Companies that ignore the global mindset do so at their own peril. The ones that most effectively develop this quality in their employees – particularly senior leaders – will have a distinct advantage over their competitors.
Historians among us have watched during the past decades as the term “expatriate manager” turned into “international manager” and then “global leader.” Yet today, about 20 years after the phrase “global leadership” first entered the learning and development vocabulary, a surprising number of companies have barely begun to adapt their language, skills models and leadership architectures to include strong global components.
Beware: If your leadership pipeline isn’t actively creating global citizens able to deal with mind-bending levels of ambiguity and complexity, and if your up-and-comers are not already innovating across political, social and cultural boundaries in a way that suggests they’re able to spot opportunities no one else sees, then your competitors will be studying you in a case on “those who became extinct on the road to globalization.”
In Duke Corporate Education’s review of research across three fields and its diagnostic/design work with the Global 1000, it has seen global mindset emerge as an important differentiator, driving success in new markets and transforming presence into global competitive advantage. While normative research involving small groups of executives continues on this topic, it misses out on interdisciplinary insights gained from integrating decades of scholarship. This article attempts to address that oversight.
The French energy company Total is a good example of an organization intent on building its capabilities around global mindset in its “company manager” ranks — what other companies would call “country managers” — in which they cover not only such basics as law, local context, crisis management, safety and security but explicitly address “leading in ambiguity” and the issues and opportunities around leading people different from oneself. Medtronic, a leader in medical technology headquartered in Minneapolis and doing business in 120 countries, found itself “talking global but acting like an international firm,” and did something about it.
But what is global mindset and how can senior learning professionals establish it in their leadership pipelines, given the certainty that the demand for global leaders will continue to outstrip the supply?
How Great Global Leaders Think
Global leadership starts with understanding and insight across any given country’s society: its social structures, institutions and demographics. This understanding must extend to business-relevant issues such as legal, regulatory and economic structures. “Global leadership,” by definition, involves influence of the leader over those who are very different: people who, from their cultural background to their view of the world, will not have the same common experiences, legal frameworks, social structures or even the same views on the corporation’s role in society. At the same time, global leadership involves more than leading in just two or three countries.
When we talk about global leadership, we mean the process of leading across borders where one encounters all the wonderful complexity of cultural, social, legal, regulatory and economic systems. Following Schon Beechler and Mansour Javidan’s definition, we define it as the process of influencing individuals, groups and organizations — inside and outside the boundaries of the global organization — that represent diverse cultural, political and institutional systems to contribute toward the achievement of the global organization’s goals.
Underlying this definition are two important pillars:
1. Global leadership is a process, not a single competency added to a domestic leader’s skills portfolio.
2. What knowledge a leader integrates and how it is integrated are fundamentally different for a global leader than for a domestic leader.
Global leaders can see many different perspectives and views at once — even contradictory ones. They are able to extract what is important from complex data and decode it accurately. Rather than having a single interpretation of an event and an immediate response, a global leader chooses from a broader behavioral repertoire than a domestic leader. This way of thinking, and all that enables it, is what we mean by “global mindset.”
What Differentiates Global Mindset From Domestic Mindset?
Global leaders possess 10 interdependent characteristics that we group into three categories — intellect, psychology and knowledge and skills — although not all these attributes are uniquely associated with global rather than domestic leaders.
Knowledge and skills: Global leaders must broadly understand cultural, political and socioeconomic conditions, history and interrelations, and the breadth of this knowledge outstrips what domestic leaders need. They also need a greater behavioral repertoire, a broader set of behaviors to call on, contextually appropriate for a range of situations. Capacity and complexity in this realm are not just a difference in degree but a difference in kind: Global leaders must acquire new knowledge and skills that are not required of a domestic leader.
Intellect: High IQ has to be tempered with a high degree of cognitive complexity. Global leaders can simultaneously hold and apply several valid but competing and complementary interpretations of a domain or situation. They can balance contradiction, ambiguities and tradeoffs, and manage paradoxes. Global leaders also are characterized by expert intuition, common sense and learning agility. They quickly can tell whether a situation is typical or atypical, and act.
Psychology: Characteristics in this category may be familiar, but they have not been cohesively structured around the concept of developing global leadership until now.
