Global Leadership Development (Part I): Falling Behind the Curve

Posted on March 3, 2016

Global Leadership Development (Part I): Falling Behind the Curve

Global Leadership Development (Part I): Falling Behind the Curve

By Ernest Gundling, Managing Partner, and David Everhart, President, Aperian Global

Global Trends: The Backdrop

Global organizations’ efforts at leadership development are not keeping up with the rapidly evolving business landscape. Many programs are still designed from a headquarters perspective and calibrated for Western participants, neglecting other markets and groups of employees critical to the company’s future. Consider these key trends that have been gathering momentum for decades and are quite likely to continue even as local or regional economies speed up or slow down:

  • Population growth in emerging markets: The world has added five billion people, with 2 billion more on the way. We’ve nearly tripled the planet’s population in the last seventy years, from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion. Almost all of this explosive population growth is occurring in emerging markets.
  • Rapidly urbanizing developing world: The expansion of new cities is driving two-thirds of the world’s GDP growth, with millions of people moving to cities each month from more rural areas. Hundreds of additional cities will be required to house all of these people, and in addition, the citizens of each new city will need to purchase manufactured goods, transportation, food, and energy.
  • Growing middle class: A huge group of consumers that will soon number a billion or more now lives outside of Europe and North America. Its members in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America desire many of the products and services enjoyed by residents of the current high-consumption markets.
  • China and India: The world’s two largest countries in terms of population are still growing rapidly. Even a slowing Chinese economy – with GDP growth unofficially estimated at 4-6%, in contrast to the higher official estimate – is still expanding at double or triple the rate of the U.S., and India is growing at a 7% annual rate.

Leadership Development: Fatal Flaws

So how is the practice of leadership development responding to this massive tectonic shift in economic power and influence? Although leadership programs utilized by major multinationals increasingly feature “global” elements, many also share characteristics that can easily reinforce and perpetuate a dangerous corporate myopia. Here are a few common characteristics of both corporate leadership centers and renowned executive education programs that could lead participants to underestimate both the significance and the challenges of key growth markets.

Luxury Learning: People who design leadership development programs often have great affection for high-tech learning centers. The audio-visual equipment is sharp and reliable, there are comfortable accommodations nearby, travel arrangements are straightforward, it is feasible to invite top executives, and a location near headquarters provides access to strategy gurus and leading-edge R&D technology. A program held at this type of center is likely to be safe, predictable, and enjoyable for participants.

The problem with such venues is that they are almost completely unlike major emerging markets in which the organization must learn to win against aggressive competitors. The developing world is often messy and unpredictable, with a dynamism and speed of change that is difficult to grasp unless you witness it first-hand. Corporate learning centers provide a view from the top of the corporate mountain – actually from a nicely heated mountain-top chalet with polished windows – but not a visceral sense of the traffic congestion, power outages, corruption, squalid living conditions, youthful consumers, and fast-moving new players in emerging markets. Statistics, trends, and case examples from distant lands seldom convey real vividness or urgency.

The Parade of Professors: Academic experts can provide deep insights and relevant special expertise, whether the topic is finance, marketing, strategy, or innovation. For leadership program organizers, there is also a level of security and reassurance in inviting an expert with an established reputation. However, reward systems matter and they can impact the participation of most professional educators.

Faculty members at top universities are rewarded for prolific publishing in their area of specialization, not for customizing learning solutions for an organization’s specific needs. They are often happy to fill a slot in a leadership program and pocket a nice paycheck, but then they want to get back to their own work. They are seldom inclined to expend a lot of additional effort in learning about the strategic priorities and unique business circumstances of their corporate client (unless of course, these serve their research purposes), nor are they motivated to collaborate with other program faculty by exchanging information, reinforcing common themes, and delivering a seamless participant experience. The result can be a series of disconnected lectures that are informative but seldom have a transformational impact on participants. Professors accustomed to Western business school learning styles and examples also tend to neglect the interests and potential contributions of non-Western participants in the room.

Expert Executives: The concept of “Leaders Teaching Leaders” has become a part of numerous leadership development programs, and was established as a regular practice decades ago at General Electric and other major corporate learning centers. Leadership program participants typically look forward to the chance to rub shoulders with top executives, and many executives themselves enjoy the chance to share their own stories and accumulated organizational wisdom.

A potential problem with such executive involvement is that it may reinforce concepts and methods from the slow-growth center of the enterprise while underplaying opportunities in non-traditional markets. A “Leaders Teaching Leaders” approach generally relies on Western-grown leaders to do the teaching. Some of these executives are akin to generals who were victorious in a previous war and are still trying to apply the same tactics to the next one, even though the technology and the field of battle have altered radically. Leaders who have never actually lived in an emerging market may have a cognitive understanding of the business but are unable to provide relevant practical advice about how to lead effectively in places where logistical challenges, ambiguous market data, employee turnover, nimble local competitors, and government meddling are commonplace. They sometimes also assume that models and systems that have worked elsewhere can be readily imported, even when this is highly problematic.

Canned Culture: There is increasing recognition that culture is a critical factor in activities such as building effective virtual teams, the integration of a new acquisition, or the rollout of a new organization-wide system. Yet culture is usually an afterthought in leadership development programs, or when it is introduced, it is often presented in a “canned” format that presents country profiles, tidy distinctions, well-rehearsed stories about cross-border branding snafus, and hackneyed do’s and don’ts.

The keenest irony in this form of “canned culture” presentation, and in leadership programs in general, is that is that the actual diversity in the room is often underutilized or ignored. Leadership program participants from other parts of the world are often less vocal due to language differences, deference towards senior executives, intimidation in the face of headquarters-based peers, or a reluctance to put forward a personal viewpoint with which others will disagree. If they were given a real forum for expression, such participants would share their own valuable perceptions of local cultural variations, contradictions, organizational quirks, and changes affecting consumer tastes and buyer preferences. They could demonstrate the relevance of cultural knowledge for dealing with other nationalities and for organizational development as well. However, the culturally-embedded design of most leadership programs – which assumes, among other things, that participants will actively speak up, challenge, ask questions, and voice opinions with which others may disagree – normally ensures that Western participants play a dominant role in discussions and team projects, while others hold back.

Unintended Consequences

In short, existing leadership programs tend to reinforce mature market perspectives, while unintentionally blocking or trivializing views from other parts of the world – especially from locations that could provide the greatest future competitive threats and growth opportunities. Program participants who have relevant experience from faster-growth markets are often marginalized and judged negatively based on their hesitation to jump in and express their views according to Western standards; sometimes these standards are even codified in the form of allegedly “global” leadership competencies. At their seductive worst, such programs can instill a sense of overconfidence in headquarters-based participants that they have mastered global leadership by going through an elite experience and hearing from the relevant experts, when they have instead been insulated from the voices of experience that could help them to face current and future market realities. Meanwhile, participants from other markets may go away shaking their heads in disappointment in their own performance and in the disinclination of others to heed their points of view.

How can leadership development break out of this damaging set of design flaws and the insular patterns of behavior that they support, particularly if the organization’s long-term survival depends on success in previously unfamiliar environments? Find out later this month in Part Two of this blog, “Global Leadership Development: What’s Next?”

For more information on Aperian Global’s approach to leadership, please see our Leadership Development solutions page.

Leading Across Borders


Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts, co-authored by Ernest Gundling, is available through all major outlets. Get your copy!


About The Authors

ernest gundling ph.d

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 EverhartDavid Everhart currently serves as President of Aperian Global. 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.

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