Building a World-Class Team

By: Mark Athitakis

Associations can struggle to identify the right talent for international staff, both at home and overseas. Some flexibility, a global mindset, and an awareness of cultural differences can bridge the gap.

An association that's expanding internationally has plenty to be excited about: opportunities for members to identify partners in new markets, a larger membership base, and a new potential source of revenue. But going global also introduces a host of pressing questions.

One of the biggest ones: How do you staff your global efforts? Do you hire a full-time employee or work with a consultant? What do you look for in employees? And how do you make sure the relationship is working out when the staffer may be thousands of miles from the home office?

No answer to those questions will be right for every association. But both large and small associations stress the importance of finding people with skills that reflect the cultural complexities of the places you're doing business. The association mindset you have at headquarters may not be the one you need to succeed overseas.

Levels of Commitment

When the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) decided to expand its international footprint in 2007, it knew where it wanted to go: India, China, Latin America, and Russia. But it also has a limited budget and wanted the flexibility to make sure its international efforts made sound business sense. It decided to work with consultants, signing each to three-year agreements that can be amended with 30 days' notice. "Nobody [working overseas] is actually an employee of our organization," says director of international programs Richard Tracy.

What's more important, Tracy says, is that the consultant is able to build relationships in ways that work best in the countries where GCCA has a presence. That's especially significant in countries where associations in general don't have deep roots. When Tracy was looking for a liaison in Pakistan, his list of job requirements was met with a blunt response: The person he was looking for doesn't exist. But he expanded the search to people in the hotel industry, which had the customer-relations skills he needed. "Ultimately, we're looking for people who see the needs of their clients and say, 'How can I make you happy?'" he says.

IEEE, with 1,200 employees and seven offices outside the United States, prefers a more established relationship with global staff: It has 30 full-time employees and two consultants working abroad. And a deep knowledge of its technology initiatives matters more than a general association mindset.

"When we develop an engagement in a particular country, we really want to connect with the people who are working in our fields of technology, and a knowledge of how that operates within that environment," says Betsy Davis, IEEE's staff executive, human resources. Peter Sobel, senior director, global business development, says that at times they'll hire a short-term consultant when deciding to enter a new market, "but when we make a commitment, we hire staff."

For both organizations, though, booking some plane flights is essential. Both Davis and Tracy stress the need to meet job candidates in person. "Any time you can see facial expressions and match it to the tone of voice and how things are being said, you just get a stronger sense of what the person is like and would be like to work with," Davis says.

Tracy concurs: "I wouldn't get into it if you're not able to travel."

7 percent

Percentage of associations that maintain an office outside the association's home country, according to the 2013 edition of ASAE's Benchmarking in Association Management. That's a sharp drop from 17 percent in 2005, but slightly higher than the 5 percent of associations that claimed an international office in 2001.

Cultural Divides

Having the right talent at headquarters is just as essential as having the right people in-country. And because the definitions of membership and the value of products and services shift from region to region, international staff leaders need finance and business savvy.

"If you're going to hire a director of global strategy, or whatever you're going to call it here in the States, he or she truly need to have a strong working knowledge of how to get business done in other countries," says James Zaniello, president of Vetted Solutions, an executive staffing firm.

So if you need to make headway in Europe, leaders with experience there will have an advantage. But a global mindset—an ability to understand the cultural norms and business practices around the world without necessarily favoring American ones—will also help support international efforts. "There's research that shows that if a person speaks up to four languages, their global mindset rises," says Sirin Köprücü, founder of StrategicStraits, an international consulting firm.

That doesn't necessarily mean you have to ship employees off to a different country (or Berlitz courses) to build a capacity for global thinking. Board service and work on cross-functional teams can also help staffers prepare for that role. "On cross-functional teams, each function can have its own culture, and that can expand a global mindset," Köprücü says.

Nor should you assume that language skills alone will bridge gaps in the relationship, especially if there are cultural differences to navigate.

"I have found that I have more challenges with native English speakers than I have with people in China or people in Brazil," Tracy says. "We're both speaking English. English is our first language. But we're not understanding each other. If somebody says, 'Sure, sure,' what does that mean? 'Sure' means 'OK,' right? But I'm not understanding that I'm being told, 'No, that's not going to happen.'"

Know Your Goals

However an association decides to handle its staffing, it needs to be a function of focused thinking about the association's goals in each market and a realistic idea of how financial structures may differ. For instance, GCCA varies its membership fees by country to accommodate different economies and perceptions of membership value. But with many international members paying much less than those in other countries, Tracy is concerned that "all of a sudden you're doing much more work, and you're not reaping the benefits."

Navigating different labor laws can be a challenge as well. "It's different in every country, and no country is like the United States," says IEEE's Davis. She recommends hiring local counsel and a local accountant to keep track of the legal landscape and handle payroll appropriately.

Given those challenges, knowing your business case for hiring staff in new countries is essential. Are you trying to expand membership, build partnerships, sell education? The answers to those questions will define who you hire and what role they'll play, says Zaniello.

"You need to understand the true impact on the association and the industry for going global," he says, "rather than just saying, 'We're losing members in the United States; let's see if we can increase membership by going global.'"

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Learn More

The Global Cold Chain Alliance's Richard Tracy will speak on the topic of international hiring on Thursday, May 16, at ASAE's 2013 Association International Conference in Washington, DC. Visit for more information.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.