1. What exactly is global leadership, and how is it different from leadership in general?
2. How can global leadership competencies be disseminated as rapidly and effectively as possible throughout the organization?
We are pleased to report the completion of the first phase of an extensive research effort that focused on global leadership development and those two questions above.
Problems with Existing Frameworks
Although a variety of studies have been conducted on global leadership, and there are long lists of competencies, the frameworks offered to date tend to have several key weaknesses:
1. Global leadership competencies are often not clearly distinguished from competencies needed by leaders in any role.
2. The competencies listed are often so broad or abstract (e.g., “inquisitiveness,” “flexibility,” or “business savvy”) that they are difficult to develop and utilize in a practical way.
3. Many so-called “global” competencies are extensions of domestic practices. Headquarters executives may assume, based on minimal evidence, that their own leadership styles are readily exported. At the same time, leadership consultants are highly motivated to assert that their models have universal value, even when such models are greeted with puzzlement, resistance, or misinterpretation in foreign markets.
In order to address the points described above, we asked representatives from ten major companies in a range of industries and with headquarters in several world regions to identify interviewees with the following characteristics:
- Eighteen months or more of experience being an international assignee;
- Judged to be highly successful in leadership roles while on assignment;
- Previous leadership positions in a domestic context;
- Various national backgrounds;
- Assigned to a wide variety of destination countries.
We then interviewed 51 international assignees selected by their companies according to these criteria. 80% of interviewees had been on more than one international assignment, which makes this a group of very seasoned global leaders. Given that each had previously been in a leadership role in his or her home country, they were ideally positioned to compare leadership in a global context with domestic leadership.
In all, the interviewees came from 24 different countries of origin and had international assignments to 31 different country destinations. This rich mixture enabled us to identify themes that emerged across the board rather than those characteristics of a particular nationality or destination.
So, What’s the Difference?
The overriding consensus among our interviewees 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 a different environment and a broader range of employee backgrounds and motivations. Quotes from interviewees:
“The core leadership skills prevail, such as getting results through people… but you have to adapt your style to the people, the environment, the way things are done, the things that help you get it done.”
“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.”
Many articulated that in their experience a different level of effort was required to perform effectively in their global leadership capacity than in a purely domestic leadership role.
“I could do three out of five things in a domestic leadership role and still be successful, while in my global position I had to get all five right or the initiative would fail.”
“If this is what I would normally do at home, here I have to ramp it up about 50%.”
As these remarks suggest, the competencies described below are important and yet easy to underestimate. The very people who need them the most tend to minimize their significance by highlighting similarities to generic leadership and repeating comforting but false mantras such as “leadership is the same everywhere” or “others are trying to become more like us.” This is not what we heard.
A distillation of our research findings is provided below. Based on an examination of all the interview data, we found that certain competencies came up repeatedly. The competencies fall into five major developmental steps that interviewees described. What follows is a short description of each developmental step in the progression with a sample competency and representative statements from the interviewees.
Figure 1: Global Leadership Competencies