Coaching your team for international travel

people in airport sunset with plane in background

Your team of field engineers are travelling internationally for the first time. What do you need to do?

You’ve got an enthusiastic and successful team and they are now going to be travelling internationally to install, maintain and liaise with the customers. As you lead the team, you want to prepare them as much as possible.

How can you prepare them for the non-technical side of the role

How much preparation do they need?
The first thing to do is to make sure that the whole team understand that it will be a steep learning curve and hard work.

Why is it worth it? 

There are two reasons:

Firstly, it is much easier not to make a mistake or cause offence than to undo the damage caused by being perceived as rude or disrespectful. 

Secondly, it is all so interesting and with the right preparation, your team can make friends all over the world. 

Learning and Developing

Where should they start learning?
Is it possible to work on site with someone when you can’t place their home on a map, and know nothing about their country and their life?

man and woman in factory

Try this exercise with your team:
Take a blank map of your home country, and ask your team to fill in as many cities, rivers, landmarks etc. as they can. This is ideal on a large piece of paper with pens and with a time limit of perhaps 90 seconds. If you have a lot of people, split into teams for this and make it a competition. At the end of the time, the paper will be covered in information.
Then, choose one of the countries you and your team are going to work in and do the same thing. The paper this time will not have as much detail.
It is a very visual way to make a clear point.

Another exercise you can do is to make a quick quiz about a destination (if you have kids, they could do this for you!). The questions should be interesting but not complex and not political.
Again, if you have enough people, you can make it a competition. The idea here is that your team then keep the learning going.
Knowing something of a person’s country is a very easy way to show respect and to help to create a relationship.

What about learning some local language?
Everyone on the team can learn a few words for each country you are working in. Even if the working language is going to be English, it is still useful. It also shows interest and respect.

Creating Relationships

What are some techniques and tips for creating relationships in a new country?
‘Hooks’ are the things we use when we get to know someone and start to create a business or social relationship. When you start to think about the people you are working with, what do you have in common? What are your potential shared interests? There is always going to be something. They are more difficult to find when our countries/cultures are different, but they will still be there.
Try these to start with:
Sport – do you both follow a team? – play a sport?
Education – do you both have an engineering background?
Languages – do you have any in common?
Age or family situation – any similarities here?
These hooks mean that communication is going to be easier overall and if we don’t understand each other, or a situation is stressful – they will help even more.

global picture with figures

Are assumptions useful?
As well as the ‘hooks’, we make assumptions. These are not the same as thinking in terms of stereotypes or making judgements. Stereotypes or judgements can lead to negative thinking. Assumptions, help us to clarify what we know, what we need to know, and what we should take more care over. These will vary hugely depending which country you are from, and which country you are working in.

Start your team’s thinking with these:
Religion – is there anything I need to take account of in terms of meals, days off, dress etc.?
Gender – is there anything to think about here in terms of how I behave and communicate?
Age and seniority – how important are they, and do I need to appear more respectful?
Of course, assumptions can be incorrect and so discussion and research are key.

Showing Respect

How can my team show respect in all countries they visit?
This is one of the main areas of conflict, misunderstand and dissatisfaction when on site especially when a young field team are dealing with senior management.
These are things which will help:
Voice not too loud
Not too much eye contact especially at the beginning
Last names until you are sure you can use first names
Dress slightly more smartly, slightly more modestly, slightly less colourfully
Keep clothes on and don’t undo buttons
Increase thanking, complementing, acknowledging the building, the scenery, the help given, etc.

Language can sometimes sound arrogant even when it is not the intention.
There is a big difference between:
‘I’m here to fix things for you.’
‘I am here to work very hard and to do my absolute best to fix your system and do a good job for you.’

engineer in front of turbine

Are there any practical tips?
You could suggest to your team to do the following:
Carry a map of the country and ask the people you are dealing with to point to where they were born.
Ask for advice as you want to buy a gift for your mother/aunt/grandfather as you want something of the country to please them
Carry a photo of your home or family (be careful not too impressive looking – something ordinary)

Further reading

How to select Engineers who thrive in Field based roles

Lee Oliver advice on leading large teams of Field Engineers

Al Bates and Carl Tope advise on how to handle on-site communication challenges

Global travel as a Field or Customer Support Engineer

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