The Challenge of Developing “Global-Minded” Leaders

Today, the world is full of five-minute experts—anyone with five minutes and access to the internet can become an expert on pretty much anything. For proof, just ask my 11-year old. Yet, the unfortunate truth is, there is no such thing as a five-minute expert. Internet access is no substitute for wisdom. True expertise requires not only acquiring relevant knowledge, but also having the experience of applying that knowledge in the real world.

There is no clearer example of this than leadership. Leadership is a subject that gets a lot of attention from scholars, consultants and corporations. A basic internet search yields any number of five-minute experts prepared to expound on what it takes to become an effective leader. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple. Becoming a true expert in leadership requires having the opportunity to actually lead.


Organizations that operate globally are acutely aware of this conundrum. As organizations continue to globalize, through increasingly global demand and reliance on global suppliers, the need for leaders who can guide and motivate people in different parts of the world has never been greater. Simultaneously, the demand for managers who are experienced in actually leading global teams always seems to be greater than the supply.[i] To address the need, organizations invest significant funds in developing people into global leaders. Though often well designed and masterfully executed, such professional development programs also fall short of their goals.

So why is developing strong, global leaders so hard?

First of all, people have to be strong leaders before they can be strong global leaders. In a recent global study I conducted on over 1,900 managers and learning professionals, 65 percent of respondents indicated that the most critical skills in predicting the success of leaders in global leadership roles were fundamental leadership skills required of all leaders, global or not.[ii] For example, leaders need to be strong communicators; they need to have a clear and defensible strategy; they need to work through others to drive results and to foster creativity and innovation; and they need to effectively mentor others.

Once people have mastered these leadership fundamentals, they are in a much better position to develop into what I call “global-minded” leaders. Essentially, “global-minded” leaders adapt these leadership fundamentals to a global context. The good news is that the fundamentals of being a successful leader are fairly consistent across the globe. That is, successful leaders in all regions of the world are typically strong on communication, strategy, delegation, and mentoring talent.

Unfortunately, how a person demonstrates these leadership fundamentals varies significantly across cultures. For example, consider how a leader provides performance feedback. The very direct feedback style of a Dutch manager will be very different from the face-saving approach of a Japanese manager. The cultural context required for effective global leadership makes it exceedingly difficult to teach. This hits at the core of what I consider a “global-minded” leader.

In addition to the typical leadership capabilities, there are a few additional capabilities that are critical for developing global-minded leaders.[iii]

First, global-minded leaders must embrace new experiences. Those who seek out opportunities to immerse themselves in new and varied cultures and practices have a distinct advantage for developing global leadership skills.

Another critical capability is emotional intelligence. Individuals who demonstrate empathy and a deep understanding of other people, as well as an ability to manage their own emotions, are naturally better equipped to develop into global-minded leaders.

Finally, so much of the work of global leaders requires effective problem solving and critical thinking about issues from different perspectives. Global-minded leaders are often highly creative and have the ability to visualize problems from different perspectives and to identify non-linear solutions.

Together, these three capabilities (embracing new experiences, emotional intelligence, and effective problem solving) are essential when dealing with highly ambiguous situations that are common when managing global teams.

In such a complex context, how do you develop global-minded leaders?

The short answer is that for people to become global-minded leaders, they should first develop their own fundamental leadership skills and then immerse themselves in circumstances that force them to adapt what they know about leadership to a global context.

In a study of global executives, Hal Gregerson and his colleagues found that 80 percent of executives identified living and working in a foreign country as “the single most influential experience in their lives.”[iv]

Consistent with this finding is the old adage that roughly 70 percent of learning about leadership is through “on the job” experiences, while the other 30 percent is from other sources, like formal training and mentoring.[v] A recent article by Forman and Keen adds a twist to this, suggesting that “on the job experiences” should expand to include learning from new experiences both inside and outside of work. The best learning experiences are those that push you out of your comfort zone.[vi]

Yet, this presents a paradox. Many organizations struggle to find the strong global leaders needed to fill open leadership roles because qualified candidates are rare. Most employees have not been given the immersive experience needed to succeed in a global role.

Based on my own experience coaching leaders, the answer to this challenge is three-fold:

First, future global-minded leaders need to embrace every opportunity to serve on global teams and to build relationships with others in different geographical regions. Future global-minded leaders should also be networking with global colleagues both inside and outside of their organizations.

Second, companies should foster professional development experiences outside of the organization that push future global-minded leaders outside of their comfort zone. For example, volunteering for community activities where the individual is a minority or where the majority of the people speak a different language. The more someone feels like they don’t quite belong, the better!

Third, future global-minded leaders should have an immersive cultural experience early in their careers. As companies consider an effective approach to developing global-minded leaders for future leadership roles, providing immersive culture experiences early on is much less risky and less costly than attempting to give more senior leaders the same kind of immersive experience.

Finally, as other authors have pointed out in the past, embedded pro bono consulting in emerging markets is one great way corporate employees can gain immersive, life-changing experiences.[vii] For future global-minded leaders, this kind of formative cultural experience will continue to yield benefits throughout their careers.[viii]

Dr. Steven Rumery

Dr. Steven Rumery

Dr. Steven Rumery is a Principal with Leadership Research Institute, specializing in developing the credibility and impact of leaders and organizations through executive coaching, research, and consulting. Steve has experience working with Fortune 500 companies across industries, including banking, investment management, private equity, pharmaceutical, and mass media. Steve can be reached at [email protected].

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