Research Reveals Fundamentals of Global Leadership

By Roy Maurer Dec 7, 2012

New research identifies the cultural competencies needed for global leaders to be successful.

“Globalization today is the norm, not the exception,” wrote Right Management President and CEO Owen J. Sullivan, in the foreword to the talent management provider’s recently published report Leading Across Cultures in the Human Age: A Groundbreaking Study of the Intercultural Competencies Required for Global Leadership Success.

“Leading across cultures is a critical element of leading … and unleashing the power of what is humanly possible,” Sullivan wrote. “It often requires making decisions in complex or ambiguous environments, understanding cultural nuances and adapting one’s style accordingly. A good track record in one country does not guarantee success in the global arena, nor will merely exposing high-performing leaders to new cultures make them effective multinational leaders.”

Right Management partnered with human resource assessment company Tucker International to study 1,867 global leaders based in 13 countries between April 2010 and December 2011. These leaders were engaged in managing people across cultures, either on international assignment or working from their home base.

Some 134 industries were represented, from midsize firms to Fortune 100 organizations.

Nationalities of leaders included in the survey were American, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Chinese, French, German, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian and Swedish.

Intercultural Competencies Required of Global Leaders

The study identified six intercultural competencies essential for leading multinational organizations:

Adapting Socially. This competency represents a leader’s ability to socialize comfortably with new people in unfamiliar social situations and to demonstrate genuine interest in other people.

Much of global business takes place in social situations over food and drink, and leaders who can recognize and engage appropriately in these situations are more successful than those who can’t, according to the study.

Showing interest in other people is another important aspect of social adaptation. Remembering and correctly pronouncing names, as well as remembering and repeating things learned about others, are examples of how to practice this skill.

Raphaele Gauducheau, general manager of Right Management’s Mediterranean Operations, stated in the report that leaders in the global arena need to be coached to help them understand that demonstrating interest in others is critical to global interpersonal relations. “Explain the difference between being intrusive and being interested,” she said. “Ask the individual to go regularly to client events, and set an objective of making at least one new contact at each event. Prior to that, help the individual to prepare a short introduction about himself and sample questions that will help to connect with others more easily.”

Demonstrating Creativity. This competency represents a leader’s ability to enjoy new challenges, strive for innovative solutions to social and situational issues, and learn from a variety of sources. This quality includes the ability to predict outcomes and act despite uncertainty, according to the report.

Creative global leaders were found to practice and encourage experimentation and innovation throughout their organizations. They expected to make deep business-model changes to realize their strategies, take more calculated risks, find and support new ideas, and keep innovating in how they lead and communicate.

“Successful global leadership is all about leading through others, finding creative ways to select, retain and motivate diverse talent,” the report said.

Even Disposition. This competency represents a leader’s ability to remain calm, not be critical of herself and learn from mistakes. “In good times and bad, people in an organization look to their leaders for guidance. Those leaders who take things in stride and maintain an even disposition to set a tone for the organizational culture that is resilient,” the report authors wrote.

Leaders owe it to themselves and to those they lead to become aware of and address behaviors that may emerge when they are under highly stressful circumstances that are damaging to the motivation and engagement of the workforce, according to the report. These negative behaviors, demonstrated often under stress, are commonly called “derailers” and they can do deep damage—quickly breaking bonds of trust that can take years to rebuild, if ever. In a multicultural context, it is even more important, perhaps imperative, that leaders understand how their derailers may affect people from different cultures and then take action to address how to modify those behaviors and mitigate the great risks involved in demonstrating an uneven disposition, the report advised.

For example, Chinese people prefer a leader with an even disposition, particularly when they make mistakes or do not achieve performance goals, advised Qiang Lu, general manager of Right Management China. “Being direct and critical in front of groups of people makes Chinese leaders ‘lose face’ and feel embarrassed. An informal or personal event, such as having a cup of tea or meeting over lunch, is a more helpful environment to address delicate and formal topics, such as performance coaching,” he said in the report.

Respecting Beliefs. This competency represents a leader’s ability to demonstrate respect for the political and spiritual beliefs of people in other cultures. It also includes a good sense of humor, which is an often-mentioned, but underappreciated aspect of global leadership. Leaders who can use appropriate humor in tense situations involving political or spiritual differences can diffuse tensions and loosen things up for more successful problem solving.

Those in global leadership roles must be careful in both verbal and nonverbal messages not only to avoid disrespectful comments, but also to learn enough about the beliefs of their people—such as acknowledging important dates and ceremonies—to show respect.

For example, consider that in Africa, a leader must recognize the importance of extended family death rituals and accommodate employee leave times for funerals. In Muslim societies, a leader must adjust organizational life to the five pillars of Islam, including the five daily prayers.

“One can develop this competency through diversity and cultural awareness programs, participating as a member of a true global task team, and of course through assignments outside of one’s country or culture,” advised Gail Landazuri, senior vice president and general manager of Right Management’s Americas East Region.

Instilling Trust. This competency represents a leader’s ability to build and maintain trusting relationships. The research found that trust is the one glue that holds diverse teams together.

“Building and maintaining trust across cultures is a complicated process because trust does not mean the same thing to members of different cultures. Successful global leaders take the time to understand these cultural differences among their people and to build and maintain trust in appropriate ways.”

Typically, low levels of trust slow down everything—every decision, every communication and every relationship. On the other hand, high trust produces speed. Leaders who bring high trust to multicultural organizations get superior results by clarifying expectations, listening first, creating transparency and practicing accountability, according to the report.

As Right Management China’s Qiang Lu explained, “A leader can be trusted if he or she shows respect to others, keeps promises, makes everything transparent and addresses wrongdoings. But it is not enough. People prefer having a personal relationship with their leader. So a personal call or informal chat and lunch or dinner is critical to build a close relationship with Chinese people. Starting from that, you can instill trust with local Chinese over a gradual process.”

Navigating Ambiguity. This competency represents a leader’s ability to see through vagueness and uncertainty, not become frustrated, and figure out how things are done in other cultures. Ambiguous situations are the norm in leading across cultures, so the ability to work successfully in these environments is truly an advantage, the report said.

Leaders from Western cultures with a direct style of communication, for instance, may find the long and circular process of decision-making, characteristic of more indirect cultures found in Asia, frustrating and ambiguous.

U.S. Diversity, Cultural Inclusion Programs Making a Difference?

It is noteworthy that U.S. leaders ranked consistently high across all of the competencies, including garnering the highest scores in Adapting Socially, Demonstrating Creativity, Respecting Beliefs, Instilling Trust and Navigating Ambiguity.

One explanation may be that the U.S. business culture has been greatly affected in recent years by initiatives in the areas of inclusion and cultural awareness, the report authors said. Also, U.S. leaders have a long history of working in multinational businesses, while those in China and India, for example, are new to this business model.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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