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Leadership for a global future: commentary with Kenneth Mikkelsen

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Image: Kenneth MikkelsenThe hottest trends within global leadership development.

Kenneth Mikkelsen is Managing Director of the Denmark-based knowledge-brokering consultancy Controverse.

He has written about Executive Development for more than a decade. He writes here that companies no longer internationalize – they globalize. This new reality leads to new dilemmas and challenges for companies when they develop leaders to operate on the global scene.

In a recent qualitative white paper, the international leadership development institute, Mannaz, examined the currents of global leadership development and its pervasive influence on organizations and the people that comprise them.

Kenneth Mikkelsen takes a closer look at the characteristics of a truly global leader.  

Today, the biggest challenge for global companies is to innovate by learning from the world. Since the outbreak of the financial crisis, critical voices have been raised about the widespread consequences of globalization. But despite populist responses to the economic disparities, most executives won’t argue that frontrunners of the future will be companies that create value by tapping into and mobilizing pockets of talent, technology, capital and innovative thinking that are scattered across the globe.

A recent white paper conducted by the international leadership development institute, Mannaz, in partnership with the Institute of Executive Development in the United States and Mobley Group Pacific (Asia), investigates the hottest trends within global leadership development and what it takes to raise the global attention level in an organization. The research involved some 120 senior corporate executives, heads of human resources and heads of learning and organizational development from Asia, Europe and North America.

Globalization – a buzzword of the 21st century?

Currently, there is a fierce debate within the academic establishment about the extent of globalization. Views span from journalist Thomas Friedman’s "The world is Flat", who emphasizes how we all become more united and alike, to "World 3.0" brought forward by professor Pankaj Ghemawat of IESE Business School in Spain, who suggests that we are, in fact, not as globalized as we might think and that corporate executives, in particular, lead the pack when it comes to overestimating the maturity of globalization. One thing is unquestionable, though. Globalization is showing up on the radar screen of senior executives. In the research conducted by Mannaz, 68 per cent of the companies responded that their demand for global leaders is "high" or "very high".

Building a global mindset

As in most cases, a high demand comes with certain obstacles. This is evident when the surveyed companies were asked what prevents them from meeting their demand for suitable leaders on a global scale, as illustrated in the table below

A lack of available talent is a recurring issue for most companies, but an interesting observation is that most companies also struggle to find leaders who can bring a global mindset and experience to the table. According to Dr. Jorgen Thorsell, CEO of Mannaz Ltd. in Hong Kong, a global mindset has simply become a must-have along with the ability to lead teams with a diverse mix of ethnic cultures.

"The corporate quest to build a global mindset is not a quick fix, since it is related to the personal traits and empathic qualities of a leader. Companies must be aware that a global mindset consists of different components: the cognitive complexity, which is the ability to perceive many aspects of a complex situation and to see it from a different angle in order to synthesize it all; and cosmopolitanism or a mental flexibility towards other cultures. It is not just a passive recognition of others, but a desire to explore diversity," says Jorgen Thorsell.

Survey respondents clearly indicated that one of the most welcomed initiatives to develop global leaders in their organization has been, and continues to be, to design and offer their leaders significant leadership journeys. These journeys often take the form of a series of leadership programmes that span several months with the same group of leaders. It is a key element to stretching and developing new capabilities and understandings that leaders are exposed to different settings, new markets, contexts and cultures.

Surveyed executives and human resource professionals from every part of the world agree that being humble, showing respect and demonstrating curiosity are fundamental traits for global leaders to develop. But the research also shows that respondents have different attitudes towards learning in different regions of the world. The professional learning officers often encounter blasé and cynical Western managers who believe they know and have seen it all when it comes to leadership development programmes. The contrast is huge compared to Asia, Latin America and Africa where people show a more genuine interest and eagerness to learn.

