Vital Leadership Skills for the 21st Century: A Global Mindset

The world is not really flat.  Not yet, anyway.  In his best-selling book about globalisation in the 21st century, Thomas Friedman suggested that it was.  He argued that massive advances in telecommunications and ten converging trends had “flattened” the world and obliterated all impediments to international competition.  In concept this may be true, but the reality is still that the world is a very local place.  Indeed, 90% of the world’s phone calls, web traffic and investments are local.  More importantly, possibly, most people in the world still have a “local mindset”.

But that is changing.  Friedman may not have perfectly described the world as it is, but he definitely correctly identified the trajectory we’re embarked upon.  The decade ahead will see increasing globalisation, and the continued rise of the multinational corporation.  Many people at middle management level in large companies are finding that their jobs increasingly require them to interact with – and manage – culturally diverse teams, servicing culturally diverse customer bases.  And even small companies increasingly have to do business with foreign suppliers, customers and business partners.

Leaders who want to be ahead of the game in the next decade need to take this trend seriously.  As the 20-teens decade unfolds it will become increasingly clear that our ability to understand, interact with, do business with, motivate, engage, sell to and lead people from different cultures, countries and contexts will be a critical success factor in many organisations.  This is true for businesses, but equally true for non-profit organisations, politicians and even parents.  Globalisation is going to continue at pace in the next ten years, and that will require leadership skills that most managers and leaders (and parents) do not currently possess.

Books can (and have) been written about this, but the starting point for developing this new skillset is undoubtedly a mindset shift.  Successful leaders of the next decade will almost certainly be those who exhibit a global mindset, and use that mindset to guide them in developing relationships, behaviours and skills that set them apart from leaders stuck in local paradigms.

Different strokes for different folks

Let me illustrate this in just two ways.  Do you agree with the following statements?  The best leaders:

  • Are friends with their subordinates but make decisions on their own without reference to them
  • Compete with their own direct reports and make sure they are better than others
  • Speak honestly, but take into account others’ status
  • Use indirect language and metaphors rather than get straight to the point
  • Avoid taking risks.

Most American and Western European readers would probably disagree with most of these statements.  Yet, this list represents a real set of responses from a survey of Chinese managers (part of the research program called the GLOBE project).  It’s not the complete list of leadership characteristics in China – there are also parts of the Chinese ideal leadership profile that are similar to the Western profile.  But it’s usually the differences that get leaders into trouble, and those listed above would be obviously barriers to successfully managing or leading a team with Chinese members.

The second example comes from South Africa, hosts of the 2010 FIFA Football World Cup.  One of the enduring surprises for many sports fans around the world came at the end of the group phase of the competition.  South Africa became the first ever host to be knocked out of the competition at that early stage, and international commentators were predicting that the energy and passion shown by local spectators and supporters would therefore dissipate dramatically.  This would certainly have happened in most host nations.  But not in South Africa.  People woke up the morning after their team exited the competition and literally changed the flags that adorned their cars and buildings to show support for their “second team”.  The hype and passion continued unabated.  And no South African found that strange at all.

I have just returned from an extended holiday in South Africa, and was impressed once again with how much international news is available there.  South Africans are sports mad – evidenced by the fact that they have access to more live international sports on TV than any other country in the world.  But they also seem to have developed an international mindset.  On returning to England I actually felt cut off from the world – having to work hard to find further information on a few news stories and international sports events that I had been following while in South Africa.  (For example, the US Open tennis starts this week, and you’ll be lucky if it is even mentioned in sports bulletins in England, let alone profiled).  It might be a factor of geography (when you’re that far away from the action, you have to make an effort to connect yourself to the world), it might be a factor of history (after being forcible cut off from the world they now make an effort to be connected), it might be a factor of culture (South Africa is the most diverse nation on earth, with eleven official languages and many more besides), but whatever it is, it seems to me that South Africans have a distinct advantage because they have – in general – a global mindset.

The problem of a diverse world

So, how would you approach a team building session if you were a British manager working for an American company with a team dominated by South Africans and Chinese?  Would it make a difference if you were based in Dubai?

This may be an extreme example, but it is a familiar scenario to many managers in large, multinational organisations.  Over the past decade, these companies have built increasingly diverse teams, and created regional blocks that lump many different countries, cultures and contexts together into single units within the company structure.

The problem is that most of us grew up in societies where we were socialized to learn how to work with people who are like ourselves (the older you are, the more true that statement is).  It’s natural to be most comfortable with what is familiar leading to the tendency to view one’s own cultural etiquette as the norm.  In most countries this meant developing a monocultural lens that helps us understand and interpret our surroundings.  The European Union has probably led the way in helping Europeans break away from this mindset more than many other regions in the world, but even so, nationalism is still a real issue around the world.  While this approach has worked for many centuries (and was even one of the bedrocks of modern capitalism as espoused in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations), it is increasingly becoming an obstacle now.

