What Does It Take to Be a Global Leader?

March 17, 2014

global leadership development
For nearly two decades top organizations have expanded their leadership development programming to respond to the growing demands of globalization. The goal is being able to ensure employees at all levels build the skills needed in an increasingly global environment.

For years these programs received high marks and support from senior management. However, a recent study suggests that change is necessary to sustain both the substance and constituency of global leadership development programs.

In 2013, the American Management Association, the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or i4cp, and Training magazine conducted a review of global leadership development programs. The review sought insights from nearly 1,200 practitioners in organizations characterized by broad thinking and deep analysis in leadership development. Their responses reveal a first glimmer of sobering criticism of — as well as shrinking tolerance for — a lack of results from these programs.

Organizations offered tempered self-assessments of leadership development program effectiveness compared with previous years. In particular, while the proportion of respondents reporting effectiveness in the top two ratings rose — from 42 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2011, and then to 51 percent in 2012 — it fell in 2013 to 40 percent. These findings suggest there is work to be done to improve global leadership development.

Retooling Content

Change is afoot for both the substance and constituency of global leadership development programs. In fact, compared with the top nine competencies in 2012, organizations in 2013 reported less mastery in nearly every competency, with the largest decreases being in strategy execution, strategy development, ability to influence and build coalitions, and leading cross-cultural teams. The study also looked at competencies that reflect the greatest needs, with the biggest shortfall in global competencies. Participants reported low mastery levels in most of the global competencies studied, including language fluency, multi-country supply chain management, leading cross-cultural teams, execution of global strategy and knowledge of specific cultures in other markets. Further, to the extent that fluency in social media and virtual technology are an essential global competency, respondents reported lack of acumen there as well.

While it would be easy to assign blame for falling mastery at the feet of participants in global leadership development programs, the data indicate the problem may be in program content. Kevin Martin, chief research and marketing officer at i4cp, said one of the more surprising findings in this research is the absence of curriculum related to anything global. He said just one of the eight global competencies studied — embracing diversity — made the overall top 10 list of competencies included in global leadership development programs.

“This void becomes even more pronounced and disturbing given only 40 percent of organizations indicate that geographies or markets where their company has operations is a significant factor that drives their process. With an increasingly borderless world, organizations must build leaders who under- stand and embrace the cultural, regulatory, political and personal nuances prevalent in their workforce and the markets they serve.”

What seems clear is today’s global leadership development programs were designed for yesterday’s global business environment. For these programs to succeed, content needs to be retooled to address the reality of the global marketplace.

“Learning for global leadership used to be just an innovative frame of reference, a buzz term or a desirable objective for many large organizations. But increasingly global competitiveness has become an urgent imperative,” said Stephen Parker, global director of partner development at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

The Changing Nature of Leadership

It’s also likely that organizations are not including employees who have the potential to be global leaders as participants in their programs. Program selection is based on position and title, and in today’s flatter organizations the definition of “leader” has begun to move away from title-based designations.

When asked how they define “leader,” 45 percent of study participants responded that an employee must be “in charge of a group of employees or a function.” But 39 percent believed that a leader is “anyone whose role allows him or her to influence a group, regardless of direct reporting relationships.”

The global leadership skills hidden in employees who would not traditionally be considered leaders is a huge potential source for new approaches or solutions to challenges in the global marketplace. Some of these leaders undoubtedly possess the skill sets such as expertise in social media that, while less recognizable in traditional leaders, are tailor-made for the global environment.

Measure Results That Matter

The emphasis on results pervades every area in a business, and global leadership programs are no exception. Based on the aforementioned study data, evaluation measures have begun to shift away from the familiar, “smiley-face” stamp of participant satisfaction ratings toward more business-oriented performance measures. Though the top two metrics for evaluating the success of global leadership programs in 2012 also topped the list in 2013, there is one key difference: “observable changes in the specific behavior of participants” rose to the top slot, while “participants’ satisfaction ratings” fell to second place.

The use of more systematic measurement to assess the effectiveness of global leadership programs was inevitable. But it does put greater pressure on such programs. It likely will be increasingly unacceptable for senior management to endorse such efforts out of an intuitive sense that they are a good idea. Instead, programs must respond to an organization’s legitimate global needs.

The shortcomings revealed in the study should serve as a wake-up call for those who run global leadership development. Higher expectations bring scrutiny and a demand for measurable effectiveness. Here are some important steps for the learning leader to consider:

  • Continually review the content in global leadership development programming. Assess for relevance and alignment with the organization’s strategic workforce needs.
  • Widen the net for programs by promoting self selection. Any manager who expresses interest in global leadership development should be encouraged to participate. The study found this to be a sound contribution to program effectiveness. Such an initiative may help an organization uncover individuals who have a penchant for broadening their knowledge and sharpening their global leadership skills.
  • Senior management should be encouraged to become more involved in global leadership program design and delivery. The study found that specific requests or direction from the senior management team are almost always beneficial.
  • Review global leadership development program performance with the management team at regular intervals to ensure correlation with program effectiveness.
  • Use credible metrics to evaluate program effectiveness.
  • Seek input from external thought leaders.
  • Share success consistently and frequently to build program visibility and stature within the organization. Greater transparency about participant selection is also constructive.

As organizations seek to compete globally, they are raising expectations for global leadership programs. Although many components in these programs have remained constant over the years, there is growing recognition that to work beyond borders content must be continuously retooled to meet the emerging needs of the global environment.

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About The Author

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    The challenges reflected in this article are quite significant. However, they can be overcome with a very change in focus: from the specific to the general. I don’t mean to sound glib but as a former c-level executive in multinationals and now a coach and consultant I have seen these problems over and over again. Some are a consequence of the old “not invented here” syndrome which brings with it some form of cultural dominance by the center. Others reflect the business practices and norms, and culture of the periphery that comes into conflict with the center. Nonetheless, there is a commonality that can be leveraged to overcome all resistance and that is property.

    Regardless of where you are in the world or even where you are situated in time, property is the linchpin that holds everything together. In fact, there is a very strong relationship between the individual and property founded in most belief systems which form the basis for our legal systems and the economic organization of communities. Businesses, after all, only exist because they own and/or control an asset – a property – that can be used in a product which when consumed by the customer provides them with a competitive advantage, that is it makes some task or objective easier. Consequently, by focusing leadership development on the particular flavor of property in a given market it is possible to identify and train those individuals in skills that are relevant to them and their community. These leaders can then go in to formulate and execute robust strategies that are bith effective and efficient in their market.

    At ROKC Leadership Coaching we work with all our clients to help them lead their business and themselves based on property as it used globally and locally in commerce, as well as consistent with their belief system.

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