Breaking the Barriers

In a recent study conducted by the Conference Executive Board, the lack of global leadership candidates was identified as the top barrier to the expansion of international business.

Developing Global Leaders for Turbulent Times

In a recent study conducted by the Conference Executive Board, the lack of global leadership candidates was identified as the top barrier to the expansion of international business. All business is now influenced by globalization. Emerging economies have opened new markets, new supply chains and new talent pools for organizations seeking to capitalize on opportunities in the global economy. However, organizations have been slow to benefit from these opportunities because they do not have enough people with the necessary skills to lead global initiatives. We need more global leaders and we need them now.

What are the challenges these would-be global leaders may face?

First, they must overcome distance. In the past, followers could be found in the same room; now they may not be in the same time zone. Teams are dispersed, which means leaders must rely on a different set of influence tactics and motivational tools. Second, modern leaders must overcome cultural distance. The tried-and-true methods of leadership may not be effective in a new cultural context.

Global leaders must adapt to the followers they lead, maintain their authenticity, and be able to take that show on the road. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, are the intellectual demands on 21st century leaders. Leaders throughout time have faced hard decisions, but the level of complexity facing modern leaders is unprecedented. Rather than suffering from a shortage of information, leaders are flooded with data.


Is your company doing what it can to develop leaders to be successful?

You can quickly determine that by scanning your competency model. If the words “global,” “cross cultural,” and “international” do not appear, then you are not positioning your company for success. The competencies necessary to be a global leader are quite different than those of domestic leaders and will likely require different developmental experiences.


What makes a successful global leader?

There are four critical leadership competencies that are essential for global success:

1. Relationship Orientation – In the U.S., leaders often emerge because of their technical proficiency.  When choosing leaders to go abroad, most organizations make decisions based on task performance and concrete business targets. That approach makes perfect sense in the U.S. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn’t what you know, but rather who you know and who knows you that determines success. Trust is based on close relationships, and people will only do business with those they trust. Trust takes time. You can’t rush business abroad.

2. Humility – A colleague of mine who worked as an executive in the Middle East once told me that to be successful in a new cultural context you must “assume you know nothing.” Effective global leaders question their own assumptions prior to speaking and acting. Decisive instinctual action is the hallmark of leadership in the U.S.  However, when working internationally, your inner compass can lead you astray.  Rather than operate on what has worked before, capitalize on new relationships, ask questions, and learn from others.

3. Flexibility – Global leaders must engage in perspective-taking and view problems through the eyes of their international partners. This requires leaders to shift frames and view the world through a different lens. Effective leaders must also be able to shift their style according to the expectations of their followers. Many leadership qualities are universal, but as many as one-third of leadership competencies vary widely across cultures. Rigid thinking and inflexibility are the marks of doom for a global leader.

4. Balance – An executive I recently coached asked me, “Who is the home team? I get that when I travel I need to adapt, but shouldn’t my counterpart try to adapt when they come here?” My answer was that there is no home team any more. We all play on a neutral field. Leaders now must be able to read when to adapt, and when to assert. They must know when to push, and when to pull. Once your team trusts you, there are times when you can ask them to adapt and try things your way.

In summary, we need more global leaders, and these leaders must master an increasingly difficult set of skills. These competencies differ from domestic leadership and must be developed through different experiences. So when you are considering your next strategic plan, ask yourself whether you are developing your talent to lead the global economy, or if you are resigned to simply follow.



Dr. Richard Griffith is the executive director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Management at Florida Institute of Technology. He provides coaching in cross-cultural competence and global leadership. He can be contacted at Griffith@fit.edu.




This article appears in the December 2014 issue of i4 Business.
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