It was still dark at 5:30 a.m. with a light drizzle falling on the 29,000 runners making their final mental preparations to navigate the windy 13.1 to 26.2-mile course. Runners, including an American author and his Colombian niece who flew in from Bogotá for the race, came from over 30 countries to participate in the Miami Half and Full Marathon. Shivering in the now full-downpour, I marveled at the preparation and dedication of these international athletes who had traveled thousands of miles to run in cold, windy Miami.

A world-class runner cannot win a marathon without extensive preparation and training. Unfortunately, many organizations and leaders make the fateful mistake of thinking that global leaders can be effective without adequate preparation and training. How can world-class business leaders hope to win in our ultra-competitive global marketplace without sufficient preparation and practice? The thinking is that leadership skills are easily transferrable from one culture to another.

This mistaken assumption has taken its toll on organizations through reduced productivity, increased turnover, failed international assignments, lost customers, disgruntled team members, and broken careers. Effective global leadership requires developing new skills and putting them into practice. Drawing from academic research and experience, let’s examine how organizations can develop globally savvy leaders.

Global Expansion

With their hundreds of millions of wealthy consumers, the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Japan and Australia defined the late 20th century paradigm of the middle-class consumer. The world has changed dramatically since. Asia has seen a recent increase in per capita income unparalleled in human history: Ernst and Young (2013) projects that two-thirds of the world’s entire middle class will live in Asia Pacific by 2030 and that more than a billion Brazilians, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, Mexicans and citizens from other developing countries will have joined the world’s middle class by the end of the current decade.

While organizations continue to expand globally, few leaders believe their companies can successfully navigate the global business environment. Studies consistently show that leaders lack the skills to effectively lead their businesses globally while new market realities have created a sense of urgency for western businesses to develop globally savvy leaders who can navigate the complexities of the international business environment.

Global Talent

Labor laws, marketing channels and financial practices differ across borders, and successful global leaders need to learn about those differences. Other key knowledge and skills needed for success include global mindset, global business acumen, resilience, ability to deal with ambiguity, ability to withhold judgment, and cross-cultural competence.

Global business acumen includes understanding international finance, international and government regulatory environments, labor law differences, international marketing, and how the organization operates in the global business environment. Often referred to as global mindset, successful global leaders also have a strong interest in social, cultural and economic realities. A global mindset helps leaders develop the ability to identify emerging global, regional and national trends, and then organize and apply this knowledge to help their companies accomplish international goals.

Resilience, ability to deal with ambiguity, and the ability to withhold judgment are important global leader attributes. Operating in multiple cultures with different languages and cultural values translates into greater ambiguity. More ambiguity in the global operating environment requires developing leaders who can successfully deal with it without increasing stress of leaders to levels that negatively impact their performance and possibly their health.

Finally, cross-cultural competence is critical. Cultural anthropologists, psychologists and international business experts have identified several ways national cultures differ. Important differences in cultural values include collectivism/individualism, face, power-distance, and high-low context. Understanding how differences in these cultural values impact communication, performance, and team dynamics is critical. Effective global leaders must understand differences in cultural values and learn to navigate such differences by adapting to cultural realities. For example, an effective Mexican leader may enjoy success when he clearly and directly explains his employees’ responsibilities, but may derail in Canada where the same behavior can be perceived as micromanagement.

Define Your Global Talent Needs

Regardless of your industry, it is important for the organization to define how its global leaders contribute to the organization’s strategy. While some organizations claim that they are too busy or can’t afford to develop training needs assessments, seeking input from senior leaders, mid-level managers, supervisors, rank and file, and even customers are critical in helping organizations identify the key skills, knowledge, and behaviors their global leaders need.

Additionally, learning some phrases in cultures where the leader is working communicates interest in the culture and can help establish rapport. While learning a language is strongly recommended, it isn’t always practical to gain fluency in many languages. One of our local Brazilian manufacturers offers employees Portuguese language training and another local company is looking to offer its international employees advanced business English training. Speaking an employee’s, co-worker’s, or customer’s language, or even learning some phrases, helps build strong bonds with people by communicating respect for their culture.

Develop Your Global Talent

To develop global-savvy leaders, you must go beyond reading. Books and articles help leaders develop an understanding of different cultures and different political, social and economic realities. However, an effective leadership development plan must also include feedback, increasing self-awareness and practice.

The starting point for developing global leadership skills is to increase self-awareness. Recommended tools include readings, 360-degree multi-rater feedback and feedback on global leadership styles. Employing 360-degree multi-rater feedback has been recommended by U.S., European and Asian coaches, but cultural differences in power-distance, face, context, and individualism/collectivism should be taken into consideration when assessment tools are used.

Organizations can also develop feedback intensive experiential learning programs where leaders interact with others in their organization. Action-learning projects that will be reviewed by executives can enhance these workshops by providing real-world experience and benefit the company by addressing actual company challenges.

Using experienced global executive coaches is another excellent resource for helping leaders develop global skills. Global coaches can help leaders interpret their assessment feedback, understand how differences in cultural values impact interactions, and provide feedback on the leaders’ development plan and experiences.

Experience is Necessary

In distance running, there is no substitute for actual race experience. Similarly, the most effective tool for developing globally savvy leaders is the use of global developmental assignments. Short-term international team experience is very helpful, and the most effective vehicle for learning is an international developmental assignment. One of my nephews, a Colombian national who works for a large U.S. company, has had leadership assignments in Colombia, a stint at the corporate headquarters, an assignment opening a manufacturing facility in the U.S., and a current assignment in Brazil. While contributing to the company’s bottom line, such experiences provide leaders with a deep knowledge of the company and a growing catalogue of cultural experiences that help them grow new global skills.

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