How to become a Global or International leader

Here is an interesting question:

“To successfully lead a global company do you have to have lived in another country?”

To really understand how countries differ from one another you have to immerse yourself, at least once, in another culture. This is the only way of knowing just how different things can be and, armed with that knowledge, one becomes sensitive to allowing and understanding different points of view and different ways of getting to the same answer.

Lots of successful leaders of international companies have never lived abroad. Look at Facebook, Disney or Twitter. Wait a minute, this pretty much negates the lead in question, doesn’t it? I am sure I can work on a longer list given time and motivation and one will probably find the leaders of most globally successful companies tend to have never left their domestic country.

But this shallow definition of success on a global scale is just for top of the mind companies that appear to be dominating on a global scale. To truly answer the question of success outside of the domestic environment one would need to do a number of things:

  1. Evaluate financial performance on a geographical basis
  2. Understand whether the Executive committee is entirely composed of the same nationalities or has an international background
  3. Understand how the company is managed; from a domestic power-base that is top down or from a regional power base that is consultative of the head office.

Why are these questions important?

I believe being truly global and excelling in a global environment requires international experience and I’m not talking about that business trip once a quarter, where you stay in the most like-you hotel, you eat the food you most like eating and everyone speaks to you in your native tongue.

I’m talking about the one where you sit in on meetings and they start with everyone talking a form of Klingon, then reverting to your language as they feel sorry for you, but you still miss out on all the good bits.

Where you leave a meeting thinking you understood, only to find out 24 hours later that everyone else understood something different to you. The one that once you get out of the work environment, it feels like you are running a marathon everyday as you can’t ask for directions when you get lost. You end up eating regularly in pretty much one restaurant only, as you’ve deciphered one meal on the menu that you like. You get people to write down your destination on a piece of paper whenever you need to take a taxi and you still can’t find fresh milk in the grocery store after a month as it isn’t the place you would expect to find it.

Ask anyone who has lived through that experience and they are sure to tell you it was the most rewarding one of both their professional and personal lives. They’ll tell you that it gave them much more confidence, trust and patience when dealing internationally. That they listen more to the international/regional team members and they don’t expect people to translate things back to their view by explain.

They’ll tell you that they’ve realized one size doesn’t fit all and that success in one territory doesn’t guarantee success in another territory. Ways and things that work somewhere might not work elsewhere.

Being global can be the difference between a bottom line loss and a profit, between mediocre results and outstanding success.

And yet so many companies still lead from a single territory base and, while not always realizing it, manage international operations through that lens. They should do themselves a favor and embrace the power that comes with diversity on a global scale, they should accept that the best leader for the Spanish operation is either a Spaniard or someone who has lived long enough in another territory to best adapt to that environment. And they should understand that getting the Spanish subsidiary to do things like they are done in France will not maximize returns.

To be a true global leader you need to have lived abroad.



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