When Andreas Gelder was transferred to the U.S. subsidiary of his company, his responsibilities shifted. At the head offices of his European employer he was a young up-and-comer and a part of a larger team in the finance department. Now he had to master several new roles: he became the head of finance for the Americas – a territory which technically stretches from the arctic circle in Canada to Tierra del Fuego; in addition to his traditional finance role he took over responsibilities for HR, IT, and Admin Services; and he now had several departments and people from 7 countries report numbers to him.
Andreas quickly realized that the skills which made him successful at home weren’t enough to be effective abroad. While he was a fast learner not everyone in the organization saw the same high potential in him that his superiors at HQ noticed. Some coworkers began wondering if he was the right choice for this position. Office grapevine had it that he was a lightweight. Nobody at his company location disrespected or even discredited him openly but word got around to Andreas via his HR department at the head office. And after a long and candid video call with the company’s VP of HR Andreas agreed that he needed a coach to support him in his growth as a global leader.
When I met Andreas he had developed some self-doubt. The nagging feeling that he may not be good enough for the job had gotten to him. And he had become painfully aware that the half-day cultural training program his company provided for him a year ago, before his departure didn’t equip him with the tools to be efficient.
Instead of a pure coaching program we developed a hybrid model which also includes the transfer of content blocks — teaching. In the year Andreas and I spent together we had a couple of face-to-face meetings and two video calls per month. This hybrid model has since been used for several of our clients. It combines the accountability partner, someone that supports you in getting you from your current reality to where you want to be, with the trainer/teacher who fills in the knowledge gaps during your cross-cultural and professional growth.
Our clients always ask: What exactly will you be teaching us? Most of the time my answer is: It depends. And it does. No coachee is the same, and neither are their experiences. We assess what is, define the target and goals, and create a roadmap.
There is, however, a set of common skills and qualities which I find myself working on with every client. For instance, there is what my colleague Andy Molinsky calls Global Dexterity, others use terms and frameworks like Cultural Agility or Cultural Intelligence. And in all my years in this field I’ve come to the realization that in order to improve your cultural nimbleness you’ll need to be vulnerable first.
So, what does it take to be an efficient global executive? A study by the Center for Talent Innovation looks at four distinct areas in which aspiring leaders need to become proficient:
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, one of the co-authors of the CTI study, writes that employees must master this set of competencies if they are to become leaders on the global stage: “As organizations grow and become more global, it’s crucial that they develop these skills in their local talent so that they can work effectively across cultures.”
Conveying credibility and competency — a pressing issue during Andreas Gelder’s first months on foreign assignment — often means finding a balance between demonstrating authority and displaying emotional intelligence:
Global leaders must master a pivot to project credibility, demonstrating authority in a form familiar to senior executives in the West (the vertical pivot) while prioritizing emotional intelligence with stakeholders in local global markets (the horizontal pivot). CTI’s 11-market study (of Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, the U.S., and the UK) finds that 62% of senior leaders in the U.S. and the UK say that demonstrating authority projects credibility but only 47% of respondents in Asia think it does. Emotional intelligence (versus demonstrating authority) is more important in the growth-hub markets: 57% of respondents in Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, and Turkey say that demonstrating emotional intelligence wins the trust and respect of teams in local markets.
Leaders who pivot well horizontally, earning the trust and respect of their team, are 21% more likely to be satisfied with their career progression than team leaders who haven’t. That trend holds with leaders who pivot well vertically and have won the attention and support of senior leaders: They’re 15% more likely to be satisfied with their advancement.
Effective communication is what everyone wants, not just at work. In international business this means communicating “up” — to global headquarters and/or the chain of command — as well as “sideways” within the team, and virtually across various technology platforms. The CTI study identifies three core areas in which dealings, dialogue, and discussion need to excel so global executives can win senior-level support for their teams:
Across all markets, leaders need to speak well, deliver a compelling message, and command a room. What differs from market to market, though, is how leaders demonstrate those skills. In many markets, men are expected to deliver a compelling message by stating their conclusions directly, while women are expected to guide listeners to their conclusion. In Hong Kong, China, India, and Singapore, men are expected to command a room in a forceful manner, but in Japan, Brazil, and Russia, women are expected to command a room by facilitating others’ dialogue.
