What is Global Leadership?

In order to grow in key markets around the world, there is nothing more important than getting top talent in place through recruiting, developing, and retaining the right people.

Two vital questions must be answered in order to effectively target high priority global leadership development efforts:

1. What exactly is global leadership, and how is it different from leadership in general?

2. How can global leadership competencies be disseminated as rapidly and effectively as possible throughout the organization?

We are pleased to report the completion of the first phase of an extensive research effort that focused on global leadership development and those two questions above.

Problems with Existing Frameworks

Although a variety of studies have been conducted on global leadership, and there are long lists of competencies, the frameworks offered to date tend to have several key weaknesses:

1. Global leadership competencies are often not clearly distinguished from competencies needed by leaders in any role.

2. The competencies listed are often so broad or abstract (e.g., “inquisitiveness,” “flexibility,” or “business savvy”) that they are difficult to develop and utilize in a practical way.

3. Many so-called “global” competencies are extensions of domestic practices. Headquarters executives may assume, based on minimal evidence, that their own leadership styles are readily exported. At the same time, leadership consultants are highly motivated to assert that their models have universal value, even when such models are greeted with puzzlement, resistance, or misinterpretation in foreign markets.

Participant Demographics

In order to address the points described above, we asked representatives from ten major companies in a range of industries and with headquarters in several world regions to identify interviewees with the following characteristics:

  • Eighteen months or more of experience being an international assignee;
  • Judged to be highly successful in leadership roles while on assignment;
  • Previous leadership positions in a domestic context;
  • Various national backgrounds;
  • Assigned to a wide variety of destination countries.

We then interviewed 51 international assignees selected by their companies according to these criteria. 80% of interviewees had been on more than one international assignment, which makes this a group of very seasoned global leaders. Given that each had previously been in a leadership role in his or her home country, they were ideally positioned to compare leadership in a global context with domestic leadership.

In all, the interviewees came from 24 different countries of origin and had international assignments to 31 different country destinations. This rich mixture enabled us to identify themes that emerged across the board rather than those characteristics of a particular nationality or destination.

So, What’s the Difference?

The overriding consensus among our interviewees was that global leaders must carry out tasks similar to those of leaders in any location, yet they must be able to shift strategies, business processes, and personal styles to fit a different environment and a broader range of employee backgrounds and motivations. Quotes from interviewees:

“The core leadership skills prevail, such as getting results through people… but you have to adapt your style to the people, the environment, the way things are done, the things that help you get it done.”

“Global leadership is very different, remarkably different. The business world has some global measures, but how to accomplish those things? We can all agree on growing 10%, but what are the means to get there? The process? The people skills? What is the same? What is different? lets talk Emotional intelligence in unfamiliar cutlural settings? Subtle cultural awarenesses? All these are different to reach the same result.”

Murray Slatter

Many articulated that in their experience a different level of effort was required to perform effectively in their global leadership capacity than in a purely domestic leadership role.

“I could do three out of five things in a domestic leadership role and still be successful, while in my global position I had to get all five right or the initiative would fail.”

“If this is what I would normally do at home, here I have to ramp it up about 50%.”

Lindsey Walker

As these remarks suggest, the competencies described below are important and yet easy to underestimate. The very people who need them the most tend to minimize their significance by highlighting similarities to generic leadership and repeating comforting but false mantras such as “leadership is the same everywhere” or “others are trying to become more like us.” This is not what we heard.

Research Findings

A distillation of our research findings is provided below. Based on an examination of all the interview data, we found that certain competencies came up repeatedly. The competencies fall into five major developmental steps that interviewees described. What follows is a short description of each developmental step in the progression with a sample competency and representative statements from the interviewees.

Figure 1: Global Leadership Competencies

How to Develop as a Global Leader

Step 1: Seeing Differences

Many interviewees remarked that through being in a leadership role abroad they saw themselves within a cultural context for the first time and had to question deeply their own actions and assumptions. One of several competencies identified as part of this Seeing Differences step is Cultural Self-Awareness. Cultural Self-Awareness means the realization that one’s own leadership practices are shaped by a particular environment and that there are other perhaps equally or even more viable ways of getting things done in other locations. As one person commented:

“We take everything for granted when working domestically; in a global context everything gets put in perspective; you’re checking for similarities and differences. This also helps you to understand your own culture, puts it in perspective. You realize the differences and look with more critical eyes.”

“If you are truly good with people and respect your local colleagues, this will spill over into respect for the culture and the new environment. This is really the foundation for leading abroad. It means that you can work well under pressure. Fundamentally, you need to be able to get things done while connected with the group — get things done with the help of other people; getting things done in state of interdependence — these are inseparable.”

Step 2: Closing the Gap

Although personal relationships are important in any leadership role, our interviewees noted that global leaders must rely on others to a much greater extent because in a foreign environment they lack the local knowledge or skills that they would have at home. A number of people commented that they made the mistake of focusing immediately on the task at hand rather than starting with a foundation of strong personal relationships. The competency of Results through Relationships emphasizes the fact that such relationships are nearly always the doorway to getting things done in a global context.

Step 3: Opening the System

Once leaders are aware of the differences that exist, have come to view themselves as the product of a particular cultural context, and have earned the respect of local counterparts, it will be necessary to shift their perspective and leadership methods to accommodate local realities. Frame-shifting is a competency that requires cognitive and stylistic agility to not only see the differences but respond.

