International Assignments for Global Leadership Development

Posted on October 15, 2011

International Assignments for Global Leadership Development

International Assignments for Global Leadership Development

Now more than ever, companies in the world over are focusing on developing global leaders through international assignments. This is driven by various forces: the steady march of countries and companies becoming increasingly interdependent for economic viability; population shifts and related shifts in GDP; and dramatic recent changes in the global economy that have served as a wake-up call to many.

While organizations have been deploying employees on international assignments for many decades, a lot has been learned about how these significant investments can be leveraged more strategically as a means to expedite the development of skills critical for taking on cross-border leadership roles. Companies are increasingly making assignments a prerequisite for executive roles, and are also trying to better leverage key learnings of their assignees to accelerate the development of global talent throughout each person’s career path.

Aperian Global’s Research with International Assignees on the Topic of Global Leadership

In a previous post entitled What is Global Leadership?, we outlined in broad terms the nature of our recent research on Global Leadership, and specifically, responses to the question, “What is different about global leadership?” Ultimately, this research entailed more than seventy interviews with international assignees selected by their employers as exemplary global leaders. The interviewees represented a range of industries and 25 different countries of origin. Eighty percent of them had been on more than one international assignment, and their assignments were to 31 different country destinations.

The interviewees were asked to compare what was required of them in their global leadership roles (e.g. country or regional director, or head of a major business or functional group) as compared to domestic leadership roles they had performed in their home countries. The overriding consensus among them was that global leaders must carry out tasks similar to those of leaders in any location, yet they must be able to shift strategies, business processes, and personal styles to fit different cultural environments along with a broader range of employee backgrounds and motivations.

“Global leadership is very different, remarkably different. The business world has some global measures, but how to accomplish those things? We can all agree on growing 10%, but what are the means to get there? The process? The people skills? All these are different to reach the same result.”


Based on the findings from our research, ten global leadership behaviors were identified, behaviors that if effectively applied in the context of an international assignment will vastly increase the individual’s odds of success. In this issue, we feature one of the ten behaviors: Frame-Shifting. While on assignment, individuals must learn to shift their perspective and leadership methods to better fit the different circumstances. Frame-shifting requires the cognitive and behavioral agility to alter both one’s leadership style and strategic approach. Successful global leaders are nimble enough to take on new frames of reference and to modify their approach to various environments without losing sight of their primary business objectives.

Communication Style

The first stylistic challenge that emerges for many global leaders is how they communicate. This area overlaps with general intercultural communication issues that affect anyone working across borders. However, leaders have an urgent need to get certain kinds of communication right, including asking others to take on tasks, giving and receiving critical feedback, getting to the bottom of key issues through their questions, and knowing when others have truly committed to a course of action.

Even within the same country there are different levels of directness depending upon the situation, and each country has its own version of common sense communication standards taken for granted by insiders but not instantly visible to others. Situational factors may include whether you are in the workplace or in a social setting, your hierarchical status in relation to others, and the degree of closeness of a relationship. In some countries it is normal for a leader to be directly critical of a subordinate whereas the reverse is unacceptable except in certain social settings. The accepted practice with very critical messages may be to convey them through a third party or in private. And causing embarrassment or loss of face, even when unintended, can lead an entire team or organization to turn on its leader.

Leadership Style

The need to “frame-shift” in terms of communication practices is linked with more comprehensive shifts in leadership style. Leaders who are trained in a facilitative approach that constantly informs and draws upon the expertise of other team members may find that colleagues in another country expect them to take a more directive stance — indeed, failing to do so can be seen as a sign of weakness or lack of capability. Or, for instance, a person who is used to being positioned as an expert technical resource may need to shift to a broader team leadership perspective or vice versa. And the emotionally expressive style that worked in one country must be toned down in another.

  • Consultative/Directive: “I learned the need to modify my leadership style in order to be effective in other cultures. For example, when I was working with Mexico, they expected a more authoritarian style of leadership. This is the opposite of my U.S. MBA training. My style did not work in Mexico; the U.S. participatory style was viewed as ineffective.”
  • Specialist Knowledge / General Team Leadership: “In Mali leadership was based on technical skills and leading by example; in Benin it required more of a team approach so I learned more about team leadership.”
  • Emotional Expression: “If you contrast Mexico with Indonesia, in Mexico it is about emotion; I could use a highly emotional devil’s advocate approach to challenge people. This style completely flopped in Indonesia. They use small teams, give homework, and are non-confrontational. You have to understand the culture you are working with and adapt your style.”

Leadership Strategy

In addition to communication and leadership styles, frame-shifting extends to the strategic approach that a leader takes to working in different markets. If a mark of intelligence is being able to hold two contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time, global leaders who recognize major differences between country and regional markets must be able to shape strategies for new markets that sometimes run contrary to the basic value proposition of strategies born at home. There are many possible reasons for this:

  • Distinctive products or services have various levels of appeal in global markets;
  • New environments present different requirements for product features, quality, cost, and delivery;
  • Local innovation offers fresh opportunities;
  • Unanticipated sources of local competition call for a response that is not required elsewhere;
  • Local organizational support systems or supply chain may be inadequate to implement strategies conceived in other locations.

Given this kind of volatility, there is a constant need to weigh the potential costs of adaptation against the size and potential of each market, and strategic flexibility is essential. As one interviewee commented, “The problem is when you get married to one strategy or the other. You need to apply the best one for the situation to get results.” This happens not only with individual leaders but with entire startup teams that are assigned to new markets, especially when they feel the pressure to get things done quickly. Their style of action and sense of timing can undermine their ability to construct a viable strategy:

“The initial team fails in most startup countries. The expectations are so high for immediate action that they fall all over themselves trying to do things and the team fails because they are not accustomed to doing non-standard things.”

International Assignment Services for Global Leaders

How can leaders break away from past behaviors and patterns to embrace effective global strategies? Companies today are focusing on global leadership development for international assignments to address this issue. Overseas and international assignment training has moved from basic language training and minimal cultural overviews to an interactive and flexible training system. Rather than teaching basic facts, international assignee preparation gives expatriates and managers the adaptable skills needed to thrive on overseas and global assignments.


In all of these areas – communication style, leadership style, and strategy – global leaders may have to distance themselves from deep-rooted patterns of action, including those that are associated with past successes, in order to be able to alternate effectively between established markets and emerging markets, between the familiar and the new. International assignments are a pivotal opportunity for employees to develop and hone this critical “frame-shifting” ability. Companies that can foster the capability to frame-shift early and often in the careers of future leaders, both through international assignments and through disseminating the vital experiences of assignees, will find that they are better able to meet the challenges posed by global customers and competitors.

The Global Leadership BookInterested in reading more? The content of this blog is based on excerpts from a book on global leadership authored by Aperian Global thought leaders, What is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors that Define Great Global Leaders. The book provides readers with detailed descriptions of each behavior defining great global leaders, as well as information on how these behaviors can be applied in the context of leadership development programs, executive coaching, global teams and leader-led action learning. 

Download Free Chapter    Buy on Amazon


Aperian Global has supported leaders and executives to develop global leadership skills for more than 25 years. Our suite of customized solutions creates leadership teams who can leverage diversity and thrive in a variety of settings. Learn more about our Global Leadership Development solutions or contact us to discuss your specific needs.


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