If you want to solve problems in a global context — as part of a team with coworkers from different cultures, who speak different languages, who have unique behavioral preferences, and who may not always be present at your physical location — you need to adjust your approach to management and leadership. Being inclusive is a skill which requires practice and it will result in improved collaboration. The CTI study names these six behaviors which inclusive leaders exhibit:
The way to do this is by asking questions and listening carefully, giving actionable feedback, facilitating constructive arguments, taking advice and implementing feedback, maintaining regular contact with team members, and sharing credit for team success. Global team members with inclusive leaders are four times as likely as global team members with noninclusive leaders to say their teams embrace the input of members whose background or experience differs from their own.
According to the CTI findings, leaders of global teams who behave inclusively spur collaboration and better performance. The members of global teams who responded for the study reported these three corporate culture mindsets:
Inclusive leaders are more likely to encourage risk taking and disruptive thinking: Their team members are three times as likely to say they’re not afraid to fail and four-and-a-half times as likely to report that nobody on their team is afraid to challenge the status quo. This has critical implications for companies whose growth in new markets is predicated on breakthrough products and services, as a growing body of research suggests that leaders who don’t merely tolerate failure but avidly celebrate it unlock game-changing innovation.
No aspiring leader can live up to their expectations without a cheerleader. Winning sponsorship is critical for your growth. Mentors, or sponsors, provide guidance and the support you need to succeed. They also make you discernible and put you on the radar of your leadership.
A global sponsor, according to CTI’s findings, is a senior leader who, at a minimum, asks for favors on your behalf, advocates for your next promotion, and supports your authority as well as empowers you to make decisions. You should be able to rely on your global sponsor:
- to believe in your leadership potential
- to give honest feedback on where your skills need to improve
- to provide opportunities for you to stretch
- to expand your perception of what you think you can accomplish
- to make you visible to leaders in your organization
- to help your geographical mobility
This shows that having a sponsor can impact how satisfied you are with your career progress. CTI asked the employees of multi-national companies who are happy with their career development, and:
This begs the question: How do you win this kind of sponsorship? The first step is to be a sponsor yourself. Find the high potentials among your team and provide to them the same guidance you expect from your sponsor/mentor. “Selecting top performers for development and stretch assignments, and securing a future for them at the company beyond their own borders signals to those at headquarters that you are thinking and acting like a global leader”, writes CTI study co-author Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Indeed, no one is better positioned to sponsor emerging talent than someone who has succeeded in vaulting those same barriers.”
In order to win your sponsor you also need to get clear with your goals: Where do you want to get in your organization and what type of expertise and experience will you need to get there?
Then you want to examine who in your company’s senior leadership has the ability and capacity to facilitate your professional growth. Once you demonstrate the behaviors needed to convey your credibility and competence, start building trust with your senior leadership. Effectively communicate who you are and which specific skills you bring to the table for your team’s global functions. Demonstrate how you can include your team mates’ various capabilities to the benefit of the organization. And be receptive to the foreign assignment opportunities your company might open up for you.
Which brings us back to Andreas Gelder. He no longer feels like a light-weight and has learned to adjust his communicative style to different situations: Dealing with headquarters in Europe is not the same as meeting with the team in Brazil. His sponsor, whose full support Andreas had been unsure of, is now overtly backing him in every respect. Does he still experience pushback from the team when he needs to implement changes? Of course. That basically comes with the territory for a director of finance. But today Andreas is able to embrace the input of team mates who express their opposition in significantly different ways. He includes them in the decision making process, and whenever he has to make unilateral decisions Andreas has practiced to resolve conflicts in an inclusive way.
If you want to see more resources about coaching on this website, check out these two articles:
- 5 basic principles for efficient cross-cultural coaching
- Busting 5 Myths about Cross-Cultural Coaching
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