Three Things I’ve Learned about Leading a Global Business

By: Bart Egnal

When I joined The Humphrey Group in 2001, we were a boutique firm of three employees (I was number three!). All of our staff and consultants were based in Toronto. The firm was tiny by any measure, and big trips to clients consisted of driving in my car to Markham or Mississauga, suburbs of Toronto. Our long-distance bills weren’t exactly a line item in the P&L, and travel was pretty much non-existent. 

How times have changed! Today The Humphrey Group is a truly global and diverse business. Our team of twenty-seven employees and thirty-eight contractors is dispersed throughout Canada, the USA, Latin America, and Europe. I’m proud to lead a company that embodies the diversity we believe is so critical to business performance, and to have some of the best talent in the world collaborating to help our clients build their leadership communication skills. I firmly believe that our embrace of a global, dispersed workforce has enabled us to serve the evolving needs of leaders in some of the world’s biggest companies. 

For me personally, the journey to this point has been alternately exciting and humbling. I’ve continually had to re-evaluate my assumptions about what it takes to lead a business that was “Toronto-centric” and is now anything but. Here are the three lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Let go of your head-office centricity (and maybe the office itself). 

From the time when I took over leadership of The Humphrey Group in 2014 until before the pandemic, we were a Toronto-centric organization. Though we had offices in Vancouver and Mexico, Toronto – our biggest client market – was the hub of our leadership team and decision-making structure. 

But the last few years have seen us abandon that focus. Our leaders are dispersed across the Americas, and the teams they lead comprise individuals from diverse countries. We can have a course sold by a Client Partner in Mexico to a client in Italy, coordinated by an individual in Vancouver and delivered by instructors from Toronto. 

Our leadership is also location-agnostic. Comprised of leaders from across geographies, we have to think about the business through the lens of global talent and global clientele. And since our teams are so global, we realized it was pointless to have an office (everyone on zoom anyways!) and made the call to go fully remote. It’s not for everyone, and it took courage for us to make the move after so many years “in office by default,”  but our employees told us it’s the right move, and we trust them. 

  2. Documentation and process will help you build culture 

It can seem counter-intuitive when you’re used to building culture by being together, but when you recruit employees and contractors from around the world, you can’t pull people into your office to teach them “how things are done”. Not only is this functionally impossible, but efforts to pass knowledge along this way work against inclusivity by disproportionately favouring those in proximity to office centers. 

One example of this at The Humphrey Group: as our facilitator team has become increasingly global, we’ve shifted from an oral onboarding and training approach to one that allows people to learn in multiple ways, and we’ve reaped the benefits. 

Historically we had an oral teaching culture. You joined the firm, you audited courses taught by experienced facilitators, you got the feel for it, chatted with other instructors about why they did things the way they did, and then you found your own approach. This is a wonderful approach and we still do it (although the observations are primarily virtual now), but in our current business model, it doesn’t suffice. 

Today our onboarding process for instructors is grounded in documentation and process. There are live audits and virtual facilitator roundtables that happen synchronously, but also videos of teaching demonstrations, detailed facilitator guides, and online learning modules that everyone can access asynchronously at any time. A facilitator joining from Spain will have the same experience as one from Philadelphia as the one from Toronto. All three will have the same level of support and coaching as they build knowledge and capability in delivering our programs. And why not? They may all be called upon to deliver the same program at the same time – in-person or via Zoom or Teams. 

It takes a lot of work to shift from an oral knowledge transfer culture to a global, documented one, and building a meaningful and user-friendly library of resources will take time. But the work is essential when your team is distributed. 

  3. Prioritize inclusion, and keep at it despite missteps.

The benefits of a diverse, global team are only realized if all voices are heard and all cultures are considered. This isn’t easy. Cultural differences are real, and can lead to misunderstandings and disconnects. It can be easier for the head office to impose its cultural norms on “satellite” offices and countries. But doing so means you aren’t getting the amazing quality of insights and ideas that are available to you.

At The Humphrey Group, it’s taken time for us to learn that not all markets are the same. In the early days when we began serving our clients in Latin America, we tried the same strategies to find and grow relationships that we’d used successfully in North America. How did that go? Not well. Our gracious and patient team in Mexico helped us see that a new approach was needed. The approach was: let us lead the way in our market strategy to achieve our company goals. 

This level of listening and trust in people must extend to all aspects of your business when you’re leading a global team. We all think we know this, but in practice, it’s not easy. It can feel risky, frightening even, to shift from a centralized command centre to a decentralized model where teams are empowered to lead in the way that they believe is best. But this is inclusion in practice, and it takes courage. 

The other big lesson? You’re going to get it wrong, a lot. We’re all human, and we all have biases that persuade us to keep things the same rather than taking risks and experiment with new ideas. It’s not a question of “if” you will fail to listen or fall back into comfortable patterns at some point– it’s a question of how you respond when it happens. 

A global team brings so much – but I’ve learned that to realize the benefits, it’s critical to do the hard work as a leader to evolve yourself and your style. For us at The Humphrey Group, this has meant getting rid of a head-office bias, creating equitable processes to transfer knowledge, and working to build an inclusive culture. 

I’m proud of how far we’ve come… and excited to see where in the world our future takes us!