For instance, leaders trained in a consultative style that draws upon the input of other management team members may find that colleagues in another country actually expect them to take a more directive stance and that failing to do so can be seen as a sign of weakness. A person who is used to being positioned as an expert resource will perhaps need to shift to a broader strategic perspective or vice versa; the emotionally expressive style that worked in one country must be toned down in another. Those accustomed to driving organizational change may find that what they really need to do is to beat the system that is not going to change. Here are some representative comments:

“I learned the need to modify my leadership style in order to be effective in other cultures. For example, when I was working with Mexico, they expected a more authoritarian/distant style of leadership. This is the opposite of my MBA training. My style did not work in Mexico; my participatory style was viewed as ineffective.”

“If you contrast Mexico with Indonesia, in Mexico it is about emotion; I could use a highly emotional devil’s advocate approach to challenge people. This style completely flopped in Indonesia. They use small teams, give homework, and are non-confrontational. You have to understand the culture you are working with and adapt your style.”

“Russians have always lived in a situation where the system of life is very rigid, so they had to get their needs met while the system stayed the same. In my country we change the system because we have that option… Russians are more clever about getting through an awful system, figuring out circuitous ways to get from point A to B. The system is the way it is. How do I shift my perspective and work with it?”

Martin Jolly

Getting this balance right is critical to long-term success – leaders who adapt too much are unlikely to accomplish their goals, yet those who are overly quick or eager in their attempts to add value may find themselves living on an island, shunned by local colleagues.

Step 4: Preserving Balance

While adaptation is a given in a foreign environment (as one person put it, “the local culture is not going to adapt to you”), the people we spoke with were also quite clear that it is sometimes necessary to teach as well as to learn, to make decisions as well as to listen. The competency labeled Adapt & Add Value refers to this need to balance adapting to local practices with selecting the best spot to assert a different perspective or to act as a constructive change agent.

“I try to manage within the social context and adapt, but also question the status quo at the same time.”

“There is always the question of whether I bring my own perspective or adapt in what I am bringing to the table. I have learned that I add value because I have different perspective. How to choose between the two things? It really varies as you go. It’s easiest to do what everyone else is doing culturally…, but sometimes there is a need for difference to enrich the end result.”

Tim Simpson

Step 5: Establishing Solutions

For an organization to achieve ambitious targets in key growth markets around the world it is essential to develop local talent. Such development must include the capability to weigh global and local perspectives with the best interests of the company as a whole in mind. Some companies need to complete a massive transfer of knowledge from home country employees who possess vital technical and project leadership skills to high potential individuals in different world regions; in other cases, local employees need an infusion of more generic leadership experience as well as the skills to deal effectively with headquarters.

New leadership talent in locations far away from headquarters can be particularly sensitive to the suggestion that they are simply carrying out a strategy that has been decided elsewhere, or that they are lacking vital information that is considered too sensitive for them to share. The competency Create Ownership refers to ways of engendering a sense of participation, engagement in a shared process, and accountability for both setting and achieving targets with local significance.

“It’s the kiss of death to say, ‘This is the way we do it back at headquarters.’ “

“If they see that you are there to do your job and they are just pawns, you are done and there will be no buy in.”

Duncan McCann

Practical Applications

The twelve global leadership competencies and five steps identified through this research have numerous practical applications. The most common message we heard from interviewees is that the insights and experience they gained through their time serving in global leadership roles were insufficiently leveraged by their employers. Indeed, many felt that others in their organizations were not even all that interested in what they had learned. However, these individuals were, without exception, eager to share their insights and full of suggestions about how they might be put to use.

Rapid and thorough dissemination of global leadership competencies throughout an organization requires a shift in mindset: instead of seeing “global” as something that is added on to what already exists (e.g. a half-day module in a six-month leadership program), we recommend that companies start with global in mind. That is, how can global leadership competencies be integrated into key systems and processes across the board? This could include:

  • Competency Building & Review
  • Recruitment & Retention
  • Succession Planning
  • Stretch Assignments for Future Leaders
  • Candidate Selection: Top Executives; International Assignees; Global “High Potentials”; Positions with Global Responsibility; Global Team Leaders
  • Leadership Program Design & Delivery
  • Pre-Departure Training and On-Site Assimilation for International Assignees
  • Coaching/Mentoring for Global Leaders and International Assignees
  • Orientations for Global Teams and Global Projects
  • Executive Meetings, Learning Events, and Web-Based Tools Highlighting Global Leadership Experience

The various departments involved with developing global leaders – for example, Human Resources, Organization Development, Mobility, Diversity, Training & Development – seem at times to be attempting to guide the proverbial elephant in their own different and conflicting directions, each tugging on a separate body part. Having a shared understanding of and commitment to a consistent set of global leadership competencies could also serve to better align these efforts across different functions.

Benefits of Starting with Global

Weaving a global perspective throughout an organization is increasingly a necessity rather than a “nice to have.” Our interviewees spoke most eloquently about the benefits of the global leadership competencies they have acquired as well as their tangible value for companies competing in the world’s fastest-growing markets:

“I’ve gained an acute awareness of global competition, demand, and global consumer trends. Awareness of the world is critical to survival.”

“You have a better perspective on the company. We operate in a global market but are not necessarily global… Markets are different all over the world. A global company truly understands markets and their drivers and acts accordingly. You can’t drive a business the same way in Russia, China, or Africa. When you understand the key drivers for the market, you can customize the product to those markets.”

“It is impossible to explain China to senior management. Key leadership positions should be allocated to people with experience abroad for the company’s sake.”

Murray Slatter

If you are interested in reaching your full potential as a local leader, reaching out into and international career, or starting to export products into international Markets, drop us a line and send us a note using the contact page.

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