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Today's global leaders need passion, not just a passport

Subscribe to Leadership Development 7/22/2015 Bonnie W. Gwin

 Global leaders need more than a passport

A colleague of mine recently examined the makeup of senior management at the headquarters of 20 of the largest US and European consumer goods companies. The findings suggest that US organizations lag far behind their foreign counterparts in international and multicultural experience and diversity. For example, 53% of the US managers and board members were the same nationality as the CEO, compared with just one-third of their counterparts at the European companies. And European managers were almost five times more likely to speak two or more languages and were far more likely to have lived in several countries.

Gwin global leaders chart

It’s a small, unscientific sample but nonetheless a good illustration of the race we see every day to secure global talent — a race that companies can’t afford to lose. Look behind the numbers and you will find that the race has become far more challenging — both for companies that need global leaders and for executives who aspire to fill the role. Why? Because the bar has been raised for what constitutes a genuinely global leader.

Having run an international division from the home country no longer suffices. Neither does parachuting into various foreign markets from time to time. Nor do the short term rotations spent in foreign markets that we see so often in “by-the-numbers” professional development programs.

In addition, it is no longer enough to live in a given location — the best global executives really get immersed in the culture in numerous ways. Fluency in a language, for instance, must extend beyond reading the newspaper, ordering a meal, or even leading a meeting. It should, over time, enable a global leader to gain a sense of culture, nuance, and local customs that are so critical — but are so often overlooked.

In short, it’s cultural fluency that puts the “global” in “global leader.” What does it consist of?

Passion, not just a passport. The opportunity to enter deeply into the life of other cultures energizes the exceptional global leaders we see. They want to widen not only their professional horizons but also their personal horizons, and they welcome assignments that do both — which often means taking on the most challenging assignments they can find.

Intellectual curiosity. Successful global leaders exhibit a relentless drive to learn. It encompasses everything from customs to customers, manners to markets, religious practices to competitive practices, and much more. 

At the center of this curiosity is an abiding respect for the power of diversity of thinking and a desire to seek out multiple points of view.

Humility. Genuinely global leaders know that no one person, culture, or country has all the answers. More importantly, they act on that knowledge — using ideas and perspectives from diverse sources to improve their own thinking, all the while working hard to see around their own cultural blinders, and exercising the empathy required to bridge deeply ingrained differences.

A new kind of fluency. Global leaders must also produce results. They therefore need not only cultural fluency, but commercial fluency that combines strategic insight, operational ability, market knowledge, financial understanding, and the other familiar elements of business acumen. But global leaders don’t simply possess cultural fluency and commercial fluency. They integrate them. That’s the “leader” in “global leader.”

Bringing their respect for, and knowledge of, multiple cultures into the way they lead their teams, they are better able to generate superior strategies, inspire teams to execute on them, and successfully take products to market in diverse locales. They compete equally well against other global companies and powerful local incumbents, conceding nothing. And the proof is in the results, whether it’s in cracking a difficult market, improving performance in a longstanding one, or transferring innovation and adapting ideas across geographies.

That is the global leader today, seamlessly integrating cultural and commercial fluency to generate superior results. It’s no wonder that they’re so highly sought after — and so hard to find.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of Bonnie Gwin's “LinkedIn Influencers” series. For more articles by this author, follow her on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Bonnie W. Gwin Vice Chairman +1 212 867 9876

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