8 Leadership Lessons From Running a Global Organization

One of the most popular Super Bowl commercials of all time ran back in 2000. Created for the technology company EDS – now a part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise – it featured grizzled cowboys on the range, talking in a casual, off-the-cuff style about what it’s like to drive a herd of felines across the open plains. With shots of tabbies fording streams and cowpokes brushing themselves with lint rollers, it relied on understated wit, deadpan performances and some special effects wizardry to playfully illustrate just how challenging the cliché of herding cats can be.

Anyone who’s ever had to lead a global team, a global project or a global department will instantly recognize the analogy. Getting widely disparate groups separated by language, culture and time zones to rally around a singular strategy or goal can be a daunting task. My four years as President of the International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers, however, provided me with insights that can help alleviate some of these challenges.

IQ – as the Quorum is known – is an invitation-only group of top film and video production companies based in 70 countries around the world. All are industry leaders in their respective regions, working in corporate films, documentaries, TV programming, web videos, feature films and commercials. As such, they represent a cross-section of the media forms that are continuing to merge and cross-pollinate.

IQ’s members promote best practices in film production and maintain the highest creative and technical standards. As producers and directors, they understand the power of film to educate, motivate, inspire and persuade, and they’ve harnessed this power not just in service to clients but for many pro bono and social cause initiatives in their home markets and globally.

Not surprisingly, its board is comprised of highly accomplished individuals – company owners and CEOs in their own right – accustomed to giving orders, not taking them. Motivating them to move in one direction, or focus on a specific task or goal, was a process much like what those Super Bowl cowboys went through.

Despite this, what I discovered while leading IQ had a profound influence on me as a creative person, a filmmaker, a manager and a business owner. Many of these lessons are applicable to anyone who’s managing, directing or leading a global project, team or department. Here are eight great leadership lessons that I took away from the experience:

1. Entrepreneurs Are Special People

Research shows that out of a random group of a thousand people, 20 of them have IQs high enough to get into Mensa, but only five have the aptitude to start a business. Plainly put, entrepreneurs are special. They have unique qualities of vision, drive, ambition, intelligence and a willingness to accept risk that most people don’t possess. As a result, they need to be treated differently, in terms of motivating them, directing them and managing their expectations.

As a bonding exercise, I started each of our semi-annual board meetings by giving all the members a book I found meaningful or inspirational. The first of these was “StrengthsFinder 2.0,” written by former Gallup research scientist Tom Rath. It contains tools and tips to help you identify your most prominent character strengths. We found that almost all of us shared the same quality typically found in entrepreneurs, which Rath labeled ‘Achievers.’ Of 18 board members, 12 of us ranked it number one – thus confirming my belief that entrepreneurs share special skills and talents.

Working with this in mind had a strong influence on how I went on to lead IQ. I needed to approach it differently; rather than merely directing a team or department, I was now managing a roster of all-stars. That meant I had to engage them with meaningful challenges they’d be passionate about and let them apply their best thinking to solving problems without micro-managing them. This ‘enlightened direction’ became my modus operandi, and I believe it’s a great starting point for dealing with those in your own groups, teams or departments who require special handling. It’s important to recognize these special qualities, and develop strategies for addressing them in your day to day interac-tions.

2. Create and Execute a Clear and Simple Vision

The Book of Proverbs tells us where there is no vision, the people perish, and that’s true of almost any organization, community or culture. At IQ, having a clear and simple vision everyone could easily understand and embrace was critical for solving the problems confronting us. So I came up with three points of focus for my term as President, dubbed the 3C’s: Community, Content and Cash.

Community allowed us to share the benefits of being in IQ with the production industry and prospective clients. Previously our list of members was only shared with existing members. This thinking held that membership was a competitive advantage, as you were part of a large multi-national group that shared information on business practices, vendors, suppliers and key crew members. But in a society where information is instantly available and transparency is valued, this felt obsolete.

