Influencing Across Borders

Categories: Global Leadership

What’s different about leading in a global context?

Recent research has identified “influence,”1 as a key skill of successful global leaders. Increasing numbers of people are working on global teams with matrix reporting relationships. The team leaders in this scenario are unlikely to accomplish much at all without superior influencing skills, particularly in situations where they must work with large numbers of new stakeholders over whom they do not have direct authority.

Influence is also critical for:

  • those who seek to impact decisions at regional or corporate headquarters
  • collaboration efforts that require the alignment of goals and objectives across business units
  • change efforts run by executives who are promoting cross-border adoption of a new technology or process
  • working with global customers or suppliers who have their own agendas and complex market drivers

A study from the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) sharpens the focus on influence for effective global leadership development.2 The CLC conducted a survey of 11,500 leaders in 35 companies across a variety of industries and geographies. Influence emerged as the top-ranked competency of high performing global leaders – it was more strongly correlated with successful global leadership performance than capabilities traditionally seen as key elements of a leader’s job such as vision, decision-making, delegation, creativity, resource allocation, or holding employees accountable. The CLC observes,

“As soon as a leader transitions from single country to multi-country responsibility, the ability to influence becomes the critical differentiator. Influence is the fundamental competency that leaders must have to effectively assume global roles.”

The CLC also identified a significant business impact: great global leaders, characterized by their strong influencing skills, headed up business units that performed on average almost 30% better than the comparable units headed up by “global laggards” in the leaders’ peer group. Moreover, skillful influencers had significantly lower rates of employee turnover and higher rates of discretionary effort in their organizations.

It is rare in the field of talent development to find such compelling evidence of business impact, which makes the topic of influence even more vital for companies seeking to accelerate the growth of future leaders.

Defining “influence”

As with many areas, it is important to ensure that there is a shared understanding of the meaning of key terms. What does influence really mean for global leaders?  Frequently, it means getting things done across organizational and geographic boundaries even without direct reporting relationships in complex and fast-moving business environments. Having said this, there is a danger that many companies will leap to the conclusion, “Aha, we already have a program on influencing skills – let’s roll that out worldwide!” The result may be the imposition of a model of influence grounded in a particular cultural paradigm that is not relevant or effective elsewhere.

Influence techniques and culture

One approach to influence is to see it as a set of techniques, used either independently or in various combinations.

These techniques can include forms of “explaining” (e.g., logical persuasion), “asking” (e.g., appealing to relationship), or “inspiring” (e.g., appealing to values). There are also negative influencing techniques that most of us experience from childhood, such as intimidation and manipulation.

This view of influence becomes more complicated when the techniques favored in different cultural settings are compared. People from Israel and Greece, for example, are more likely to assert desired outcomes directly, in contrast to Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, or Japan where people are more reluctant to employ this strategy.

In a similar vein, a preferred form of influence in China is to craft mutual exchanges to address the needs of different parties, whereas this method of persuasion is relatively less frequent in Scandinavia. Appeals to values, a staple of much of the leadership theory from North America, are predictably most prevalent in the U.S., while this mode of persuasion is not as common in northern and eastern Europe.3

Although the data indicates that respondents in most countries do share a preference for certain influence techniques such as logical persuasion and socializing, it is even plausible to assert that the more finely grained rules for these universally favored activities vary across cultures: Will a presentation that appears “logical” in Japan be regarded in the same way in France? Are dinner customs in Brazil likely to carry over to the toasting etiquette at a Chinese banquet?

Recommendations for influencing across borders

So, how should a global leader develop his or her influencing skills, and how can organizations cultivate this mission-critical capability? Our own research indicates that influence is best understood as the outcome of a broader repertoire of knowledge and skills rather than as a discrete set of techniques.

The ten behaviors of successful global leaders outlined in the book, What is Global Leadership?, culminate in those that we call Influence Across Boundaries and Third Way Solutions. Here is the model, in which each behavior helps to support those at the next stage, along with a brief sample illustration of the impact of the first four behaviors on the ability to influence.


The SCOPE Framework

Cultural Self-Awareness

The first step to effective global leadership is seeing ourselves as having been shaped by a particular environment, and regarding our own leadership style as one approach in a world where other valid styles exist. Without the ability to rise above our habitual practices, taking this kind of helicopter perspective, we are more likely to be oblivious to vital differences in another environment.

Impact on Influence: Those who are culturally self-aware can more readily escape the most basic mistake of all when it comes to our attempts to influence: assuming that others are like us, and trying to influence them while looking in the mirror, using the method that would be most persuasive to us.

Invite the Unexpected

Successful global leaders report that every day they encounter unanticipated events they would be less likely to experience at home: new business opportunities, competitors, innovations, supply chain problems, employee relations issues, and so on. They have to deliberately position themselves to perceive and respond to the unexpected, or run the risk of reacting too slowly, misjudge its significance, or failing to see it all together. This also means taking the initiative to seek out points of local pride and strength, which may be very different from what is taken for granted at headquarters.

Impact on Influence: Seeing unexpected differences allows global leaders to take the first steps toward exerting influence successfully by engaging with real conditions on the ground, however unfamiliar they might seem, as well as tapping into local sources of enthusiasm and competence.

Results Through Relationships

Many people think they know what relationship means in a business context, and somewhat reluctantly dedicate the first few minutes of a meeting or a regional conference to “polite chitchat” in order to place a check mark in the relationship box. It is easy to underestimate the fact that in many countries personal relationships are the single most important factor in determining who your business partners are and in how decisions are made. Such relationships – which may be based on deep ties to family, schoolmates, community, or tribe – take a lifetime to cultivate and maintain, and require a degree of effort that is an order of magnitude beyond chitchat.

Impact on Influence: Building a strong global network of authentic personal relationships speeds up information exchange, decision-making, and execution, even in a matrix context. Teams can move much faster because their members feel a special bond to their leader and feel a personal obligation to the team.


Effective global leaders are able to shift their communication style, leadership methods, and strategy to fit various contexts; they can move skillfully back and forth between differing business environments, even when these call for very different approaches.

Impact on Influence: Beyond simply seeing differences, the behavior of “frame-shifting” requires active adaptation. A leader who can perform effectively in multiple contexts, modifying his or her communication style, leadership approach, and business strategy to best fit each situation, has a far better chance of being able to exert influence across boundaries than one who tries to replicate established patters of success that are grounded in a domestic business environment. 

Each additional behavior in the Global Leadership model represented in the Framework – including those listed under the headings, Opening the System and Preserving Balance – provides further support for the ability to Influence Across Boundaries.

Cultivating & accelerating the path to effective influencing

The good news is that these behaviors can be cultivated systematically through a number of methods: experience on the job, training, coaching, action learning, and global networking opportunities. However, this path is not an easy one, and is considerably more challenging than adding a few new techniques to one’s leadership toolkit through a one-day training program.

It is possible to accelerate a leader’s progress on the path to becoming an effective influencer. This role is described by great global leaders as similar to that of an ambassador or diplomat who engages in shuttle diplomacy, binding together the interests and contributions of people who live in different places. Simultaneously, this same role requires the creative resourcefulness of an entrepreneur, even within a very large organization, who must pull together limited resources and solutions from many different functions and organizational entities. Successful influence ultimately builds third way solutions; it is not based upon a personal agenda to influence others, but upon shared goals of the global organization. Good ideas may originate from anywhere and incorporate contributions from many different sources – influence ultimately derives its legitimacy from openness to the world.

For a more in-depth analysis of the skills needed to lead effectively in today’s global workplace, read a free chapter of Leading Across New Borders.

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