Harvard Business Review

A New Era for Global Leadership Development


Posted on Harvard Business Review: 2012 AM

The realities of globalization, with increasing emphasis on emerging markets, present corporate leaders with enormous challenges in developing the leaders required to run global organizations. Too many multinational companies — particularly Japanese, Indian, German, and some American ones — still concentrate vital decisions in the hands of a small group of trusted leaders from their home country. They hire technical specialists, local experts, and country managers from emerging markets but rarely promote them to corporate positions. Instead, they groom future global leaders from the headquarters nation by sending them on overseas appointments.

This approach worked relatively well for companies selling standard products in developed markets, but as multinationals transition into truly global organizations relying on emerging markets for growth, it’s far from adequate. In order to adapt to local cultures and market needs, companies must shift to decentralized, collaborative decision-making. That requires developing many leaders capable of working anywhere.

To address these needs, new approaches for developing global leaders are required:

The diversity of top leadership should reflect the diversity of the firm’s customers. Global leaders must be effective in aligning employees around the company’s mission and values, empowering people to lead, and collaborating horizontally rather than managing vertically. Rather than concentrating on the on the top 50 leaders, global companies need to develop hundreds, even thousands, of leaders comfortable operating in a variety of cultures.

Developing global leaders with cultural sensitivities and collaborative skills requires greater focus on emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empowerment than on traditional management skills.

To understand these approaches, let’s examine what leading global companies are doing:

Create diversity among senior leadership. To make sound decisions, companies need a diverse set of leaders who have deep understanding of their local customers, especially those in emerging markets. Opportunities at the highest levels, including C-suite and CEO, must be open to people of all national origins. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola is a pioneer in geographic diversity. As early as the 1960s, the company was run by South African Paul Austin. Since that time, Coca-Cola has had Cuban, Australian, and Irish CEOs, leading to today’s CEO, Turkish-American Muhtar Kent.

Over the past decade two Swiss companies, Nestle and Novartis, have made dramatic shifts from Swiss-dominated boards and executive leadership to a diverse set of nationalities. Both now have non-Swiss majorities on their boards and several business units based outside Switzerland. Nestle’s executive board represents ten different nationalities, while 80% of Novartis executives come from outside Switzerland.

Focus on values, not hierarchy. The characteristics of successful global leaders today are quite different than traditional hierarchical managers. They need high levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to unite people of different cultures, many who are new to the enterprise, around the organization’s mission and its values and empower them to make decisions without waiting for higher-level directions.

Samuel Palmisano, IBM’s chairman and former CEO, recognized that IBM’s traditional hierarchical structure would not be effective in the 21st century because it was dominated by product and market silos. In 2003 he reorganized the company into an “integrated global enterprise” based on leading by values and collaboration, and uses special bonuses to empower leaders to extend IBM’s culture globally.

Broaden the reach of leadership development. Collaborative organizations like IBM’s require far more leaders than the traditional focus on a select group of top leaders. With flatter organizations and decentralization of power, corporations must develop savvy global leaders capable of operating locally and globally simultaneously. IBM’s former chief learning officer recently estimated that IBM will need 50,000 leaders in the future.

Unilever has more than half of its business in Asia, and that percentage will continue to increase. The company has undertaken a major initiative to develop 500 global leaders in intensive leadership development programs to prepare them for expanded roles. According to CEO Paul Polman, “Unilever’s Leadership Development Programme prepares our future leaders for an increasingly volatile and uncertain world where the only true differentiation is the quality of leadership.”

To be effective in global roles, leaders require experience working and living in multiple countries. Extensive travel overseas is no substitute for living there, gaining fluency in local languages, and deeply immersing in the culture. German chemical maker Henkel, whose executives come from a diverse set of countries, insists they live in at least two different countries before being considered for promotion.

New methods for developing global leaders. Developing global leaders necessitates a shift from focusing on management skills to helping leaders be effective in different cultures by increasing their self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. Dean Nitin Nohria at Harvard Business School recently sent 900 MBA students overseas to work with companies in countries where they have neither lived nor worked.

It’s not enough just to work overseas. To process and learn from their experiences, individuals should utilize introspective practices like journaling, meditation or prayer, and develop support networks of peers like True North Groups. There they can consult confidentially with people they trust about important decisions and have honest conversations about their dilemmas, mistakes, and challenges. These experiences enable leaders to develop the self-mastery and appreciation and acceptance of people from diverse backgrounds required to become effective global leaders.

These methods of developing global leaders for the future are still in their nascent phase, but there is little doubt that they will have a profound impact on developing global leaders in the years ahead.

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Bill_george
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, True North, and Authentic Leadership. The former chair and CEO of Medtronic, he currently serves on the boards of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

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