So we published a full list of members on our web site and created a mobile app that allowed people to search our member ranks globally. While it sounds simple, this was a monumental task; not only did it take long hours of deliberation and soul-searching, it required us to rebuild our web site from the ground up. Having a clear and simple vision that everyone bought into kept this process on track.

Content was geared towards making IQ a resource for both our members and their clients. We launched a Vimeo channel to post work from IQ members and created an online IQ knowledge base including surveys, white papers about new technology and techniques, meeting agendas and other documents.

We also looked for ways members could collaborate that would showcase what IQ does best, which is link best-in-class companies in a worldwide network. Once our members saw that content was part of our vision they began to serve up opportunities, as happened with a project commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International. Originating with an IQ member in Prague, the film was narrated by Meryl Streep and scored by Hans Zimmer, both Oscar winners, and included contributions from 17 different IQ member companies. (You can read more about this project in one of our blogs.)

Cash was just what it implies; we developed strategies to shore up the finances of our association. But it went beyond that, affirming that one of our main goals would be to grow our own businesses while helping each other grow through the advantages of our network. It also meant giving back to the production community that supports us. As a result, we reorganized our charitable and scholarship funds to help mentor emerging filmmakers. (Which links back to our Community focus!)

3. Agenda Leads the Process

For any global team or organization to function well, tasks and topics need to be carefully managed, so careful preparation of our agendas – whether our major, semi-annual board meetings or smaller committee Google Hangouts or Skype video chats – was vital to staying on track and getting things done. This was particularly important given the makeup of our board, which was comprised of company principals whose schedules were always jammed and whose entrepreneurial tendencies had to be taken into account.

As a result, Arabella Hutter, IQ’s Executive Director at the time, and I spent many hours planning these agendas. Our goal was for each to be facile, well-paced and relevant. We’d go over them painstakingly, refining and revising to make sure we prioritized the discussion in ways that supported both lively exchange as well as tangible results.

One key realization was gleaned from another of the books I shared, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful,” by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. It details some of the small yet significant “transactional flaws” that can suppress the effectiveness of top leaders and executives. For some of us, it’s trying at times to add too much value to meetings; that is, making comments and suggestions just for the sake of speaking up, and not because they move the discussion forward or offer new ideas. Learning how to strike the balance between brainstorming, making recommendations and finalizing decisions kept the meetings moving and produced more actionable results.

4. Speak in Your Language, Listen in Theirs

In dealing with a diverse group of strong-willed, multi-cultural and multi-lingual group of entrepreneurs, I found it helpful to speak in my own language, but listen in theirs. Note the emphasis here on listening. It was critical that I communicated clearly what our mission was and stayed open to suggestions, comments and other forms of feedback, both verbal and non-verbal, in order to get the most out of our teams. Similarly it was important that I continued to reinforce and often restate this mission, in order to make sure it stayed top of mind.

Listening in their language also meant being sensitive to board members who were not that confident in their English and wanted to communicate via email, as they felt stronger with the written word versus the spoken. This would often manifest itself in group settings, where members from certain cultures would be more forthcoming (and out-spoken!) than others. It was part of my learning process to become attuned to these nuances and find the best way to get at what these members were thinking. Often I’d do this via intimate conversations during breaks in our face-to-face sessions.

I also learned that there’s a difference between sending and receiving; it was important to make sure messages were not just received, but comprehended. It required the use of multiple channels at times; emails and newsletters, followed up with video chats, phone calls, IMs, faxes, whatever it took. And the volume of communications was increased as well, not to where it became noise, but to make sure there were frequent and open lines of communications between members and the board, and vice versa.

5. Everyone’s a Volunteer

When you think about it, every employer or manager is running a volunteer organization. Earlier in my career, I expected those that I hired to do as they were asked or directed. But what I learned at IQ was that, at almost every level, there needs to be a sense of personal and professional commitment to get the most out of people. Like everyone else, your staff or team members are looking for purpose and meaning in what they do, and the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, whether it’s for a cause or a paycheck. That changed me as a businessperson and as a leader. The belief that ‘you do this because I’m the boss’ was revealed to be short-sighted, and a stake was driven through its heart during my time running the association.

