The ability to lead and manage across borders is an indispensable leadership quality. The way business and business growth is trending, combined with new ways of thinking about how we work driven by Covid-19, it’s highly likely that a majority of tomorrows leaders will experience leading teams, functions or businesses largely comprised of virtual and globally dispersed teams. This isn’t restricted to the more well developed industrial nations either; many large manufacturers, IT and services organisations are busy investing in emerging economies, which represents a whole new way of organisational thinking and in turn leadership behaviours to ensure success. In fact the organisational approach and the leadership behaviours that underpin success in a global context are very much the same and evolve around three key criteria:
- Cultural Awareness
Organisational. As an organisation, the ability to create a culture and practice of genuine collaboration is critical. Many M&A’s and expansions into new countries stumble or fail because more effort is invested into protecting and defending territorial patches and ‘old’ ways of thinking, rather than relaxing the mostly psychological boundaries and allowing energy to flow between teams, functions and countries. But collaboration doesn’t just happen. If time is invested up front to create strategic alignment between the impacted leadership groups, followed by a short process of creating a shared vision of what successful collaboration looks like, along with a framework or supporting leadership charter, then you have done more than most companies in enabling organisational collaboration. Beyond that think about how you embed collaboration into your systems; do you reward, recognise or incentivise collaboration? Is collaboration a performance measure of the executive team? Is there an expectation of visible collaboration between the board and the executive team?
Leadership. Fostering collaboration is difficult if it doesn’t feel supported or safe to do so. If there isn’t an organisational approach to enabling collaboration, then it falls to the leader to make it happen; and this is more about mindset than skill.
The actual ‘doing’ of collaboration isn’t so difficult; it’s the thought process that precedes the behaviour that makes or breaks collaboration at a leadership level. If a leader is able to relax the boundaries that separate them from their team, and their team or function from the rest of the organisation, they open up the gates for energy to flow and the exploration of different ideas held around how the work can get done. As we know, this comes back to the level of self-confidence and awareness of the leader to see the benefits of letting go; so what are your organisational development opportunities for leaders in this area?
Organisational. We tend to think of communication on an individual level, and there is no doubting the role that leadership communication plays in reinforcing the trust required for cross-border success. But like collaboration at an organisational level, there is an organisational responsibility to create an environment where conversations are encouraged, feedback is highly regarded and distance is no barrier. The last one should be the easiest from a technological perspective, but it is the supporting organisational capability plan that will ensure people know how to use and optimise communication technologies. The intersection of the organisational capability strategy with the internal communications and broader strategic plan will also help highlight the types, intensity and frequency of communication required to ensure the broader goal of successful global working is achieved. As we are seeing today with the sudden introduction of mass remote working, it’s not enough to have ad-hoc measures and then learn on the run, which is the experience right now for many companies. Think ahead, think company-wide, and think systemically about how you create communication strategies that enable, and encourage, meaningful conversations in a safe ad supportive environment.
Leadership. In a multi-national environment, a leaders ability to use communication as a key leadership tool is critical, especially if they are leading people in another city or country. Unlike the leader who sees their team everyday, the ability to ‘walk the talk’ takes on a whole new meaning. Whilst ever a leader is thinking in mono then there isn’t the likelihood of inspired thinking or discretionary behaviour from their people. When we are thinking in mono, our behaviour is quite lineal and we miss the opportunity to connect with people beyond the transactional. Once leaders think in stereo or even in surround sound, their words and actions have the ability to be everywhere and live on in the minds of their people. And this is what the global leader needs to perfect – to be able to paint pictures with their words in such a way that if their team can’t see what they mean in person, they can clearly imagine it and be motivated by the possibilities of what the picture represents. Language training is certainly important, but this goes beyond being bi-lingual. There is a deeper aspect related to the self-esteem and confidence of the leader that does more to undermine effective global-minded thinking and connection than almost anything else. So what is the plan for providing coaching and development in this area that allows for those leaders who need it to grow in a safe and face-saving fashion?
Organisational. Global leadership at its best is supported by an organisation that clearly understands and internally articulates the fact that it is global. This articulation can be seen in the following ways:
- There is a clear message that cuts through the organisation, from the vision and mission, through to functional, team and individual objectives that the organisation is global and therefore objectives need to be achieved through best practice collaboration.
- Incentives are structured to reward the achievement of global goals through collaboration.
- Talent and capability development strategies are global and supported by tools that allow collaboration and sharing of information across borders.
- Geographical mobility is openly spoken about and encouraged.
- The board and executive team reflect the diversity of the organisation, and walk the talk in terms of how they interact collaboratively, authentically, supportively and through a global-minded lens.
In other words, if the organisation were a person, it would know who it is (a global creature) and be very comfortable with who they are. It’s not always easy to reach this stage, especially for those companies in the early to mid stages of international growth; the teenagers of the global business community. However it is attainable, and necessary, for the organisation to be able to support their leaders in driving the culturally aware organisation. But it also means that the board in these situations need to carry a depth of experience and a willingness to nurture the organisation when needed in supporting it’s evolution as a global-thinking organisation.
Leadership. Culturally aware organisations create and communicate strong messages of inclusiveness and speaking with one voice starting with the board and the executive leadership teams. The national make up of these groups is only one factor that can create an immediate impression of organisational cultural awareness. What is more important is the quality of their actions and the way in which they lead. Do they actively promote and encourage collaboration and cultural diversity? For example, speaking a shared language when more than one or two countries are represented in a meeting or respecting time zones when setting international meetings. If little things like this aren’t done at the most senior levels of leadership, then it’s not likely it’s being done down throughout the organisation. The potency of leadership at this level is critical to ensuring the right messages are cascaded down through all leadership levels regarding cross-border leadership.
Dropping down into the organisation, the same principles apply, just in a different way. For a business leader, this doesn’t mean being able to speak all of the languages of the people in their team. This is about understanding the ways of working of the people in your team, and what behaviours or rituals are important to observe and incorporate into the team’s way of working. Like collaboration, it’s not something that comes naturally to all leaders, especially those who are leading for the first time in a global capacity. This is where the strength of message from senior leaders and the supporting organisational frameworks are critical in helping leaders in more complex situations. It also means that teaming and the way teaming occurs is a little bit different, and works more with understanding and creating shared values and ways of working rather than the more traditional behavioural teaming approaches.
Think Holistic. Think Integrated. Think Long Term
When going global, leadership development is only one part of the equation. To really set our organisations up for global success it is about seeking full integration between:
1. What we want our leaders to do, and
2. The organisational measures we have in place to enable our leaders to do it well.
It’s also about playing for the long game. It’s about knowing that you are developing the next generation of leaders who will be adapting to the volatility of business on a more frequent basis than we are today.
In an everyday leadership environment this is important. In a global leadership context – it is critical.