Fast Take: Long-Distance Leadership

What challenges do American leaders face while managing multicultural teams? Leaders bridging two continents share what they’ve learned about working across time zones and navigating different corporate — and country — culture.


Always Be On Call
“I’m time zone agnostic,” says Richard Garnick, CEO of the Americas for Wipro Technologies. Garnick takes calls at 11 p.m. while traveling in India, gets on the phone at 3 a.m. at his home outside Boston, and wakes up at 5 a.m. because business is starting in another region. “I work 24 hours a day,” Garnick says. “There’s always somebody engaged with you.”


Stephen Pratt, CEO of Infosys Consulting, blocks out the beginning and the end of the day for intensive communication with India, which is 12 and a half hours ahead of his local time. Pratt also gets up 5:30 a.m. to check email and see what happened overnight. Driving to work, he answers calls from India on his cell phone. And Pratt finds his Blackberry a must. “It’s key to have mobile email, so you can check email at odd hours without having to log on to your PC,” he says.

Edward Altman, director of TCS America’s media and entertainment practice, asks his employees to keep their cell phones on around the clock — and makes sure that meeting and project schedules work for everybody. He schedules conference calls at 7:30 p.m. for the West Coast, which is 10:30 p.m. on East Coast and 9 a.m. in India — times acceptable to all.

Don’t Get Lost in Translation
English is India’s official language, as well as the working language at most Indian firms, but many American leaders still find their Indian colleagues’ accented English hard to understand. “I try to be as respectful and attentive as I can,” Altman says.

It’s even more confusing if his Indian coworkers speak any of the dozen-or-so local languages and about 100 dialects. Altman was in a conference call when he realized that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t understand a word his Indian colleagues were saying. It turned out that they were speaking Hindi. “Stop, guys!” Altman cut in.

Pratt from Infosys has learned to rely more on written words. He frequently digs into his piles of email messages with Indian colleagues if he gets confused. “It’s common for us to communicate through email, so a lot is written down,” Pratt says.

Go Local, Foreign
Altman at TCS hooked himself up with a mentor, Devashis Senapati, a regional manager based in Los Angeles who guides him through the thicket of corporate culture. Altman even takes Senapati along to some meetings to give himself comfort and confidence. “You should be sensitive to culture and relationships that have been built for many years in the company,” Altman says.


Francisco D’Souza, COO of Cognizant, makes it a rule that new hires must have lived outside their own cultures. His newest 10 employees, for example, are fresh graduates from a dozen U.S. universities, who represent five nationalities. They’ll spend a year in India before spreading across the world. The move has another purpose. “Our team in India gets exposure to different cultures,” D’Souza says.

D’Souza also turns the table and makes Cognizant a client of multinational companies. The company buys American Express’s travel service and banks with Citibank to experience how those companies provide service and better learn what it means to be global.

Be Specific
“It’s a matter of being very, very clear,” says Dr. Mark Temple-Raston, senior architect of MphasiS. “People in India tell you what you want to hear. They accommodate you. You need to scratch the surface and be persistent.”

Pratt at Infosys defines projects to the task level and makes sure each step has a dedicated owner. “At traditional firms, there’s a lot of ‘I thought you were doing that?’ stuff,” Pratt says. “It’s very important for people working remotely to understand what’s expected of them.” Because in the new world of global work, whatever people fail to finish on one side of the world will hold people up on the other side for at least 24 hours.