How do you develop global executives?


Whether organizations are building a talent pipeline for the global HQ or employing local talent in regions worldwide, all executives need a global outlook in order to effectively interact across borders and cultures. But how do organizations develop ‘global executives’?

This important dilemma crossed the minds of Morgan McCall and George Hollenbeck, and resulted in the comprehensive book published by Harvard Business School Press, The Lessons of International Experience: Developing Global Executives.

Developing Global Executives features firsthand interviews with a number of executives working on a global scale, offering an excellent insight into global leadership complexities and dynamics. In this article I take a look at the first chapter discussing the fundamentals to developing global leadership.

  1. Strategy first, talent second

One key problem with approach to new regions or global operations is that strategy is often developed haphazardly, insufficiently laying the groundwork for sustained success.

Ian Swanson, global operations and finance executive, recently touched upon this key error in the AESC Executive Search Network on Linkedin, "I have seen too many businesses say they are expanding into international markets, and when you ask why, you don't get a good answer - usually something along the lines of, 'well these are big emerging markets, with a lot of people, and there is not much growth in our home market...'"

When foreign operations fail after sending talent abroad or setting up a local office, the organization then blames the executives in regional control. Not only does lack of strategy negatively impact the executive’s development capabilities, a failed experience will often stall global organizational development for years to come.

  1. Business is business, culture is…?

McCall and Hollenbeck, highlight that a key difference between executives operating within domestic and international frameworks is the ability to interact across cultures and sustain a global mind-set. This ability cannot be solely taught through intellectual studies as cultural differences are fluid, subjective and often unpredictable. The successful adoption of a global mind-set relies on strong emotional education and intelligence. As the term ‘emotional education’ implies, there strong need for experiences to learn form, something I will touch on below.

  1. International experiences make global executives

Global executives are not born global. In the same way business skills and knowledge are learnt/gained, emotional intelligence and cross cultural understanding is developed through experiences. Organizations need to develop plans to offer international experiences to executives, backed with solid strategy and clear goals. Investing in development will result in executives seasoned with the unique problems faced by working abroad / on a global scale, and build a talent inventory ready to tackle future international assignments.

  1. Nothing is simple

Even with plans for development in place, organisations cannot force executives to develop. As outlined in Developing Global Executives many of the forces and experiences executives learn and develop from are out of the organizations control. Preventing or predicting culture shock is far from an exact science. All organizations can do is the above, "sorting out what is within the domain of realistic action."

In addition, authors McCall and Hollenbeck recognize the ambiguity of the term ‘Global Executives’, stating, "variety, not homogeneity, was the rule among our executives." There are many different forms of working globally (country, region, global management; expat vs. local talent), and this needs to be considered when developing plans tailored to individual roles and career paths.

  1. Executives must take control of their own development

Although proper preparation and strategy must be in place, much of the outcome and development of global executives will be out of the organisation’s control. Working globally, requires executives to take a greater control over their own development than when operating in domestic markets alone.

Executives must balance working internationally, while staying connected to HQ, family and friends. They must seek out international experiences, rather than wait for them to come along, and learn any local languages required. While experience helps develop a global mind-set, it is up to the executive to approach every situation with an open mind and burning desire to learn. Without this predisposition, and a strong passion to work across cultures, development is unlikely to occur.

Having experienced working in a number of countries, number 5 resonates with me the most. You have to expect HQ global strategy to be lacking in at least a few areas and it is up to you to take control of your own development and success in the markets you are working in.


This article was written by Christian Pielow from the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

BlueSteps is the exclusive service of the AESC that puts senior executives on the radar screen of over 6,000 executive search professionals in over 70 countries. Be visible, and be considered for up to 50,000 opportunities handled by AESC search firms every year. Find out more at www.BlueSteps.com.

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