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Developing Global Executives - How To Train Leaders For a Global Perspective

Whether establishing new businesses, expanding into new global markets or maintaining existing relationships, business managers must consider the talents needed to survive within varied geographical and cultural environments. In this excerpt from their recently published book, George P. Hollenbeck and Morgan W. McCall distinguish the differences between managers doing domestic and international business.

Especially relevant findings
In the same way that the new career model requires a different perspective, the global experiences of the future are unlikely to mirror the experiences of our global study executives. At average age forty-eight, these executives look back on more than twenty years of experience that inevitably will be significantly different from those beginning careers today. Can the lessons of our study possibly provide any insight into future careers?

We think they can. There is timelessness in the lessons, experiences, and insights that we believe is well worth the consideration of those just starting the journey. The hows may change, but the themes are unlikely to become obsolete. In addition, the advice from these veterans to those who would follow in their footsteps may well be the best advice available. Their careers, with their emphasis on autonomy and self-reliance, have embodied elements of the "new career" far more than have the careers of domestic executives.

Whatever their personal characteristics, people interested in global careers don't wait to be asked."—
—McCall & Hollenbeck

We begin with themes that seem especially relevant to global careers. We continue by applying those themes to six essential career processes, which we then relate to the advice from our study executives.

1. There are many paths to global leadership. In the same way that there is no one type of global executive, there is no one global executive career. Many paths can be taken, from many starting points. Half of our executives could identify specific factors in their backgrounds that contributed to their interests in global careers, but half could not. Some executives came to their jobs with a yearning for adventure or travel, but many simply "rolled into it." Asked about their first international assignment, as many were sent by their companies as asked for that assignment.

The new career model in companies that are changing rapidly to adapt to external changes is likely to offer even more and more diverse routes to global leadership. Already a world of complexity, global business will get even more complex as the number of players, suppliers, and entrants into the global economy increases. The career implication is that on the one hand, executives must increasingly be in charge of their careers, finding pathways that suit their needs and talents. On the other, a person needn't worry too much if not born to global leadership. Many routes can lead there. Layer upon layer of complexity can also be seen as layer upon layer of opportunity.

2. Global leadership development happens in the global arena. Although close-to-home, domestic experiences can teach important lessons (the foundation lessons that all executives must learn, such as how to manage), the critical lessons of global leadership are learned in global work. Whether a leader is living domestically, working internationally, or working and living as an expatriate, the combination of business and culture is essential. The implication? Get that experience!

3. Culture shock is the unique global experience. Working and living in another culture is different from domestic experience, or from working or living (but not both at the same time) cross-culturally.  5  The magnitude and type of changes experienced as an expatriate force people to develop new perspectives, attitudes, and skills. For many, the experience transforms them in important ways—ways that they value—and teaches them generalizable lessons of culture. Global careers require experience outside one's own country…prepare for it.

4. Lessons of culture are the unique global lessons. Many lessons required for success as an executive appear to be much the same, whether the context is domestic or global. Executives in either arena must learn to establish credibility, build an effective team, and handle bosses and superiors. Even lessons like learning to listen, so much more important in a global context, must be learned by domestic executives also. It is the lessons of culture that truly differentiate the global context.

5. Line experiences are the crucibles of development, but other experiences assume more importance in global careers than they do in domestic. The nature of shorter-term experiences in an international setting, experiences like those that fall in the "significant other people" and "developmental and educational experiences" categories, makes them fruitful sources of global lessons. That is good news for future careers; the opportunities for learning the crucial lessons aren't limited to long-term assignments.

6. There are more hazards and traps in a global career than in a domestic one. Derailment takes place in global work in much the same way that it does in domestic, but the global arena presents a wider array of hazards, traps, and temptations. Typically operating at a greater distance with great freedom, global work is often exhilarating, sometimes dangerous, and once in a while downright scary. Expecting a different world is a significant part of the battle in overcoming obstacles. The new careerist should know what to expect.

All these findings have broad implications for global leadership careers. The implications, like the careers themselves, will depend upon the individual and the context.

Essentials for a global career
The frequent-flyer model for global executive development for helping organize an organization's perspective can also help individuals look at careers. Specifically, we will develop a slightly different perspective, examining their implications for individual careers. In this context, the mechanisms used by an organization to manage the movement of talent can be translated into a set of essential tasks for an individual to manage his or her own global career. Our discussion will include the implications of our study findings and the advice from the global executives we interviewed. Underlying our discussion is a prescription for the new career—your development is your responsibility. We can give the advice, but you are the agent of change, you must make it happen, you must take the risk, and you will reap the rewards.

