Developing the Global Leader

By Julia Hanna for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

What skills do today's executives need to develop to become effective global leaders of tomorrow? And how do corporations teach these skills to their own leaders?

"The shift from a country centric corporation to one that is more global in its outlook will have a radical impact on leadership development," says Professor of Management Practice William George, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Medtronic.

George developed and taught for many years the popular second-year MBA course Authentic Leadership Development (ALD), which he has compressed into a five-day Executive Education program at Harvard Business School.

"The most successful leaders will not necessarily be those with the highest IQ," he says. "Of course, they will need to be intelligent. But they'll also need to have a high level of cultural and emotional intelligence."

According to George, additional characteristics of a successful global leader include:

  • An intellectual understanding of the global business context—in other words, an ability to comprehend just how complex it can be to do business around the world.
  • The capacity to simultaneously develop a global and local perspective. "This is much easier said than done," George says. "And it's almost impossible to achieve without a great deal of experience living in different parts of the world."
  • Being able to overcome the dominant thinking at headquarters. "Leadership has to lean in favor of nondominant thinking," says George. "That requires a tremendous amount of intercultural empathy and a passion for diversity in life experiences." In other words: "An insatiable need to learn about other cultures."
  • A knack for cross-boundary partnering. "You need to feel comfortable engaging a team in India and giving them as much power as a team in Germany or the United States. There's a certain level of executive leadership maturity involved in having the respect and capacity to pull the best out of each area of the corporation."
  • A self-awareness and self-assurance when it comes to one's values and sense of purpose. At the same time, however, "you need to be flexible in learning from and empowering others."
  • The ability to develop networks that are internal and external to the organization. "It's a process of shifting from vertical management to horizontal collaboration. One's title and role are far less important than the capacity to get things done."

How should one cultivate these qualities? One of George's first recommendations for would-be global leaders is to live in a country where the language spoken is different from that in one's home country.

"When my wife and I lived in Japan we had a two-year-old child, which meant we had to dive in and learn very quickly," he recalls. "Doing this gives you a heightened sensitivity to cultural differences, and how those differences are tied up in language."

After 60 or so hours of Japanese language instruction, George could more or less carry on a conversation, and did so with a retired chairman of Mitsubishi—who gently informed him that he was speaking "female Japanese."

Get lost

"These are great learning experiences," he says. "The first weekend after I had moved to Belgium, I asked someone how I should explore and get to know the place. I was told to go get lost, which is great advice. It's about really engaging in the culture and learning to be vulnerable."

Accepting one's vulnerabilities is a primary objective of ALD, which requires participants to work together in six-person groups.

"It's more than a knowledge transfer from HBS to individuals; it's also an exchange between people and a process of understanding who I am, what I desire, what is my purpose, and what are my values," says George, who notes that this year the number of participants who can enroll in ALD has doubled to 240 people.

Also coming next July is The Global Enterprise Leader, a course developed with Professor Krishna Palepu that will extend ALD's objectives to include cultivating a greater capacity for cultural intelligence. "It's not so much about understanding geopolitics," George says. "The characteristics that I've cited above are far more important."

Aligning employees across a diversity of geographies and experiences is easier said than done, George concedes, although he does highlight a few standouts, including Coca-Cola (which has had five non-American CEOs), Nestlé, Unilever, Siemens, IBM, and Novartis, among others.

"Ultimately, a global organization is measured by how well the diversity of its leadership reflects the diversity of its customer base and how well that leadership can leverage the skills of teams working around the world," he says, adding that Medtronic's CEO is Omar Ishrak, a native of Bangladesh who was educated in London and has worked in the United States for nearly 20 years.

"We're looking to companies to create a global cadre of people who are comfortable operating anywhere in the world," George concludes. "That's where we're heading."