What’s So Global About Global Leadership?

I was recently approached by a friend doing an executive search for a Global Organization Development/Leadership Development role. He knows a lot about this field and has done a ton of recruiting, and he called to ask me what makes a candidate ‘global.’ What is the difference between a regular OD/LD person and a ‘global’ one and how do you recognize a ‘global’ one when you meet them? Besides the obvious, of course, what specifically would he be looking for? This was the second time this week the topic of global leadership vs. regular old leadership came up, so I wanted to share some thoughts.

There is no certification or set of qualifications that makes someone a ‘global’ leader. Presumably, having lead a global team or having lived in multiple countries would lead many to deem one person more global than another, but I think there are a few more things worth considering…and you don’t have to leave your country to get them. I would argue that you can be a great ‘global leader’ right where you are, wherever that is – even if a solid global role is a great indicator of success.

The first is to understand that not every culture and place is like yours and have a passion and curiosity to find out all you can about the people and countries you’re dealing with. Sometimes just an awareness that things may be different and an mind open to figure out how is all you need to be a global leader. In my experience, when I’ve opened the door, people are more than willing to tell me what I need to know. You don’t have to be an expert on every culture, but you do need to be open to involving people who live it every day and committed to keeping an open mind.

Shade-Tree-TeachingOne day, I asked a guy on my team in India to write a learning strategy. He sent me back, a very insightful presentation that effectively integrated learning with several other relevant functions. It made sense, he did a good job finding appropriate illustrations and frankly, it looked like something I would’ve written. Then I turned a page and found a picture he had used to illustrate instructor-lead learning. If you’re in the US or most of Europe, you might have a sense of what that looks like…a well-lit room, someone standing at a whiteboard, with a marker and students seated at desks facing a projected computer image. But no, he had included a picture of a group of people seated outside in a circle under a shade tree. They had notebooks in their laps and the instructor was in the center drawing in the dirt with a stick. When I questioned the picture, I was told, ‘You see Jennifer, not every place is like America.’ What a lesson. We were a global company and I was again reminded that our learning strategy needed to reach everyone.

This translates significantly to OD and change management, particularly when working in environments with labor laws as different as night is from day. In France or Germany, for example, it makes sense to build in works- council documentation or check-points into your change tools to make sure you can implement what you need to. If you’re rolling out talent management in Asia, having someone on the team who can help you figure out how to implement the process and discussions in a way that works within the culture will be infinitely valuable, as some cultures are not used to the kind of direct conversations about performance that are frequently had in the US and much of Europe.

Another key aspect of global leadership is knowing when to push back when things don’t have to be different. In my experience every country tends to wants everything translated into their language (in some places this is the law) and every country will tell you they are ‘different’ and therefore cannot implement a process like everyone else. In some situations, that is simply not true and global functions can easily bankrupt themselves trying to customize everything. There are times when it makes sense for everyone to get on board with one process and it is quite an art to be able to push back on that. In Europe, I’ve found myself fighting 500 years of European history trying to get people to agree on one process only to determine that there’s really no reason that they can’t do it. In many companies, once you get above a certain level, people all understand one language and learning programs can be run in that language throughout the company. Obviously, there are times when that isn’t possible, but a global leader is savvy enough to question and push back in a diplomatic way so as not to spend money that doesn’t add value to the bottom line.

The art to that has a lot to do with the final aspect that I believe defines a global leader. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to create alignment and engagement between diverse stakeholders who are often virtual and multi-cultural is critical. The global leader has one first priority – make sure everyone is engaged and participating in the goals of the team. This takes on different meaning at different times, but in general, it’s getting to know and understand people. What motivates them? How do they like to be included, involved and communicated to. A global leader understands the great loss incurred when even one person isn’t engaged. Sometimes this takes extra effort in meeting with people in advance of team meetings to allow them to feel heard or understand their thinking. Sometimes, it’s getting to know them personally, but in all cases a global leader makes this a priority.

Language often makes alignment difficult. Sometimes it is even hard to know if people are aligned if they aren’t able to effectively express themselves in a second or third language. Creating a safe environment to practice new skills or find other ways to communicate goes a long way. Often it takes more time than you’d like to listen and understand, but a global leader understands that this is critical to creating alignment and engagement, which is the most important goal.

If you or your organization is challenged by leadership on a global level, LeaderShift Authentic Insights may be able to help. We can’t give you a course on every culture, but we can teach your team how to be appropriately inquisitive and help your leaders create alignment across borders. Give us a call for more information.