The five essentials, discussed below, form the basis for a new global career contract designed for your benefit.

Few, if any, of our study executives knew the full extent of their journeys when they began their careers. Tempted though we all may be to plan our thirty-year personal strategies, we can say with confidence that none will work out as planned. Half our executives could identify no particular influence that got them started on a global career.

In the same way that early careers require a person to develop foundation skills and reputation (David Thomas and John Gabarro call this developing competence, credibility, and confidence), it helps early on to set yourself up with opportunities to discover how global you want to be.  6  This is especially true if you are one of those who "has no clue." Seek out opportunities for travel, for working with those from other cultures—at the next desk, in teams, in task forces. Individuals (as well as organizations) make a mistake when they settle too soon on their likes, dreams, and goals, and in what context. There are many paths to a global career; don't assume too early that such a career is not for you. Discover!

Selection here means self-selection. With you in charge of your career, it is essential that you make choices that consistently lead you toward global leadership. The ambiguity and complexity of the global context lends itself to self-selection rather than waiting for someone else to do it. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle reported that fewer women than men were asked to go on expatriate assignment, but the article misses the point.  7  Whatever their personal characteristics, people interested in global careers don't wait to be asked. They select themselves and let it be known in the organization. Only about a quarter of our executives said that they had been sent by their companies on their first international assignment. Most others took an active role. You can take the initiative in participating in anything international—travel, task forces, training programs, receptions—whatever it takes to give you exposure and experience in the global arena.

Self-selection begins with finding an organization that fits your values and temperament. Organizations differ widely in their need for global leaders and their views of global leadership, depending on their strategy and their history. If you want a global career, find a global organization. We found Royal Dutch/Shell executives who specifically chose Shell because it promised (even demanded) international assignments. An executive at Hewlett-Packard, already aware of his own interest in international from his days as an exchange student and leading overseas study programs, sought an interview at HP because he learned that more than half its revenues came from outside the United States.

Another selection point is jobs and bosses. With significant other people such an important source of learning, self-selection means finding and choosing bosses who can teach you about culture and international business.

Selection depends on assessment, and in self-selection, the key is self-assessment. You must seek out and be receptive to feedback on which to base that assessment. As you have an opportunity to experience global business, at whatever level, you must be brutally honest in assessing your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not your own interests and abilities fit the requirements.

Global careers are built upon experiences that provide opportunities for learning, but those opportunities may be expensive and difficult to obtain. Our executives advised us on the importance of first developing technical, functional, or business expertise for a reason: Expertise enables you to add value in a global assignment. International assignments, by virtue of their being outside one's home country, are inevitably more expensive than domestic assignments. An expatriate in China can cost fifty to eighty times as much as a Chinese national, so someone from the outside taking that assignment must have value added.

Not all e\xperiences are of equal value for development, and companies will differ in the experiences and lessons that are available and those that are most important. In your company you must experience the assignments that develop, and develop from the experiences.

In high-performance organizations, leaders are tempted to pursue results at the expense of their own development. Certainly, performance counts and is the ticket of entry into the next round of the tournament, but success in the next round will depend on one's accumulated learning, and that depends on development. The real key then is not just the ability to produce results, but the ability to learn from experience while producing results. A single-minded focus on performance can shutter one's eyes to the lessons in the experiences. We found example after example of executives who had derailed when they were unable to keep learning and growing. Our study amply demonstrates that the essential lessons of global leadership can be learned in a wide variety of experiences. Overwhelmingly, however, the lessons are learned in international work. Our executives reflect that in their admonition to "go early." Get involved early on in work that enables you to discover, select, and develop.

There is, of course, no secret to learning from experience. It begins with openness to learning and to rethinking one's characteristic ways of thinking and viewing. If there is an essential lesson of global leadership, it a perspective that recognizes the constancy of the what and the variability of the how.

Our discussion of derailed executives pointed out that the difference between derailed and successful executives is not that the successful executive has never experienced failure, but that successful executives are able to recover, to learn from the experience, and to move ahead. The cardinal sin at high-performance organizations like Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) is not a project's failure to meet its numbers, but an attempt to hide the failure, to deny one's role, and to learn no lessons. Especially in global work, where the ambiguity and uncertainty inevitably result in the unexpected, you must develop resilience and the ability to learn from bad experiences as well as good ones. Anger, defensiveness, hostility, and rigidity are the hallmarks of an inability to recover.

