I’ve often been fascinated by the successes—and failures—of teams. In the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, for example, a team with an ingenious product might not make it to the finals, while another with a less promising concept soars past it and evolves into a hot startup. The reason? Leadership. In particular, the ability to rally team members of different nationalities, cultures, industries, and disciplines around a common vision and keep them focused, motivated, and productive. In this issue of the newsletter, we’ve consulted with some of the most respected team leaders in the world and asked them the secrets to leading across borders. We also take a look at the career of John Leslie, SF ’32, who was instrumental in the development of commercial aviation—and he accomplished this, in part, through skillful cross-border leadership. Enjoy!
Many of the pivotal inventions of our age have been group efforts—teams of high-level experts working together to achieve a dream. But it takes an exceptionally skilled leader to build a productive team of members who are preeminent in their own fields, each used to calling the shots. We asked three of the world’s most skilled collaborators in three very different realms to weigh in on what it takes to build a “super team.”
Nader Mousavizadeh, SF ’04, has literally written the book on cross-disciplinary cooperation—the internationally lauded Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, written with Kofi Annan SF ’72. Mousavizadeh, who was Annan’s advisor during his time as Secretary-General of the United Nations, is CEO of Oxford Analytica, the global strategic advisory firm. He believes that members of a “super team” must feel they own both the process and the reward. It’s the difference between being a spoke in the wheel of a cart and one of the four wheels. A wheel can lose a spoke, but a cart can’t lose a wheel.
“It all comes down to basic ways of thinking about human beings,” Mousavizadeh says. “A cross-border leader must actively make sure that all members understand and own the group’s mission and consider themselves key to the delivery. Each member must feel respected and that his or her views, even if contrary, are heard and considered.”
Behind the scenes of Langer’s high-profile accomplishments is his extraordinary ability to pull together and motivate teams with members from disparate realms. Keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize, he says, is essential. “If all members stay focused on the fact that the result of their successful collaboration may transform society, they are less inclined to get mired in the small stuff. The importance of the outcome outweighs all other issues and inspires members of the team to overcome obstacles.”
MIT Sloan finance professor Andrew Lo agrees. Lo, the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor of Finance and director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, is one of the most sought-after voices in the country when it comes to the state of the global economy. He believes that a leader must motivate the team to sublimate individual interests and work toward the greater good.
“It’s absolutely imperative that a leader have a vision, a passion for achieving it, the intellectual substance to provide the means for achieving the vision, and give others the freedom to exercise their talents in pursuit of the goal,” Lo says. “A skilled leader of cross cultural teams will draw the best from all team members and get everyone to feel the realization of the vision is more important than individual reward. As the saying goes, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
MIT Sloan Fellows alumni are leading complex teams in every industry segment on every continent. We asked five of them about their strategies for managing across borders. Leadership, they agreed, has changed dramatically over the last generation. It’s no longer about one strong personality rallying minions to do his or her bidding. Good leadership, they say, is distributed, so that each member of a team feels—and holds—key responsibility for the outcome. An expert 21st-century leader choreographs the talents, agendas, and instincts of a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Here are their perspectives on leading across borders:
Monday Okoro, SF ’07
Country of Origin: Nigeria
With a presence in 80 countries and a workforce representing 140+ nationalities, few companies in the world work across as many borders as Schlumberger, the international oil services giant. Monday Okoro, President of Geoservices, just celebrated two decades with Schlumberger and estimates that he must have visited at least 60 countries in the course of this work. Okoro’s strategy is to align team members to a shared vision. In cross-border teams, that means understanding and respecting each individual’s agenda, cultural perspective, and personal metrics for success.
“On every continent, in every culture, people want to succeed. We all have that in common. The cross-border leader must keep in mind, however, how each team member defines success. In the United States, failure can be seen as an achievement, a bold move—that you took a brave risk when you started that failed company. In other cultures, though, failure is failure. That can make some team members more risk averse than others. As the leader of a cross border team, you must make the effort to see that each individual is able to relate to the common goal and believe the challenge is achievable.”
Alexandra Suhas, SF ’09
Country of Origin: France
“Companies setting up offices in a new country must enter into cross-border relationships with an open mind, stay humble, listen, observe, then adjust their business practices to fit the culture. I’ve seen Americans become frustrated with French colleagues who have a more relaxed view of time and French colleagues dismayed that Americans were upset when they were late to meetings. My job is to point out that we’re not talking about individual arrogance but cultural differences. The leader of a cross-cultural team must get the team to embrace differences as a fundamental company asset, particularly during the growth process. One of the keys to success is when an organization is able to merge all cultures and give rise to shared values, ethics, and standards within the company that every single team member will respect and be proud of.”
