In the past, most organizations developed global leadership skills by expatriating or through globally cross-functional teams. That is yesterday’s solution. These types of assignments are for the few, not the many, who are expected to perform effectively in a challenging multicultural environment. Global development initiatives should be available to leaders at all levels, since the work of most employees is global today.

To be successful globally, leaders need to lead at scale – and that requires cognitive, behavioral and emotional development. A review of the global business and leadership literatures identifies over 50 different models of global competence and most have similarities in the intra- and inter- personal skills areas: self-awareness, empathy, openness, ability to develop trust, and respect for differences. Global skills develop along a learning path that includes knowledge, skills and abilities, but the secret sauce is the all-important development of consciousness and the capabilities we refer to as managing complexity. In order to move forward in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) conditions – real or perceived – we all need to think through what to do with greater skill.

Research in the field of cognitive psychology has helped us combine general management skills and practices with the development of cognitive reasoning and critical thinking by looking at the business skills as part of a horizontal curriculum of topics. The cognitive and emotional capacity to help people gain perspective from complex experiences follows a stage theory that is hierarchical. Think about it as a ladder. The bottom line is that leaders operating in a global context need to operate on multiple levels at the same time, which includes self-management in a multicultural context using different leadership skills, negotiation skills and business rules. It is no longer possible to be “in charge,” and traditional leadership training lacks the sophistication to achieve these higher levels of conscious awareness. We may not realize it, but we are also asking them to act with high levels of cognitive ability to manage the complexity and constant change that are typical in global business.

Many executives land in roles that require expertise in cross-cultural sensitivity and an attitude of openness and acceptance of cultural diversity. Few leaders have sufficient strength to be resourceful in global roles without specific development. It’s important to understand that to develop a global leader, you need to develop the whole person – values, beliefs, mindset, thinking, and behavior, as well as their business context which is strategic, constantly changing, and full of risks. In a recent study of 1,867 global leaders from 134 industries with an average age of 43, three critical competencies (respecting beliefs, instilling trust, and navigating ambiguity) had a mean of only 2.86 on a 5-point scale. By any measure, these vital competencies make the difference in being able to align and drive business strategy. Dealing with these cultural issues will be a mandate for at least the next 10 years.


So, which skills are important and how do you development them? How can a leader develop in so many different competencies at once? And, where do you start? Here are five recommendations:

Embed learning in primary education. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (UNC) is modeling the way. Beginning this fall, the UNC Kenan-Flagler Global Education Initiative is embedding global education across its entire business curriculum and co-curricular offerings, whether on campus or abroad, with four expected outcomes:

  • The ability to understand, analyze and apply business practices that are specific to at least one functional area in business (i.e., marketing, finance, general management).
  • The ability to identify, explain and demonstrate business, logistical, intercultural and self-awareness knowledge in global contexts.
  • The ability to identify, associate and implement reflection, empathy, adaptability, collaboration and communication skills in cross-cultural interactions.
  • The ability to recognize, exemplify and demonstrate attitudes — flexibility, openness, respectfulness, resiliency and introspection — that are conducive to positive global business interactions.

Adopt a new global leadership model, or add global dimensions to your existing model. A study of the differences in performance across a large population of executives with profit and loss responsibilities resulted in a new global leadership competency model that combines global leadership characteristics with the cognitive changes necessary to operate in complex multinational operating conditions.

Build immersion leadership simulations. Time bound client requirements often require leaders to develop skills more quickly so they can work in a new way due to business responsibilities. So, if you need to support an executive through rapid development of global skills, total immersion is the best solution. In the case of Bank of America, a country-specific simulation was developed to support a significant, multi-year initiative that involved hundreds of people.

Add global action learning projects to programs. Ericsson uses a group-centered approach that is excellent for developing teams of emerging leaders. The program includes a six-day module of living and working in another country as part of a “World Action Team.” This program draws the red thread and weaves together the three dimensions of developing leaders: knowing yourself, knowing the world, and knowing the company’s strategy.

Use globally-specific executive coaching. Other short-burst development solutions include cognitive behavioral coaching (CBC). When a global leader feels “I cannot afford to make a mistake in this meeting,” or says, “I have a general dislike for people from this culture,” I use CBC. Built on the ABCDE model (Neenan, 2008), this coaching approach uses specific homework, experiments, task assignments, debriefing and guided reflection to accelerate the client through critically important performances. Over time, the client becomes his/her own coach and can mentor others.


Global competitiveness is a strategic imperative. Businesses are global in many different ways – from multicultural employees to their supply chains, international joint ventures, and multinational customer relationships. Most employees find it challenging to work in cross-cultural teams and often report difficulty in understanding and interpreting their job assignments when working for global leaders for whom English is a second language or from those who have a regional dialect. Despite these difficulties, leaders are required to find solutions in ambiguous and volatile operating conditions when there are not any clear answers and many options have high levels of risk.

How can organizations develop practices that support leaders in developing cognitive, technical practice, competencies and attitudes necessary right nowWhat are the options for developing global leadership capabilities in a role that is not offshore? Benchmark your mobility, diversity and leadership initiatives to drive your company’s strategic advantage using these suggested ways to develop global leaders and accelerate development of executives in globally important strategic roles.