Viewing careers as a series of work-related experiences over a life span dictates the need for continually learning new skills, new attitudes, new ways of thinking. Most discussions of the "competencies of the future" emphasize the need for lifelong learning to adapt to a changing world.  8  The greater the change, the greater the need for relearning. The complexity, uncertainty, and rapid change that come with working across countries, cultures, and businesses present new challenges at every turn. While those challenges are, in fact, the excitement of global careers, they also increase the demand for continuing to learn.

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Excerpted with permission from "Developing Global Executives: The Lessons of International Experience," by Morgan W. McCall, Jr. and George P. Hollenback, HBS Press, 2001.

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Five Questions for McCall and Hollenbeck

Sara Jane Johnston conducted this email interview about global leaders with authors Morgan McCall and George Hollenbeck.

Johnston: What is a global leader in business? What qualities does a global leader have that are different from someone who is a leader in his or her home country?

Morgan McCall and George Hollenbeck: There is not a global leader—global leaders are those who have global jobs; a global job is a job that requires crossing borders...borders of country (a proxy for culture) and borders of business (e.g., marketing, research, product lines, SBUs). Jobs (and executives) are more or less global, depending on the how many and the complexity of the borders crossed.

The difficulty in defining 'global executive' is that the experience will be different for each executive, depending on what he or she brings to it... working in Seoul is a different experience, depending on whether you come from Tokyo or Beijing or Stockholm. One company's home country national (e.g., a Swede working at Ericsson in Stockholm) may be another company's local national (e.g., a Swede working for IBM in Stockholm) or the same company's third-country national (e.g., a Swede working for IBM in Singapore). Domestic executives work across business borders, global executives work across business and cultural borders at the same time. Adding the cultural dimension fundamentally changes the work ... starting up a new business in Helsinki for a Finn is a different experience than a start-up in Harare. The cultural experience often becomes the foreground, the business experience the background for the executive. Dealing with that culture requires a global mindset—and often abilities at a higher level...the jobs are more complex and require a higher level of cognitive, emotional, and social abilities.

Of course the differences in skills and mindset required in an international or expatriate assignment depend on the strategy and structure of the business. One strategic approach, for example, is using expatriates to develop local nationals so expatriates are no longer necessary. This of course creates a problem further down the road in developing local nationals to appreciate the home office and the global business. A U.S.-centric organization that simply sells its products in world markets or outsources manufacturing to the cheapest labor source is not a truly global firm and what it calls international executives differs dramatically from a global company. In short, it all begins with the strategic intent.

Further, the structure of the job can determine the required cross-cultural skills, many of which are not directly business related or technical. It changes the job fundamentally, for example, to have direct reports who speak another language, or among whom multiple different languages are spoken. It changes things fundamentally to have a boss from another culture, and so on.

What about the background of the executive? Does success depend on having a global background? Half of our sample came from a background that inclined them to international work—parents who were in the military or diplomacy or global business, who spoke multiple languages, who set out to live an international life. But half did not—they had no clue until it happened upon them. There can be little doubt that it is an advantage to the person who aims for a global career to begin with a global background, including foreign languages. But there is also little doubt that being a global executive is a career that many people stumble into...much to their surprise!

Which companies stand out as producing the best global leaders? Why? How did you apply or measure this advantage to their companies' bottom-line results?

The companies that have long histories in the global business arena are typically better at producing global leaders—Royal Dutch/Shell, Unilever, Ericsson, ABB, for example. They have global business strategies and have incorporated global executive development into their business…Royal Dutch/Shell expects their high flyers to be global, and in fact 95 percent of their senior executives have had experience outside their home country.

The companies that produce the "best" global leaders (remember there is no one kind of beast that is a global leader) are the companies that are global: They operate in a global basis rather than a country-by-country basis, their operations may be headquartered in different parts of the world, their senior ranks and board are populated with many passports. It is these kinds of companies that have available the kinds of experiences that grow executives with cross-cultural ability and a global perspective. It is these companies that have available role models and mentors with international perspective. It is these companies that can structure jobs and assignments so that younger, talented employees can be exposed to and work with people from other cultures and work in businesses that span borders.

A company's bottom-line results are too dependent on too many factors to measure the ROE component of success in developing global leaders. Executive development is an aspect of a successful strategy...long-term success of the enterprise depends on having the executives to implement a sound strategy.

How did the events of 9/11 affect your findings? What is or isn't different about being a global leader in the post-9/11 world? What skills can someone work on personally to make them a global contender?

