How an International Steering Group Can Help Take Your Business Beyond Borders

If you’re working on international expansion at your business, you won’t be able to lead the charge alone. Taking your business beyond borders requires ongoing cross-functional collaboration. It requires active participation from nearly every department at your company. To achieve success, you’ll need to assemble a mechanism for driving alignment, and a group that has a core focus of driving international growth.

Five Principles for Setting Up an International Steering Group

Here are some basic principles to consider when creating your cross-functional leadership group:

1. What is the group’s reason for being?

It’s important to understand what the goals are for the group before you determine who should be involved of how often you should meet. For example, perhaps your group will review your international performance metrics every quarter, to ensure you’re on track toward the objectives set out in your international plan. Or, maybe your group’s primary purpose will be to keep each other in sync and updated on critical international initiatives.

The exact form your group will take really depends heavily on your company’s culture and what other mechanisms you already have in place. Ideally, you build off of a familiar structure of “what works” for your company. At HubSpot, we have the concept of HELM, which stands for the HubSpot Executive Leadership Meeting. My colleague Dan Tyre and his co-author Todd Hockenberry describe this concept in their book, “Inbound Organization: How to Build and Strengthen Your Company’s Future Using Inbound Principles.”

As the authors explain in the book, “HubSpot holds what they call a HELM meeting once per month with all executive leadership in attendance. In the agenda, each area has a color code rating for each corporate initiative, showing the pulse of how the business is performing. The meeting focuses the executive team on the things most critical to the company. If a team is falling behind on a certain play, the team is forced to make corrective decisions. All HELM members post their top monthly priorities to the wiki so that the entire organization sees the alignment of their department or group to the overall company mission.”

When we began intensifying our international expansion efforts, we created an international group with a similar format to HELM. We simply called it I-HELM or “international HELM,” designed to serve the same purpose of helping our leaders align around our international goals. Just like with HELM, international leaders would post their top priorities for transparency, and we would pull out the highlights and lowlights to discuss from the metrics each time, along with any important topics requiring discussion.

2. Who should attend?

The people you add to the recurring invite list will need to be able to make important decisions about your international business. So, you’ll want to ensure you have the right people in the room. Who the “right people” are depends greatly on the topics you’ll be discussing and the goals of the meeting itself. If your primary goal is alignment, you’ll simply need to ensure you have representatives from all groups that need to connect.

You might need regional representation, functional representation, or more commonly, a mix of both. Ideally, the group will consist of leaders responsible for driving growth and alignment. In some cases, and depending on the size of your company, this might include your CFO, CRO, COO, CSO, CMO or CCO. If international leadership primarily resides within Sales, your sales leaders should chair if not attend if not chair the meeting. But you’ll need people from various functions attending in order for the group to be successful at making decisions and clearing the path for growth. Every business will require a slightly different structure and format for these meetings.

For example, some organizations have strong local leadership from many locations to consider. Bianca Martinelli, SVP of Global Operations at Endeavor, oversees operations in 37 countries, each of which has a high degree of autonomy and a local board of directors. She highlights the importance of making sure local offices can be part of strategy development while still keeping a close eye on the overall global strategy. “We review performance with our regional heads on a quarterly basis,” she explains. “Semi-annually we also meet with all 37 Managing Directors to discuss strategy, performance & culture. Separately, we gather the chairs of our local boards annually to align on strategy.” 

Also, if you’re at a software company, don’t forget to make sure Product leadership has a seat at the table. With more and more growth being driven via Product, it’s extremely important for the Product team to have visibility into international plans as they evolve so they can stay aligned. Talia Baruch is an international advisor who has led international product management at companies like SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn, VMWare, and Google. She cautions, “In most companies, the VP International is an Ops or Sales role. From my experience, it’s important to also have a VP International Product/Growth role to effectively influence the relevant product experience and growth initiatives for both global-ready and local geo-fit performance.” For more on this topic, see Talia’s article, “Global-Ready in Product, Platform and People.”

3. What will the agenda cover?

Once you know what the goals are of the group and the people who attend, you can get more granular on the agenda for the meeting itself. Branch has more than 25% of their employees outside of the United States across 8 international offices. Ramsey Pryor, VP International Expansion and Sales, explains how they use this type of meeting: “We have the regional leaders present their plans for their regions to the exec team including founders with the learnings and highlights from the previous period, forecast and needs for the period ahead, and for general alignment on things like headcount and bottlenecks.”

