Tips for managing a technical, multicultural team

Overcome language barriers, know how the business operates, and stimulate staff input.
 Alexandra de Paiva, ACMA, CGMA
Alexandra de Paiva, ACMA, CGMA, controller and general manager for finance at Norsk Hydro (Photo by Paulo Santos/AP Images)

Alexandra de Paiva, ACMA, CGMA, has covered more distance and more subject matter than most people. She started her career with a degree in chemical engineering in South America. Her life since then has taken her to Australia and back to Brazil, where she is a controller and general manager for finance at Norsk Hydro, a global aluminium producer.

De Paiva speaks three languages. She's as comfortable on the factory floor as she is in the central office. And she's a prime example of how a hands-on approach to knowledge and culture can produce winning results.

Here are the lessons she has learnt along the way:

Find a common language. On multinational teams, it may be easy to get overwhelmed with worries about cultural taboos and conflicting work styles. De Paiva said the very first challenge to address should always be language.

"You first need to make it clear to staff: "˜We are working as a group from different language backgrounds, from different cultural backgrounds,' " she said. "If you know there will be native English speakers and non-English speakers, you've got to watch out for whether the non-English [speakers] are really following the message, and you've got to keep an eye on the native English speakers to make sure there's no slang being used, no regionalisms."

Think like an engineer. Part of de Paiva's success in the metals and mining industry comes from the fact that she knows her subject matter. She strives to understand the engineering and other technical aspects of the field.

That legwork makes it easier for her to build trust between different kinds of professionals in her organisation. "What makes the difference is that people perceive you understand," she said. "The big message for management accountants is that they have to learn about the business, no matter what their business is."

De Paiva recommended a "structured" way of thinking, such as the SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers) method of process mapping. That kind of structured approach has to be informed, she said, by relevant study and conversation.

Let your staff talk. De Paiva worked for a large company as it went through significant changes. She became the manager of a new and unfamiliar group during this shift.

As part of her introduction, she had her new staff members write some of their own rules. She set up an anonymous form for employees to send her ideas and annoyances.

The result: simple changes. A rule against speakerphone use in the open office improved the workplace environment. De Paiva also set aside weekly meetings during which employees could vent and ask questions about some of the changes that were roiling the company.

"It's amazing the amount of gossip and detrimental comments that people spread in the workforce," she said. "I prefer to hear the gossip first."

Andrew Kenney is a CGMA Magazine contributing editor.