Why Global Leaders Need Front Line Experience

Categories: Global Leadership

What can organizations do to equip global leaders with deep insights and know-how regarding the markets most critical to their future?

Some leadership development programs unintentionally insulate participants from key growth market opportunities and voices. Here we focus on the antidote to such protective insulation – the executive version of a full immersion learning journey.

Firsthand Experience

An obvious and yet underutilized approach to help global executives better understand the business challenges they face is to take them to the “front lines.” This means going to key markets like China, India, Nigeria, or Indonesia (to name a few) and experiencing the environment and issues firsthand. Many executive development programs use simulations, case study discussions, and so on, but nothing compares with a well-facilitated “full immersion” experience. Done correctly, such front-line learning carries tremendous impact. The world’s growth markets are dynamic, rapidly evolving settings where thousands of citizens are entering the middle class each day, and millions move each year from the countryside to the city. While leaders may have seen reports about these places and have a cognitive grasp of general trends, there is no substitute for going there to fully grasp their significance.

It is, of course, possible to travel to a new location and spend a safe and comfortable week in hotel meeting rooms, with little direct contact with the local environment. We recommend instead an agenda that pulls leaders outside of their “comfort zones” through direct contact with:

  • Local employees
  • Expatriates
  • Customers
  • Competitors
  • Suppliers
  • Distributors
  • Joint venture partners
  • Government officials
  • Local society and culture

Systematic daily debriefings and group discussions after each of these encounters help to consolidate new learnings. They also provoke wider questioning of risks and growth opportunities, unanticipated customer demands, new sources of competition, government initiatives, supply chain challenges, and disruptive forms of innovation from outside a company’s home market.

Leadership program coordinators tend to shudder at all the things that can go wrong with schedules and logistics in emerging market environments. We have heard many such objections. Our personal favorite occurred several years ago when a client did not want us to take senior executives to Western China because it was “too dangerous, and what if someone gets sick?”. We pointed out that the firm was building a major manufacturing hub there and already had thousands of employees plus more than a hundred expatriates in a city of more than ten million inhabitants. Since those original questions were raised, many large groups of leaders have traveled there without incident.

The inherent messiness and unpredictability that is a part of some emerging market locations can be seen either as horrifying or as part of the learning experience. Delayed flights, power outages, choked traffic on bumpy, dusty roads, animals in the street and motorcycles carrying families of six or seven all provide unforgettable messages about the nature of the local marketplace. Leaders from more developed countries also experience a vivid sense of their own limitations and/or potential for personal growth. Some revel in the market dynamism and opportunities, while others recoil at the sights, sounds, and smells – even the sheer press of humanity in crowded urban settings. Testing one’s dietary limitations or willingness to try new foods offers non-trivial learnings about flexibility and resilience. “Agility,” a term often brandished in leadership programs, is not merely cognitive but also a gut-level response to limited personal space, urban poverty, and unfamiliar foods and climate.

Over the fifteen years during which we have been running such programs, we have witnessed many “Aha!” moments from participants that occurred on the spot. Here are a few examples:

“I have a new respect for one of our local competitors. I had thought they were a couple of product cycles behind us, but now I know that they are much closer to our level of quality, with a price point that is thirty percent lower. What if they decide to export to our home market?!”

— Anonymous Client

“I sat through a virtual meeting with my local colleagues here in China late at night and watched how they were verbally run over by my team members back at headquarters. Now I am much more deliberate in inviting them into team meetings and ensuring that they have their say – they have begun to share important market insights.”

— Anonymous Client

“The experience I have in a mature market in Europe could be very useful to my colleagues here who have not yet had to live through a market slowdown.”

— Anonymous Client

“Our joint venture partners in this country are actually very different and it is a mistake to think of them in the same way. We have to deal with each of them differently based on their internal politics and government ties.”

— Anonymous Client

“We have employees based in this region who could really benefit from a short-term assignment abroad. I’ve already started to make arrangements for this to happen.”

— Anonymous Client

“We are looking to this country as a key growth market, and yet we only have a handful of local executives at the top levels. We need to accelerate talent development here in a major way.”

— Anonymous Client

“The workers in the factory here are so young! I can’t believe the product quality is at the top of our global system with an average worker age of twenty-six!”

— Anonymous Client

Positioning Emerging Leaders

Another remarkable outcome of “immersive” leadership programs in fast-growth markets is that participants who come from these locations are suddenly front and center. A leader from China or India, for instance, who might have stayed quietly in the background during a program held at headquarters, deferring to more vocal Western participants, is suddenly an authority to whom all participants turn. Local leaders earn fresh recognition for their market knowledge, customer and employee contacts, multilingual skills, and business results. Expatriates, too, who may have long felt that their perspective was neglected and their daily achievements ignored by headquarters, now find themselves frequently tapped for insights about their current home. The geographical shift in program location produces a comprehensive re-sorting among participants: levels of participation, prestige, and respect conveyed all shift toward a new orientation that focuses on requirements for growth in expanding markets.

Building Global Competencies and Contacts

Research indicates that the ability to influence without direct authority is the most vital global competency (see, for example, the Corporate Leadership Council study called “The Global Leader”). Seasoned executives participating in leadership development programs are already likely to be highly capable in taking on complex tasks, breaking them down into manageable pieces, and driving successful implementation. Yet to succeed at the next level they must be able to get things done within a global matrix where they often lack direct authority. A “fish out of water” experience in a dynamic market location provides them with shared opportunities to:

  • See themselves as the product of a particular cultural setting (Cultural Self-Awareness);
  • Notice unanticipated aspects of a different business environment and inquire to understand more deeply (Invite the Unexpected);
  • Establish trusting relationships with key global counterparts inside and outside of the company (Results through Relationships);
  • Experiment with new approaches or styles suited to other cultural and socioeconomic contexts (Frame-Shifting);
  • Balance adaptation with assertiveness to drive change when needed (Adapt & Add Value).

Such global competencies help to lay the groundwork for influence within a matrix organization. It is possible to introduce such competencies at headquarters, but they almost always take a back seat to other topics. In an emerging market setting, they suddenly become more obvious and essential. Exerting influence may mean shuttling virtually or in-person across geographical and functional boundaries, like an effective diplomat who can, for instance, explain headquarters to India and India to headquarters. Leaders who learn how to influence without direct authority are able to weave together diverse perspectives, resources, and business requirements to create powerful cross-border solutions.

Learn Directly from Future Markets

Global leadership development programs may have various participants and objectives. For organizations whose strategy includes expanding rapidly in other growth markets around the world, the combination of firsthand experience, positioning emerging leaders, and building global competencies and contacts is a stimulating elixir. Beyond the standard lineup of experts and executives, accompanied by an array of instruments, assessments, and competencies, why not dive into the markets of the future and learn directly from them?

About the Authors

Dr. Ernest Gundling
Co-Founder and Managing Parter at Aperian Global

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D. is a co-Founder of Aperian Global & currently serves as Managing Partner. Ernest works with clients to develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. He’s a frequent contributor to many industry publications and has authored several books including the recently published, Leading Across New Borders:  How to Succeed as the Center Shifts.
Connect with Ernie on LinkedIn.

David Everhart
Co-Founder and CEO of Ionis International

David conducts leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors.
Connect with David on LinkedIn.


Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts, Gundling, Caldwell, and Cvitkovich, 2015.

The Global Leader, Corporate Leadership Council, 2012.

What is Global Leadership? Ten Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders, Gundling, Hogan, and Cvitkovich, 2011.

Advances in Global Leadership, Volume 8, Osland et al; “Global Leadership Development at Ford,” Gundling, Grant, and Everhart.