Pryor stresses the importance of separately having a regular review of needs for each office location and operational factors — such as headcount, management coverage, employee rotations, visits from leadership, and facilities. Bi-weekly, a team also meets to discuss employee engagement, culture, morale, and to brainstorm ways to connect remote offices and employees. Having separate meetings with distinct focus areas like these is critical to also ensure that you have a way to table the topics that go outside of the bounds of the agenda to follow up on them separately.

4. How frequently will we meet?

It’s also important to keep an eye on the meeting frequency and duration. At HubSpot, we’ve kept our I-HELM meeting frequency on a monthly basis for many years, and we still do it this way, but the duration of the meeting evolved and got more condensed over time. If you’re a SaaS business that keeps a close eye on your monthly recurring revenue and other key monthly metrics, you might find a monthly cadence works best for you too. You might also find that certain topics naturally fall into another forum over time, and that you no longer need to cover those issues with the larger group.

Isabelle Bicaci, a business advisor and growth strategist, was most recently Senior Director of International Strategy at OpenTable. She advises, “Your meeting cadence, attendees and agenda will evolve over time. For example, the steering group might start out with mostly C-level execs and regional leaders, meeting as frequently as weekly or bi-weekly.”

She goes on to explain, “This is a good way to build consistent support at the top, as well as quickly spot any discrepancies in cross-functional buy-in that should be addressed early on. Later, you might find you can adjust the cadence to monthly or quarterly and include mostly VP and Director-level participants. And, you might decide to revert back to weekly or rotate in guest attendees as specific needs or projects arise.”

One big takeaway? Keep an eye on these things to ensure your meetings are successful. These international steering groups can result in “expensive” meetings with a lot of overhead. You’ll need to continually reassess to make sure the meetings are a good use of everyone’s time.

5. What other communication channels do we need?

As you can probably tell from these suggestions, you can’t accomplish everything you need to do to keep your international business charging forward with just a single monthly steering group meeting, or even a biweekly or weekly one. Many other groups have to meet routinely — including teams charged with specific initiatives — and they might only need to give the larger group occasional updates.

For example, every time we ran an international office launch process at HubSpot to set up new entities and teams overseas, we ran those initiatives in parallel to I-HELM, and often there was overlap among attendees, but also times when there was virtually no duplication of attendees except for the Ops person quarterbacking the office launch process. For that reason, the broader group would receive a “quick hit” update regarding any road blocks or challenges, but otherwise time spent on it by the bigger group was minimal so we could focus on other topics instead.

In addition to or instead of more meetings (which none of us love, but are sometimes just necessary), you might consider the following:

  • A space on your internal Wiki where you routinely post meeting summaries and slide decks for everyone in the company to have transparent access to everything discussed
  • A space on your internal Wiki that clearly calls out what your overall company objectives are for the year and how your international goals align with them
  • A Slack channel or email alias so you can easily share updates with the group and remind people of follow-ups and meeting logistics
  • Shared folder on Google Drive where you keep all key meeting materials
  • A regular series of Wiki posts that provide more of a deep dive into key metrics for your international business (e.g. quarterly)
  • A BI dashboard that provides real-time updates on all major geographies and key target countries you’re working on

Allow Your Leadership Group to Truly Grow Your Business Beyond Borders

No matter what form your group takes, an international leadership group is a pretty common phenomenon at most businesses that are expanding internationally. Every business has different needs, but the structure itself of this type of group at every global business is a familiar one. It will take on many forms as your company evolves. You’ll definitely have to make it your own, so that it fits within your company’s culture. Hopefully some of the advice shared here by people who have worked on international expansion at other companies will make it a little easier!

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

3 comments

  • Great read and tips! We (Venga) recently ran a webinar called ‘Beyond Maturity, Engage the big cheese!’, one of the key element is to build a sphere of influence (SOI) to engage people at the top, and gravitate towards that international growth team to align your Globalization goals to the corporate ones. The international steering committee is a great forum to do this which I have observed in many great companies. Great post!

    • Yes, great that you are sharing that with folks. Those are definitely strategies we always advised using when I worked at CSA Research as well. It is super important to have C-level execs be part of this group for sure. Depending on company culture though, C-suite “sponsorship” is not always enough. I find that the more autonomy a culture offers its employees, the more important it is to have allies for international in every single function, and at multiple levels. Top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side!

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