Self-awareness is especially important because its absence is the single-most critical derailer for senior leaders. All leaders need to be self-aware, but global leaders must understand how they are perceived in diverse contexts by many different people with different assumptions and behavioral norms. To lead effectively, they need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, their emotions and their impact on others.
In addition, global leaders need to be open-minded and nonjudgmental in order to see the complexity of the information before them and to weigh it effectively to make good decisions.
Individuals more likely to succeed as global leaders also manifest inquisitiveness, which motivates them to learn and enjoy the process of learning. They have a deep curiosity about other people and cultures, an interest in what makes people different. As our colleague Professor Stewart Black points out, learning invigorates rather than exhausts them.
Tolerance for ambiguity also is critical. A global leader will never have all the data or enough data to make thorough, sound decisions — so they must relish the opportunity that ambiguity provides to make progress when others are paralyzed. From their perspective, a lack of clarity means that more possibilities exist, that more avenues are open to success.
Finally, if there is one lesson the whole of the research in the diversity field teaches us, it is this: Being able to establish trust and proactively build relationships with those different from oneself is a critical capability for anyone working with a large network.
Global leaders have employees scattered around the world, but that’s the easy part. Without relying on traditional lines of authority, they need to influence a dizzying matrix of diverse supply-chain, joint-venture and strategic-alliance partners working to execute integrated global strategies. And their organizations’ boundaries are even more permeable and fuzzy than in domestic firms.
Where Can Talent Management Help?
Many elements of global mindset develop slowly over time as experience is integrated and applied to new situations or via slow changes in personality or style. This suggests talent management for global leaders starts at the point of hire, selecting candidates with the necessary intellectual and psychological profiles. IQ remains a stable predictor of success, and cognitive complexity is critical for success.
In addition, open-minded, nonjudgmental and inquisitive qualities also should be sought out from the beginning.
That said, efforts on coaching and developing global leaders may shift from “closing gaps” to “managing overused strengths.” Consider the new hire who has a high IQ, expert intuition and skill in handling complex situations: Without an equal portion of self-insight and the ability to establish a high degree of trust, the new hire may disable a team’s decision-making or condition it to become dependent on him or her.
Once a promising leader has insight into a new hire’s strengths and weaknesses and the motivation and interest to change in critical areas, we recommend six things to consider in helping the person develop a global mindset:
1. Get the new hire out of his or her home country. Curiosity and education will take a leader well along this journey, yet there is no substitute for living in a country.
2. Identify mentors in the organization who exemplify the characteristics of global leaders, and deliberately connect them. While there is some controversy on matching mentors and mentees, allowing a pool of mentors and mentees to self-select into pairings yields good results.
3. Build skills in managing strengths. Helping people with high capabilities in different areas means helping them see the line they can cross by using that capability too much, which has implications for coaching and feedback models.
4. Think two to three assignments ahead. The time horizon for developing global leaders must be significantly longer than for domestic leaders. Many of the high-value integrative skills that high-performing global leaders need will come over successive assignments.
5. Vary the assignments. For some organizations, this may be counterintuitive: “We invested in this woman’s development, and now that she’s over the learning curve, we want to give her similar assignments to extract value for the business.” Yet, assignments must not only be complex, they should vary from type of business challenge to type of cross-border challenge.
6. Integrate the learning explicitly and periodically. A great deal of value can be realized at the end of every assignment or project by focusing the leader on the deliberate application of learning to other situations. Too often, organizations that work hard to get Nos. 4 and 5 in place fail to establish this integrative mechanism.
There are many specific recommendations for each characteristic in this model. However, as a rule of thumb, if you ensure developmental efforts incorporate a level of complexity and require leaders to stretch their current capacities, you’re on the right track.
Finally, to be clear: High performance today means being globally skilled. To be globally skilled requires leaders to have a deeper, more sophisticated global mindset than leaders of the past. A multi-domestic presence with leaders who are culturally aware is far short of what is required today. The good news is, along with vexing challenges, globalization has and will open new growth and profit opportunities for organizations and new avenues for building organizational capability. The ability of an organization and its senior management to recognize, embrace and nurture global mindset will be directly related to its success.
As learning leaders, our understanding of the importance of global mindset to success, as well as how it develops in our leaders, gives us the wisdom to help our organizations excel.