Another important lesson was to always acknowledge contributions. Again, this sounds obvious, even trite, but it was vitally important, especially since I was leading an all-volunteer group comprised of members whose time was valuable and whose schedules tight. If the satisfaction of a job well done is universal, so is the reaction to a pat on the back or a well-timed show of thanks.

6. Foster a Mix of Thinkers and Does

If you’re lucky as a leader you’ll have that rarest of breed, the thinking doer. But by and large, your group members will fall into one or the other of this divide. It’s important to quickly and accurately determine who’s who, which relates back to what we learned while working with “StrengthFinders” author Tom Rath’s tools.

Being a film production association, IQ had no shortage of detail-oriented, highly creative and super-efficient managers and producers on its board to execute plans, procedures and strategies. The key was deciding which plans or strategies to devote our precious time to achieving, and which to set aside. We needed vision and foresight as much as we needed execution, and keeping those functions clearly defined – and steering the right people into the right roles – was invaluable.

7. Small and Open Are Beautiful

We found lots of benefits in keeping a lid on our respective teams’ size. When assembling committees to take on specific tasks, smaller groups were more agile and self-sufficient, and were considerably more effective in arriving at recommendations and findings. It was also easier to raise points of constructive criticism in the intimacy of a small group; people felt more relaxed and less inhibited to say what was on their minds, particularly those for whom English might be a second or even third language.

And to keep our committees from becoming too insular, I required each to include at least one non-board member from the association. This not only gave our regular members some insight into what went on behind the scenes to make IQ function, but helped attract new board members, which only expanded our diversity.

8. Want Better Answers? Ask Better Questions

The consultant and coach Kurt Wright says that in order to reach better solutions, you need to ask better questions, and my effort to do just that proved to be an education in and of itself. We needed to address foundational, big-picture problems that we’d face in the future, which would better prepare us for changes in the media and business landscape.

So I formed special sub-committees and asked each to address a different question or topic. For one it was to look five years into the future and describe in detail the organization IQ has become. What is it doing? How is it different from what is now? And how did it get there? For another team it was to recommend the most creative way to recruit the right members to help IQ become a better and stronger organization.

These brainstorming sessions were assigned to groups given colorful team nicknames, which helped with the bonding process. Super-charged, our mini-squads dug deep, and the probing nature of the questions they addressed made every member a fully-vested participant in the solutions. The lessons I took away from this exercise have influenced my interviewing style, whether I’m sitting with a Fortune 100 CEO, prospective clients or members of my own staff.

Finding New Insights on Being Human

Collectively, my experiences at IQ made me not just a better leader, but left me with new insights on human nature that have served me well both personally and professionally. They’ve influenced everything from how I evaluate employee performance to how I compensate people. My perceptions about what drives motivation, dedication and accountability shifted; I now see things as someone whose goal is to ensure that the people I work with, as well as those I employ, have an emotional stake in achieving some higher purpose, both for themselves and for our clients.

As with anyone managing a global group, it was important our IQ teams took something valuable away from the experience as well. That was my thinking behind sharing books with board members; it gave us something that further connected us, often providing a shared topic to discuss. But the last book I gave them, when my tenure as president concluded, may have been the most influential. It wasn’t really a book at all, but a beautiful, hand-stitched leather-bound volume filled with blank pages. The message was clear: They were to use it to write their own future for our global organization. My hope was that in doing so, they’d discover their own lessons, too.

Vern Oakley is CEO and Founder of Tribe Pictures, a New Jersey-based production company. He’s written extensively on topics related to the power of film in creating emotion and the role of video in corporate communications, and has interviewed dozens of CEOs of major corporations and presidents of top educational institutions.