Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Leader of the Pack: When You're in Charge of an International Trip

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After a long day of meetings in Cambodia, the people in the group I was leading said, “We want to go to the Monkey Temple.” As the group leader, I agreed—with a caveat: “OK, that sounds great, but make sure you don’t take any valuables with you. And don’t bring any food—the monkeys are known to steal.”

Later, as we crossed the street to the temple, the group munched on potato chips and texted on their phones, when suddenly I heard a scream: A giant Rhesus Macaque monkey had jumped from the telephone pole onto my colleague’s back, trying to grab her chips. Meanwhile, baby monkeys had surrounded us, climbing up our legs and trying to steal from our backpacks.

After I swatted them away with a large stick, and we ensured no one was hurt, my colleague screamed at me: “You should have told us it would be this bad!”

It wasn’t an “I told you so” moment or a time to throw blame, but it was a good reminder that leading a large group—especially abroad or in uncharted territory—often comes with challenges. If you find yourself as the head of a group in another country, here are some ways to make it a little easier on yourself and make sure your group stays productive and content.

Plan and Prepare

Whether your trip is going to be a leisurely tour or a jam-packed set of power meetings, it’s important to keep everyone informed of what’s going to be happening ahead of time. So, be sure to send an itinerary well before you leave, a latest version about a week before the trip, and finally an updated version when you get on the ground. It should include a tentative schedule, background information on your meetings, bios of the people you are meeting with, and all emergency contacts, embassy numbers, and travel insurance phone numbers.

Most importantly, make sure you have a trip and country orientation with everyone beforehand (if you can’t meet in person, a Google Hangout or conference call works great). It’s important to cover the customs and culture of the places you’ll be visiting—even if they don’t totally register right away, your group will hopefully remember what you said before they make a mistake or get completely lost.

Along similar lines, make sure to communicate the cultural nuances of a schedule. For example, if you are in a country like Germany, you’ll want to stress the importance of being on time. If you’re somewhere more relaxed, like Argentina, make sure your group knows that it’s normal for things to start 30-45 minutes later than the scheduled time.

Stick to the Schedule, But Be Flexible

“What are we doing today?” “How long do we have to stay in this place?” In my experience, no matter how many times you go over it in a prep meeting, your colleagues will always want to know what's going on throughout the trip (sometimes hour by hour).

So, it’s important to keep your group in the loop both at the beginning of each day and as things progress. Make sure that you are open to your group’s questions, and keep a temperature of the group throughout the day. How are they feeling about the meetings? Do they need more time to relax or recover from jet-lag? Are there any things that aren’t on the itinerary that they might want to try or have an option of doing during free time? As long as you’re communicating with everyone, don’t be afraid to adjust your schedule to meet the needs of the group and trip.

Rise to the Challenges of a New Environment

During a trip to the Caribbean, my group was sitting at a restaurant. We all ordered, and everyone got their food, except two of my Haitian colleagues. “That’s strange,” I thought, and went to inquire where their food was. To my disbelief, the owner said it was not coming out—and that my colleagues didn’t belong at his restaurant.

This wasn’t cultural, this was overt discrimination, and I made sure the owner knew it was unacceptable. I explained to the whole group what was going on, and we all agreed to leave (and yes, we caused a scene).

We ended up going to another local restaurant and had amazing food and a great time, but the situation taught me an important lesson. As the team leader in an unfamiliar place, I should have researched the restaurant before we went and asked locals about it. The same goes for hotels, restaurants, and people you’ll be meeting with. Always have some background so you can address any challenges as they come up. (And be ready to address them when they do.)

Be Accommodating but Find Compromise

While doing NGO consulting work on the Thai-Burma border, one of my colleagues told me, “I want to see some refugees. Take us to see the refugees, or I will give you a bad evaluation.”

My heart sank. I wasn’t about to exploit the community I worked with just so the group could say they had been to a refugee camp. On the other hand, though, I could also understand why it might be important for the group to hear the stories of the people they were working on behalf of.

When you take a group abroad, a lot of times they will be in search of the “most authentic” experience possible—whether that’s riding elephants to get around because it seems cool (it's actually harmful to the elephant) or wanting to snap that coveted photo of local people doing their daily “exotic” activities (which can be intrusive and rude). And you, as the leader, have to decide when to accommodate those requests and when to decide that they’d do more harm than good.

In my case, I decided to have a group discussion on the issue and asked for context: What value would visiting a refugee camp have? How could we make the experience an exchange, instead of being outsiders coming in and then leaving? We ended up striking a compromise: Instead of going to a camp, I arranged a visit to a local co-op where refugees make and sell their goods. Not only did the visit appease my group, but the women at the co-op made great money from the group’s visit because everyone felt inclined to purchase their handicrafts.

Remember, you have to decide what’s appropriate and safe for your group. If someone on your team has a problem, idea, or suggestion, see how you can accommodate it—but stand your ground if the requests are outlandish.

Let Them Learn on Their Own

Between meetings in Cambodia, a colleague came up to show me her new Tiffany necklace (which was a fake) that she had paid $30 for. She was excited and thought she got a great deal for a “genuine”  fake—until someone else showed up with the same necklace that she had purchased for $5.

Whether it’s getting ripped off, trying bad food, or committing a cultural faux pas, you can’t prevent all mistakes from happening on the ground—it’s just not possible. Instead, as the leader, you have to strike a balance. You should be the expert on the ground, but you also have to sometimes sit back and let people learn on their own, even if that’s the hard way (unless of course, safety is at risk). Make sure your team is equipped with basic knowledge about the trip, and always give background information and answer questions, but know sometimes they will just have to learn on their own.

Know That it’s Not Personal

After a long day in Manilla, a team member took a jeepney instead of a taxi, and was lost in the wrong part of the city for an hour. She was frustrated and came back really upset. Jet-lagged and stressed, she started crying: “You shouldn’t have taken us here—it’s so hard!”

When leading a group, not only will the scrutiny be on your organizing skills at all times, but people may want to blame you for things you have no power over. You don’t have to accept the blame, but you should let your colleagues vent or talk about their frustrations. Take responsibility when necessary, but don’t shoulder the burden for things that are out of your control. Things are bound to happen in a foreign country that are different or unfamiliar, and when they do, don’t take it personally. Just acknowledge that people’s emotions run high when they are out of their comfort zones.

While these stories may sound a little harrowing, I’ve led a dozen of research and development trips all over the world with success. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do. So, the best advice I can give you is to be open, to be ready for some obstacles, and most of all, to keep these leadership tips in mind. No matter what happens, your team will have an unforgettable trip.

Photo courtesy of Aurimas Adomavicius.