A global business manager must have a global business perspective and understanding of how the world works.  And this requires a global mindset.

The building blocks of a global mindset

A global mindset can be defined as one that combines an openness to and awareness of diversity across contexts, cultures and markets with a propensity and ability to synthesize across this diversity.  In a recent Booz & Co Strategy + Business e-zine article, it was suggested that having a global mindset requires the development of three interlocking sets of competencies (I have fleshed these out a little with some descriptors of my own):

Intellectual capital:  Global business savvy, open mindedness, systems/complexity thinking, cosmopolitan outlook

Psychological capital:  Self-awareness, passion for diversity, curiosity about the world, versatility, quest for adventure, self-assurance

Social capital:  Exposure to diversity and novelty, intercultural empathy, interpersonal impact, diplomacy

Making a start

If you’re convinced that a global mindset is something you need to start developing, then here are a few practical suggestions to get you going down the right path.

  • Learn another language – it’s never too late to do this, and learning a language is more than learning words – it teaches you about culture and worldview, too.  (By the way, I don’t mean just learning a few words of greeting – I mean actually learning another language well enough that you can converse with someone else.  It’s best to have someone else to converse with, so select a language that is spoken by someone you’re in regular contact with).
  • Travel – but make sure you do so intentionally.  Eat at local restaurants, not international chains.  Go where the locals go, not just to the tourist hot spots.  Be curious and ask questions.
  • When you arrive in a new city, ask the locals these questions: “This is my first time in your city/country, so what three things should I know to help make the most of my stay?” and “What is the best thing and the worst thing about being from [insert country name here]?”  These sorts of open ended questions that invite reflection on their own culture will help you start the types of conversations that will provide insights into a different worldview.
  • Study other cultures.  Do this especially before you travel, but maybe even just use news items to alert you to a country that is unfamiliar to you, and then buy a travel book that deals with culture and customs.  I prefer the “Xenophobes Guides to” series, as they provide sharp insights combined with biting (and dark) humour.
  • Read books (novels) about other countries and cultures, and written by authors from different contexts.  Do the same with movies – and even music, if you have the ear for it.
  • Participate in as many cross–border business teams and projects as you are able to.
  • Sign up for any immersion experiences in foreign cultures that are available.
  • Watch different news channels.  Where possible, for example, I will rotate my TV news watching between CNN, Fox, Sky, BBC, Al Jazeera and Euronews.  Some of them (especially Fox and Sky) drive me nuts.  But they also provide valuable insights into specific mindsets.  Try and understand why they’re choosing the specific reporting angle, and even why they’ve selected one story and ignored another.  Do the same, of course, with different newspapers and magazines.  Don’t just read books and media that you know you will agree with.
  • Develop friendships with people from different cultures.
  • The best way to do this is to start with conversations with people from different cultures.  The easiest starting point is to chat about high days and holidays.  There are very few people from different cultures who will not respond positively if you ask them about their cultural or religious ceremonies or special days.  Even better would be to ask if you could attend some with them.
  • Be curious about how the world works – and why!

Successful companies need leaders with a global mindset

How successful a company is at exploiting emerging opportunities and tackling any accompanying challenges will depend significantly on how intelligent its leaders are at observing and interpreting the dynamic world in which it operates.  Creating a global mindset among your leaders is one of the critical ingredients for building such business intelligence.

In their excellent book, “The Quest for Global Dominance” (Jossey-Bass, 2008), Anil Gupta, Vijay Govindarajan and Haiyan Wang put t this way:

“A global mindset enables a company to outpace its competitors in assessing various market opportunities, in establishing the necessary market presence to pursue the worthwhile opportunities, and in converting its presence across multiple markets into global competitive advantage.  The central value for businesses of a global mindset lies in enabling a company to combine speed with accurate response.  It is easy to be fast, simplistic and wrong. It is also easy to become a prisoner of diversity, be intimidated by enormous differences across markets, and stay back — or, if the company does venture abroad, to end up reinventing things in every market. The benefit of a global mindset derives from the fact that, while the company has a grasp of and insight into the needs of the local market, it is also able to build cognitive bridges across these needs and between these needs and the company’s own global experience and capabilities.”

The next decade will belong to those who lift their eyes above the horizon of their own culture, country and context, and see the global opportunities stretching out all around them.  This is a vital leadership skill for the 21st century.

Dr Graeme Codrington is a keynote presenter, author, researcher and expert on the future world of work.  He helps his clients understand the trends that will disrupt their industries in the next decade, and shows them how to anticipate these changes and gain tomorrow’s competitive advantage today.  He can be contacted at graeme@tomorrowtoday.uk.com

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