In the short run, 9/11 has caused companies to re-evaluate their global strategies. Is it too risky now to be global? Should we draw back? Although there has been a temporary drawing back, the consensus seems to be that the forces (technology, communication, etc.) of globalization are still there, and businesses have little choice but to continue their march toward globalization. To shrink back now is to miss an opportunity. To the extent that the world outside their home countries is riskier than it was, so will be the lives of global leaders. No doubt it will be more difficult for a while to recruit individuals and their families for global jobs. But the demand and the opportunities will still be there.

To be a global contender, there is no substitute for global experience. If you are not getting that experience, you can't afford to wait for someone to ask you...find it yourself. And once there, you must learn from your experience. If there is a single failing that prevents people from growing as executives, it is the inability to learn from experience. Learning from experience in the global arena requires a mix of cognitive ability and emotional and social intelligence, often at a higher level than in domestic jobs.

In addition, the aftermath of 9/11 has reminded the U.S. that in no uncertain terms culture does matter. Before the terrorist attacks there was a growing belief that the entire world was becoming "American" in its approach to business—global meant becoming Western. Jack Welch's book was in demand worldwide, English is the common language of trade, the dollar the central currency. The wake-up call is that culture really does matter. Under the superficial homogeneity, there lie fundamental differences driven by a variety of cultural forces, including religion, and we are a long way from a global world with common values and perspectives. While there may be considerable similarity among the most senior executives of the world's largest firms, the front lines are still filled with people who reflect the differences in the cultures from which they spring. One has to look no further than the backgrounds of the next generation of Chinese leaders to see how different things can be.

Did you gain new insights while writing this book? Were you surprised by anything in your research?

One of the surprises has been the absolutely essential nature of global experience in developing a global mindset. One doesn't learn to be global sitting at home, no matter how good a company's training programs or how diverse its workforce. There is no substitute for living and working outside one's home country...hopefully not just once, but twice or more. Another surprise has been that companies make so many mistakes in managing their global executives. Transitions into and out of other cultures are usually difficult, sometimes disastrous, and companies often do not apply what are well—known principles to make those transitions successful. Perhaps it is not a surprise, but it was a true eye-opener to hear from so diverse a set of people about the stereotypes each country holds for people from other countries. We have almost forty pages (not in the book) of what everyone thinks of everyone else: the French of the Japanese, Brazilians of Mexicans, Germans of Americans, etc. Maybe the surprise was the maturity with which the strengths and liabilities of various cultures were viewed, and the overriding sentiment that in spite of cultural proclivities, people are people and need to be judged on that basis no matter where they come from. Another surprise was the extraordinary backgrounds and accomplishments of the people we met. For example, one executive, the product of a Swiss father and Russian mother, was raised in Beirut and Abu Dhabi, educated in Switzerland (with a Ph.D. in Physics, no less), spoke six languages, had served two or more years in four countries other than his current one, and in his early forties held one of the senior-most positions in one of the world's largest global companies. And he was not unique!

What lessons would our business readers find most interesting and useful?

The purpose of the book is to help business readers understand how global executive development takes place—for their companies and for themselves. The examples and stories of how executives have succeeded and failed capture one's attention and allow someone to see and to feel what it means to learn from experience—or fail to.

The book attempts to serve several audiences, so one supposes that the most intriguing aspects will depend on the reader's relationship to global executive work. For those considering or embarking on a global career, the stories of theses executives, the lessons they learned, the experiences they had, and the qualities they look for in young talent will provide a realistic preview of what may lie ahead and serve to encourage gathering relevant experiences early on. For those responsible for developing international executives, whether through human resource roles or as line executives, the book provides a framework for viewing the development process systemically, driving it from the business strategy and anchoring it in online experiences. For those readers, the cataloging of the significant developmental experiences, the lessons learned, and the dynamics that cause talented people to fail may be the most useful elements.

Finally, more seasoned line executives with international jobs or experience seem to find the stories of others like themselves the focus of their attention. The trials and tribulations, the joys and the hardships, that often occur in the relative isolation of international assignments turn out to be shared experiences.


5. A very readable description of the uncertainty and anxiety of experiencing other cultures, as well as tools for learning from it, is found in Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures. We have recommended it to executives working in a variety of situations (e.g., an American working for a Japanese company).

6. David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro, Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

7. "Few Female Executives Posted Overseas," Houston Chronicle, 24 November 2000, 4C.

8. John P. Kotter, The New Rules: How to Succeed in Today's Post-Corporate World (New York: Free Press, 1995); Thomas and Gabarro, Breaking Through; Stefan Wills and Kevin Barham, "Being an International Manager," European Management Journal 12, no. 1 (1994): 49-58.