Building Leadership Talent for Fast-Growth Markets

Categories: Global Leadership
Many organizations face a similar dilemma: Their prospects for business growth are strongest in locations far from their headquarters, but they do not have sufficient local leadership talent to fully achieve this growth. They must groom people as quickly as possible for leadership roles that previously required twenty years or more of preparation.
While there is no magical process for turning less experienced employees into seasoned leaders overnight, there are a number of methods that, if applied strategically in combination, can significantly accelerate leadership development. These leadership development methods work best when they are focused around the core skill of “Influence Across Boundaries.”1
Recent research indicates that leadership in a global context brings with it distinctive challenges such as an increasing number of stakeholders, broader responsibilities, a loss of direct authority, and less accurate market information. It is all too common to hear about high potential employees who are very good at achieving tasks with a clearly defined scope in their home market, but struggle when they are put in charge of projects that involve a more diverse set of stakeholders in distant locations who may have their own priorities. Learning how to exert influence across geographical, functional, and business unit boundaries is the single most important factor in enabling emerging global leaders to get better results.2
Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger have referred to a 70/20/10 model for executive development, with seventy percent of learning occurring on the job, twenty percent taking place through contact with bosses, coaches, or mentors, and the remaining ten percent through formal training. It is worth considering each of these three learning elements with an eye to how leaders can cultivate influencing skills.


On the Job (70%): Multi-dimensional “Stretch”

Leaders learn on the job, and challenging roles are a valuable means for forging new capabilities.3  Often stretch goals are defined one-dimensionally in terms of an aggressive target that is possible to achieve by running faster on the same track, without leaving one’s familiar functional or geographic home. Yet leaders most often fail in a global context by applying an established pattern of successful behaviors to a different and more complex environment. When defining stretch assignments, it is vital to place high potential individuals in developmental roles that will encourage them to cultivate fresh, multi-dimensional approaches to leadership style, strategy, and tactics.
Leaders can learn how to influence across boundaries by stepping into new functions – moving from R&D to manufacturing, or from sales to human resources – as well as into team leadership roles that require collaboration across various functional lines on a daily basis. Even better are stretch opportunities that involve work in a new virtual team or geographical location. For most global team leaders and expatriates, working across functional, cultural, and national boundaries to get things done is part of the job description from day one. In order to be able to influence effectively, future leaders must acquire this kind of experience in addition to shouldering increased responsibilities in the same familiar function.


Bosses/Coaches/Mentors (20%): Champions & Angels

Any employee’s daily experience is shaped most profoundly through direct contact with workplace managers and peers. The natural tendency with such relationships is for people to seek out others with whom they feel a natural affinity and a certain level of comfort. When left to their own devices, those in the role of boss, mentor, or coach are likely to provide advice and share technical expertise, while possibly also asking good questions that will cause the other person to think about topics in a new way.
To build influencing skills in a global organization, however, it is important to reach out to future leaders from different cultural backgrounds who may be located on the other side of the world. The head of a global business unit and the mentor or coach for a high potential individual in a fast-growth market must be willing to champion the cause of a person with an unfamiliar profile, communication style, and set of behaviors that contradict corporate norms. Before sharing knowledge and advice they must take extra care to understand what their counterpart really needs – in some cases the best place to start is to introduce, and to demonstrate how to access, the vast array of information available at headquarters.
Still more important than such access to information are the contacts that will enable a new leader to get things done across borders. An employee whose primary work experience to date has been in his or her home country, far removed from regional or corporate offices, needs well-placed “angels” who can help them gain access to scarce resources, make a business case for a new venture, or advocate for product features that will best serve local customers.


Formal Training Programs (10%): Learning How to Influence

Experts often note that formal training should comprise a relatively small element of a leader’s learning process. It is, of course, true that all learning needs to be applied on the job in order to become a meaningful part of one’s repertoire of knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Having said this, formal learning programs designed to highlight influencing capabilities can have a major impact in the following ways:
  • Learning Influencing Skills: There is much to learn about how to exert influence across boundaries.  Research indicates that the techniques most frequently used, such as logical persuasion, are not the ones that are most effective: alliance-building, exchanging, legitimizing, or appealing to values.4  Even perceptions of what is “logical” or “legitimate” vary from one culture to another. Leaders can cultivate such techniques through the use of case studies, simulations, and action learning projects that address real issues for themselves or their companies.
  • Organization Development: The ability to influence depends as much on organizational processes and systems as it does on interpersonal skills. For example, leaders of global teams must learn how to position their team for success from the outset by ensuring that:
    • The team has strong executive sponsorship;
    • There is agreement across functional and regional boundaries regarding the priority and objectives of the team’s efforts;
    • Team members have shared goals and an awareness of key stakeholders;
    • There are sufficient resources and technology in place for dispersed team members to communicate effectively and build trust over time;
    • Metrics for the performance of team members are aligned.


Indeed, almost any major global initiative requires marshaling a wide variety of resources and stakeholders in the service of a common purpose, and it is essential for leaders to exercise the organizational influence to make this happen.
  • Horizontal and Vertical Networking: Global leadership development programs offer the chance to build or strengthen ties between current or future leaders and their peers from around the world. Through shared experiences such as visiting a fast-growth market together or carrying out action learning projects, they build mutual understanding, respect, and a network of relationships that last well beyond the program dates. Similarly, programs for future leaders based in emerging market locations can help them to meet and share their ideas and proposals with national, regional, or headquarters executives. The visibility and mutual appreciation that is built through these exchanges are at least as valuable as the ideas themselves.


Growing leadership talent around the world at an accelerated pace is a tall order, but it is not impossible. Bringing the lens of influence to each of the primary ways that leaders learn their craft provides the best opportunity for success.


[1] Gundling, Ernest, Terry Hogan, and Karen Cvitkovich, What is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders. Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2011.

[2] “The Global Leader,” CLC Human Resources, Corporate Executive Board, Executive Briefing, February 2012.


[4] Bacon, Terry, “Cultural Differences in Influence,” Lore International Institute, 2008.