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Four ways to become a global leader

September 22, 2014
Borderless Leadership

Think globally, act locally” advises a popular bumper sticker. The second part is easy enough to understand, but what does it mean to “think globally?”

It is a truism to say that globalization is one of the megatrends affecting business today. No less an authority than Jack Welch said that “the Jack Welch of the future cannot be like me. I spent my entire career in the United States. The next head of [General Electric] will be somebody who spent time in Bombay, in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires.”

Despite this, many organizations are having difficulty moving to a truly global orientation. Why? Many have top management and boards that are dominated by home-country nationals, focus on “hard” management tools such as strategies, structures and systems, undervalue soft skills – seeing them as mostly common sense – and develop career paths that focus on narrow functional specialization with little international exposure.

So, how do you acquire a global mindset? A few strategies come to mind: travel to other countries, learn a new language, go to school abroad, or take an expatriate work assignment. All of these are valuable, but do these sometimes one-off experiences lead to a truly global mindset? We need to look a little deeper.

A global mindset requires that an individual be able to detatch from their own culture and experiences, and be both aware and open to the diversity around them. Then that person must be able to use this “cultural intelligence” to work effectively across cultures and achieve results. Research at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, near Phoenix, has identified three types of capital that underlie a global mindset. These are:

Intellectual capital: Described as “cognitive complexity” and a cosmopolitan outlook – an ability to see things from multiple points of view, not just your own;

Psychological capital: A passion for diversity and a quest for adventure;

Social capital: Having an ability to understand and interact with others quite different than yourself.

Stephen Cohen, founder of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, has recently argued that a multidimensional approach is needed to develop effective global leadership. He identifies these as the four E’s: examination, education, experience, and exposure.

Examination: This refers to self-awareness. One tool is the Thunderbird School’s Global Mindset Inventory. This is a Web-based survey that can be used for self-assessment or peer feedback. While no instrument is perfect, this can be a valuable way to complete the crucial first step – developing self-awareness and identifying gaps that can become the focus for training or other developmental experiences.

Education: This can occur in a variety of ways. For overseas assignments, cultural training prior to leaving and while on assignment is common. More formally, many MBA programs have been integrating a global focus into the curriculum and some have developed specialized programs. Some programs include language training, international internships and an exchange option. One university has recently introduced an international MBA program that allows students to spend a term each in countries that have mature, transitional and developing economies.

At the executive MBA level, most programs now include an international trip. Some schools have satellite campuses in overseas locations, while others have forged partnerships with schools abroad. Some offer a globally oriented curriculum, international faculty and electives that integrate students from campuses around the world.

Experience: This refers to acting or doing. This is where an expatriate assignment or managing a global team would deepen the knowledge acquired through reflection and education and make it meaningful and relevant. Learning the language, understanding cultural norms, and rotations to different parts of the world would all enhance this. For many years, HSBC, “the world’s local bank,” had an international manager program whereby bright young recruits were sent for periods of three years to challenging locations. In this way, the bank built up a reservoir of talent with international experience to become the next generation of leaders.

Exposure: This dimension focuses on people and roles. This frequently involves having mentors who have “been there and done that” to help you assimilate and grow. Having an organization that values global experience and factors this into the development of senior managers is important. Having individuals who have a global mindset is one thing, but this must be reinforced and valued on the “hard” side of the organization as well. This implies that the organization’s strategy, structure and systems are all globally oriented, otherwise the investment in developing people will not return the value it should.

In the end, developing a global mindset is a continuing process – a life-long journey rather than an endpoint. And, like most journeys, it is important to try to enjoy the ride.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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