Tamaki Sano, SF ’09
Country of Origin: Japan
Tamaki Sano is a product innovator at the landmark Japanese food and beverage company Kirin, creating new drink sensations in new markets for the mega-company’s many holdings, like Lion Dairy and Drinks in Australia. Innovation manager in Australia for the last three years, Sano is now adapting the popular Australian juice brand Berri for markets across Asia. She notes that product development and marketing teams are often eager to employ time-tested strategies when introducing established products into new markets. As a team leader, she says, her job is to look for synergies between markets but to make sure team members curb assumptions and exercise due diligence in understanding a new market.
“When you enter a new market, it’s essential not to rely on the same strategies—for leadership, product development, marketing—that have been successful in other countries. Abandon all preconceived ideas until you have fully researched and understood the distinguishing characteristics of both the work culture and the marketplace. Just as the words ‘fresh’ and ‘sophisticated’ have very different connotations to Japanese, Australian, and Singaporean consumers, so do ‘teamwork’ and ‘leadership’ mean different things to workers in those countries. The bottom line for leading an innovation team across borders is to encourage members to work closely with local team members to understand the subtleties of the market and the work force. Success is in listening between the lines.”
Godfrey Waluse, SF ’12
Country of Origin: Kenya
“I learned early on when I was helping to advise governments at the World Bank that when you have an extremely complex global challenge, look for precedent at how a leader, organization, or government met a similar challenge somewhere in the world—how the Japanese postal system accomplished sweeping reforms, for example, or how the South Korean government transitioned into a free market economy. The whole solution won’t be transferrable, but step back and look at the components of that success more broadly and analytically for key lessons that you can apply to your own challenge. If we examine them carefully, the achievements of others can inform and inspire our own.”
Costantino Sambuy, SF ’06
Country of Origin: Italy
“Cross-cultural leadership is often about diffusing tension. The Japanese, for example, are process-oriented while the Italians are results-oriented, believing that however you reach the goal is good. We encourage members of the team to share as much as possible, to talk about their individual experiences and how their approaches have worked for them in the past. The other team members can then understand where they’re coming from and see the validity of their methods, even if they don’t subscribe to them. Each member must feel a sense of responsibility for the team’s overall success and understand that mutual understanding is key to that success.”
John Leslie, SF ’32, burst many barriers and pioneered a prodigious number of innovations in his 77 years—the last 32 spent as a quadriplegic. His accomplishments were so extensive and so compelling, in fact, that his son Peter felt the best way to capture them was in print. Peter Leslie’s colorful biography, Aviation’s Quiet Pioneer: John Leslie, chronicles both the evolution of aviation and of John Leslie himself, a man whose accomplishments spanned decades and disciplines.
A member of the inaugural MIT Sloan Fellows Class of 1932—one of six—John Leslie began his career focused on art and archaeology. As an undergraduate at Princeton, he compiled a two-volume architectural history of the ancient world. Perhaps feeling that he had covered the past, he then aimed his career into the future, entering MIT in 1926 to pursue a degree in the emerging field of aeronautical engineering. With its mens et manus philosophy, MIT suited Leslie, who was more interested in hands-on application than theory.
Leslie went on to forge a career as a legendary aeronautical engineer at Pan Am from 1929 to 1970. He developed the engineering technique for long-range flight that made possible the first commercial air service across the Pacific. He was a peer and a colleague of the great aircraft pioneers of the 20th century, including Charles Lindbergh, Igor Sikorsky, and Glenn Martin. Until stricken with polio in 1950, he was slated to succeed founder Juan Trippe as head of Pan Am. His disability did not, however, hamper his productivity.
Aviation historian Ian Marshall described Leslie as a man “who could make men and machines work together.” Many of Leslie’s memos to Pan Am employees reflect a deep concern for the human side of enterprise, and he often encouraged his employees to view all functions of aircraft assembly as equal—and equally reliant upon one another. Kathleen Claire, Juan Trippe’s long-time secretary, called him “a brilliant administrator.” Leslie credited his transformative year as an MIT Sloan Fellow as the secret behind his success as a leader. He often referred to that year as the seminal educational experience of his life.
John Leslie’s interests in aircraft, architecture, and history were components of a broader interest in building a better world. Among his father’s papers, Peter Leslie found one of the pens Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Medicare bill into law. This artifact led Peter to unravel yet another of his father’s accomplishments—that he had been instrumental in the design and launch of that landmark bill in 1965.
Alfred P. Sloan, MIT Class of 1895 and chairman of General Motors, helped found MIT Sloan and the MIT Sloan Fellows Program and took a personal interest in the fellows. Sloan mentored John Leslie and the two engaged in a dedicated and dynamic correspondence. This letter shows how invested Sloan was in mentoring young leaders like Leslie.
Read more about John Leslie’s extraordinary life in Aviation’s Quiet Pioneer by Peter Leslie, available at Amazon.com.
We’re already at work on the next MIT Sloan Fellows Program Newsletter. Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have ideas about themes and news items for future issues.
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