Mary, a highly accomplished engineer and self-made business owner in the US, has received yet another disrespectful email from her young engineers in Poland. She angrily thinks to herself, “I am the owner of this business and they are just driving me mad. Why do they challenge everything?” Mary has confidence that comes from her professional journey as an immigrant to the US with Central American roots. She knows how to assert herself, build credibility, and influence people in a new context. Despite her usual cool, she is baffled by these engineers. Mary’s challenge is unique for her but not unusual in global businesses. People from different cultures work and communicate differently. These differences can create misunderstandings, frustration, friction, lowering of morale, and loss of productivity. What can prepare engineers, managers, or business leaders for the cultural surprises inherent in international projects? What can they do to be ready for the challenges of global leadership?

The Challenges of International Leadership

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, leaders can systematically enhance their capacity to meet the challenges of international leadership. Most leaders have risen to their positions through expertise in a certain field (engineering, finance, sales, etc.), a strong work ethic, and assertiveness. These same traits, however, are often not sufficient, and sometimes they are even counterproductive, to leading across multiple countries which have different cultures, business behaviors, and workplace norms.

Step One: Understanding

The first step is to understand that what got you “here” in the US, will not get you “there” in your international career. This requires a willingness to explore success factors in global leadership that differ from successful traits that are typical for the US.

Step Two: Assessment

An excellent starting point to explore success factors in global leadership is to take an individual assessment on global management competencies. Not only will the results of such an assessment highlight strengths and blind spots, but it also will provide a tangible framework with which to describe what global leadership “is” and how to “do” more of it, and do it well. This could be a good start for Mary too.

Step Three: A Systematic, Longer-Term Approach

Of course, it is very good practice for organizations to take a systematic, longer-term approach to developing global leaders. An integrated approach connecting talent spotting, relevant global leadership development programs, and full alignment of global competency development with performance evaluation and promotion systems is ideal. And getting to this level of organizational practice does not happen overnight.

What the Research Has Shown

Research* has shown time and again that global leaders do not become accomplished in their roles just by “taking a class.” Training can play a useful role – but is frequently inefficient by itself (estimates suggest that only 10% of training expenditure transfer to performance on the job).** For higher performance, developing leaders need to be exposed to a range of feedback and support sources, increasingly more demanding real-life challenges, and opportunities to reflect and “make sense” of their experiences.

Solving Mary’s Dilemma Long Term

Meanwhile, for Mary, managing her team of engineers continues to be messy. Like Mary, many leaders find themselves confronted with challenges which need to be addressed “now” and “just-in-time” options are needed. There are two sides to this situation: Mary, in her role as a global leader, can benefit greatly from global executive coaching. This source of skilled individual support can lead to insights on how the Polish behavior is influenced by both cultural and generational factors in Poland. Mary can also gain a fuller insight into the role her own cultural and communication styles play in the overall dynamics. This opens doors to using a broader, more adaptive set of influencing strategies. In her coaching process, she will likely also discover that her young team in Poland actually needs support in strengthening their culture-crossing team-communication skills. This is the second side of the situation. Support can be provided through a tailored intercultural training on US-Polish interactions in Poland. Both sides can begin to move forward with a higher level of global competence.

Mary is now in a very good position to truly align the team by stepping back to re-set ground rules for the team and its members working with her so that they can fully perform as the smart engineering power-pack that they are.

Looking for global leadership development for your team? Contact us to discuss your goals.

*Osland, Bird, Oddu et.al. (2012), Global Leadership: Research, Practice and Development, 2nd ed., New York, NY: Routledge ** e.g. Grossman and Salas (2011), The transfer of training: what really matters, in: International Journal of Training and Development, vol. 15 (2), pp. 103-120