Leaders who operate at a global level have what seems like an insurmountable task before them: managing employees sight unseen, establishing a sense of leadership from a distance, and creating a team across cultural and lingual boundaries.
They must embody the same qualities as other leaders, such as trust and vision, but they also have to go above and beyond that. Adding the global part leads to a quagmire of challenges and responsibilities, including understanding culture, overcoming distance and being flexible with time zones, according to Cindy McLaughlin, senior program associate with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).
“The very first thing [a global leader does] is recognize that they have to put more effort into developing their team of people than they would if they were around them in a physical space,” she said. “This person is unlikely to see me more than once a year or maybe even not for the first year that I’m working with them, and I’m their boss. I have to do more than I would normally do to establish my own credibility and make this a team.”
But how does a global leader do this? There’s no single right answer, McLaughlin said.
Some key traits that should be groomed in a global leader are flexibility, perspective, self-awareness, global awareness and recognizing trade-offs.
“Self-awareness is very important because leadership is always viewed by how others experience you. When you are looking at the lenses of other cultures in other places of doing business, they can experience you very different than you intend,” McLaughlin said. “I mean, we have that problem as leaders if we’re in the same room together, but it’s very exacerbated by the distance.”
One way to ease into global leadership is to take the time to ask your employees in other countries questions so that you can gain an understanding of the environment, culture and issues. Learning the language can also be helpful in breaking through cultural barriers, McLaughlin said.
“They have to be in more of asking mode rather than telling for awhile. [They have to be] aware enough to say: ‘I just can’t enforce my way of doing business on all these people. I need to ask a lot more questions than I am used to doing,’” she said. “’I need to take a step back from my own expertise and recognize how much I don’t know about business perspective in another country.’”
McLaughlin also warns against moving too fast when making decisions. CCL recognizes the following basic leadership tasks before rendering a decision or executing an action: setting direction, creating alignment and gaining commitment.
“If you jump as a global leader too fast to just making the decision and trying to execute, you’ve skipped those very important three steps, and if you are dealing with multiple cultures, they could be coming at the problem very, very differently,” McLaughlin said. “If you think of a store that sells merchandise, their strategy has to be very different country by country; they can’t make the same strategy in each country. They can represent a brand, but how they implement that has to be different. It’s the same thing when you are looking at people.”
Unfortunately, the corporate world generally doesn’t do enough to prepare its global leaders.
“We have found [global training] is woefully lacking,” McLaughlin said. “What they are getting training on is cultural differences, which are very helpful and very necessary. [But] we recognize that there’s not enough distinction [about] what it takes to be a global leader. We think most companies are not training for that. I think we’ve come a long way in the last 20 years; that’s why companies are focusing on the culture. The thing about leadership is [it is] still lacking, and I think that goes back to a lot of companies don’t train on leadership in general.”