The hunt for global talent

The demand for global leaders corresponds to a high priority of leadership development amongst the participating companies in the research. 79 per cent consider their activities to be ‘highly important’ or ‘important’ with respect to achieving strategic goals and sustained growth. Several executives also link its importance to talent management and see it as a vital source for ensuring a pipeline of local leaders for senior positions. When analysing the replies of the business executives, five strategic issues emerge that are considered to be the most urgent.

"Companies no longer internationalize – they globalize. This means that the era of the traditional expatriate is coming to an end."

Sustainable talent management appears as the most critical issue and even more so in business areas with high-speed growth. As a consequence of this, Jorgen Thorsell foresees that many organizations will go even further in adapting their policies to suit local needs and cultures, in order to retain and engage the right people in the future. 

"Companies no longer internationalize – they globalize. This means that the era of the traditional expatriate is coming to an end. Instead, multinationals now turn to a different strategy of recruiting local managers and engaging them in a reverse model where managers are exposed to the company’s more mature operations outside the local market. As a result, companies with a reputation for developing local leaders are far more likely to attract the talent they need to pursue attractive growth opportunities in emerging markets," says Jorgen Thorsell.

Global growth through people

When we encounter people from other societies or cultures, we may fail to understand them for many reasons, including differences in language, values, gestures, emotional expression, norms, rituals, rules, expectations, family background and life experience. When you take a closer look, many of these reasons seem obvious to most people. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge for many leaders to move beyond prejudice and stereotyping when they navigate outside their native environment. Looking at the years ahead, respondents identify four major challenging leadership issues for becoming a true global leader:

  1. Understanding cross-cultural differences.
  2. Adopting specific attitudes and leadership competencies that are critical for global leaders.
  3. Enhancing awareness.
  4. Learning agility.

The research indicates that many leaders still lack the necessary cultural awareness when dealing with overseas employees and business partners, as well as the experience of managing increasingly complex processes from a distance. At the same time, a number of key projects in large organizations are increasingly delegated to cross-functional and international teams, often geographically dispersed, which constitutes a new set of challenges for team leaders and team members. This raises questions about how to build relationships based on trust in a virtual world and how leaders can develop the ability to bond quickly and establish a team spirit amongst people who work from a distance, often without meeting face to face.

"Cultural differences are a serious hurdle for globalization. The danger of believing that we are all alike is that one does not perceive the underlying differences. Although we work across national borders to a greater extent than ever, we are all still deeply rooted in our own culture and worldview. This is a decisive reason why negotiations, conversations, projects and strategies derail, as people fail to understand – and respect – each other's values, norms and ways of thinking. The research indicates a high awareness of this fact amongst senior executives and human resource professionals – but more action is needed. One way is to build the cultural aspect into the overall frame and design of executive development, and to ensure that the outcome is measured," says Jorgen Thorsell.

Good leadership in 3-5 years

In the research, Mannaz also asked the respondents, which factors it would be crucial to master in order to exercise good leadership in for the next 3–5 years. The topics are a natural reflection of the predominant challenges that companies find themselves in, and can be perceived as an inspirational guide, or a blue print, for issues that world-class leadership development needs to address in the future.

Listed below are seven topics for good leadership in the coming years:

  • Demonstrating strategic thinking abilities
  • Collaborating and building teams
  • Honouring differences/diversity and cross-cultural understanding
  • Adopting true leadership through enhanced self-awareness and personal balance
  • Mastering change
  • Leading innovation
  • Communicating

"We see a growing desire to strengthen the ability to collaborate across functions as a means for deriving results from new markets. This is also related to the technological development, which offers new ways of working together, stimulating innovation and harvesting ideas. Enhanced self-awareness and humility are other key issues that are considered important in order to be able to interact with others as an authentic, credible and respected leader in the future," Jorgen Thorsell concludes. 

The global future is clearly a tangled web of possibilities and pitfalls that will add new layers to what we define as great leadership. Those who manage to raise the global attention level in their organization, and who ensure that their leaders and employees are well-equipped to explore and benefit from the new reality, will be amongst the frontrunners in the years to come.

October 2011.