours of my night.  If we expected our Chinese counter-parts to call at 4:00am and 9:00pm, I decided I should do the same.  This went a long way in building trust and respect from my global counterparts even before we met.

Lastly, when I joined global calls, the ability to acknowledge their time of day was always appreciated.  It may seem like a small thing, but even starting a call with, “Good morning/Good evening/Good afternoon,” based on their local time goes a long-way.  It’s a small things, but all relationships come down to the small things.

Conclusion:

Because American researchers have so many funding, resourcing, and geographic advantages, it’s easy for us to forget our place on a global research team.  Forgive us.  We can’t help but be Americans :-).

However, to do a global role right (for any nationality) takes humility, perspective, temperance, charisma, and empathy.  If you have just been assigned to your first global research team, or if you are struggling with your latest one, hopefully this article helps.  If nothing else, hopefully it raises some blind-spots so you can begin working toward a progressive solution.

So, international friends, how’d I do?  Any other advice for “the Americans” on your global research teams?  Did I miss anything?  Feel free to add your bottom-up thoughts in the comments below.

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