Global HR, Leadership

The 5 Critical “Must Haves” for a Global Leader

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Global leadership is about managing a business across borders where there are different cultural, legal, and economic systems. It’s about knowing how to operate in multiple environments trying to achieve a common corporate objective.

Unlike many other articles on this subject, I don’t want to focus solely on cultural differences. Yes they are important, but there are other “must haves” that are important as well. And as you will see, the tie-in to cultural differences is part of each “must have.”

Also, I do not include global competencies here. This may create a stir. In my opinion, the standard global competencies that have been developed and published are generic and are necessary for every leader anywhere in the world.

None of the ones I have seen include competencies that specifically deal with the reality of global business. This is important.

So, here are my five (5) “must haves” for a global leader:

1. Inquisitiveness

This is absolutely No. 1. The best global leaders are open to new experiences. In their everyday life, they are generally curious about anything new. In becoming familiar with culture in other countries, they are able to suspend criticism/opinion.

According to J. Stewart Black, former director of INSEAD in Singapore, “When in a new country, high-potential global leaders seek out new experiences. They want to try the local food, not the internationalized cuisine at some five-star hotel. They pick up the local newspaper; they talk to local residents.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an overseas assignment automatically makes a person “global.” During my time working overseas, I ran across executives that lived in an American expatriate “bubble.” They never made an attempt to understand or learn anything about the local culture.

In fact, sometimes they were critical and/or joked about it. They socialized with other Americans and complained about local “inconveniences” like not being able to buy their favorite brand of cereal. People with this mindset may have several overseas assignments, but it is doubtful they ever become global leaders unless they somehow change their mindset.

2. Dealing with multiple perspectives and ambiguity

The ability to deal with this occurs 24/7. It is more prevalent in global roles than purely domestic ones.

A global leader has to manage multiple viewpoints and perspectives from various countries. They must be flexible, responsive to true differences in problem-solving among countries, have the ability to learn from mistakes and the ability to balance shorter and longer term objectives.

3. “Frame-shifting”

This is the ability to shift leadership style depending on the country/culture.

Example: A consultative style that draws upon the input of others may be OK when operating in Italy. But that style would not be appropriate in Korea where employees are used to very hierarchical relationships and expect management to provide all the answers.

4. Adapt and add value

There is a time to teach employees overseas as well as learn from them, a time to make decisions, and a time to listen. Getting the right balance is very important.

Global leaders who adapt too much to the local environment are unlikely to accomplish their goals. But those who are overly quick or eager to teach (to add value) may find others turned off. The leader will likely come across as an “ugly” American that knows everything and thinks the U.S. way is the only way.

5. Multiple business models

Business models are different from country to country —and certainly different from those used in the U.S. A global leader must understand the requirements in each country for customized marketing, branding, products/services and selling techniques.

American companies have had success domestically in focusing on operational efficiency and business processes. This doesn’t work in many other countries. In the developing ones, for example, a more entrepreneurial approach is required. The focus is on breaking into a market, learning a new business model and developing a presence/branding. Developing operational efficiency and processes are put on the back burner.

With 50 percent of revenues in U.S. multinationals coming from overseas, it becomes critical to have leaders who understand the strategic markets of the future. Tomorrow’s successful companies will be those that are already grooming managers to be global leaders.