Global Spotlight: Meetings Without Borders

How Sales and Marketing Executives International makes team meetings work across multiple continents.

Sales and Marketing Executives International is a small association with a wide footprint—its staff members and contractors work in nine different countries across Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia. So SMEI CEO Willis Turner, CAE, thinks a lot about how to keep the team connected and collaborating effectively worldwide.

One key to that: Everybody occasionally has to adjust their sleep schedules.

“One of the things about making sure that teams are cohesive and engaged and working together and feeling like their work counts is to recognize them, and one of the best ways to recognize them is to have a meeting and give them a chance to tell their story,” Turner says. “So we tend to change our meeting times so that they rotate. Sometimes they’ll be convenient for people who are in Asia, and [American employees] might have to get up in the night or stay up late.”

But making sure everybody has a chance to tell their story is as much a cultural challenge as a logistical one, Turner says. Some cultures are more deferential than others; some participants may be anxious about their command of English.

Turner uses a couple of tactics to make sure meetings are productive and less stressful for all involved. One is to adjust the speed of conversation. “We slow the pace of meetings down so that everyone can understand if their English is a second language,” he says.

Giving participants opportunities to generate comments in advance also helps. “Telling [participants] what we’re going to talk about on the agenda gives them time to prepare,” Turner says. “They can even script what they want to say, and oftentimes they’ll want to put it in their native language and then translate it. Giving them time to prepare is significant in helping to lower those barriers.”

And that approach goes beyond meetings. SMEI also uses it with performance reviews, which can be a Western peculiarity for staff in other parts of the world.

“We also give people time to prepare for that, to have a story to tell around accomplishments and celebrate milestones,” he says. “Culturally, you want to respect how they want to present their story, and not to make it adversarial if they’re not meeting targets. We want to show that we’re here to support them, to meet their goals and do what can we do to help them close the gap.”—M.A.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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