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Why Global Professionals Need Special Leadership Skills

Our advanced technological world is also a global world. And while this world may be “one world” in many ways, it’s still astonishingly diverse. Dealing effectively with this diversity requires something more than generic leadership skills if you're a professional who works with, manages, sells to or engages in business relationships with people from different parts of the planet. You're what is nowadays referred to as a "global professional" and your path is not the same as that of people who operate within a single cultural environment.

Are you a global professional?

If most of the following statements apply to you, you're most likely a global professional, wherever in the world you are from or happen to live:

  • You're a professional employee of, do business with, or provide professional services to enterprises that operate in more than one country.
  • Whatever your mother tongue, you're fluent in English.
  • You have colleagues and counterparts in other countries.
  • You're accustomed to international travel, time zone differences, projects with players in different parts of the world, and virtual meetings with people in distant places whom you've never met in person.
  • You feel you can be at home both in your native country and all over the world.
  • You think of yourself as cosmopolitan rather than narrowly ethnocentric.
  • Globalization, with all the huge disruptions it has created for millions of people, is generally working out pretty well for your career or business opportunities. 
  • Your way of living, managing and doing business is modern, Westernized, cutting edge.
  • And, more than likely, you believe that you're "cool" and the way of the future!

So where’s the leadership challenge for you? Don’t you already have the perfect global mindset? Don’t you already have all the right leadership attitudes, knowledge and skills to do business across cultures and work with global multicultural teams and companies?

Global "flat" world versus global diversity

Ever since Thomas Friedman’s book The Earth is Flat, there’s been a common belief that, since people are now so interconnected through business and technology, cultural differences are no longer important. I run into this attitude frequently: “We’re all technologists – or finance people – or biotech people – or lawyers. We speak a common global professional language. Cultural differences are just a bit of insignificant local color and noise.”

But then what happens? In spite of all the intelligence and effort we put into our global undertakings, things don’t always work out the way we thought they would. Working globally turns out not to be all that smooth and seamless. There’s the personal exhaustion of multiple time zones and being on call 24x7, and the wear and tear of constant travel. There are the logistical and legal complexities of dealing with different business and legal systems. There are, of course, the constantly shifting considerations of risk and opportunity. 

Finally, in addition,  there are all those layers and layers of cultural complexity. It turns out that the world isn't really flat after all. National differences and multicultural diversity are all real, and can trip up even those who think they’re well prepared.

What does it take to lead in a diverse global environment?

Personal leadership. For your own self-leadership, leading globally means you need to have more flexibility, more cultural intelligence, more curiosity, and more empathy for all the different kinds of people you deal with. You need to avoid the easy path of trying to deal only with people who are like you. You need to resist the temptation to limit your business interactions to organizations that are run according to the management principles and work style you consider normal. Unless you stretch yourself to deal with people and organizations that are different and unfamiliar, you'll operate in a cultural bubble and may miss many opportunities for accomplishment and success. 

Team leadership. And as a leader of global multicultural teams, you need to nurture and leverage all the abilities and talents of all the people in the team - not only the people who are easiest for you to interact with because you share the same mindset. You need to understand that what creates engagement, commitment and a sense of being valued is not a one-size-fits-all formula for everyone. You need to be skilled at the art of making all your people feel that they belong, and that their individual abilities and perspectives contribute to the team’s success. And you need to make sure there are possibilities of advancement for everyone, not just for those who are like you or like your organization's existing senior leadership.

© Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted, provided the article and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. 

Karine Schomer, PhD is President of Change Management Consulting & Training, LLC, and leads The CMCT India Practice, specializing in cross-cultural training and management consulting for doing business with India, competitive advantage through cross-cultural awareness, business etiquette and protocols, cross-cultural communication and teamwork skills, outsourcing management best practices, and offshore team leadership strategies. For more learning resources, check The Working and Managing Across Cultures Blog.

Three cultural mismatch stories - Karine Schomer