Four Key Practices for Developing Global Leaders

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Mark Vickers

I never thought I'd see this day. One of my colleagues took the week off to—get this—watch the World Cup. Now, if you live in Europe or Asia, this is expected behavior, but I live in the U.S., where the World Cup has historically been about as popular as a case of the croup.

This got me thinking not only about what the U.S. media is calling "World Cup fever" but about how today's businesses are increasingly required to take on a World Cup mindset. That is, they must see the world as a global field with global talent playing to global audiences and markets, a field on which they want to place good leaders who have a firm grasp of the global competitive scene.

Some organizations are working harder than others to adapt to the global playing field. A new Institute for Corporate Productivity(i4cp) study, commissioned by American Management Association, found that—among companies with 1,000 or more employees and some degree of multinational presence—only about half have implemented one or more global leadership development programs.

As expected, we found that organizations with global leadership programs are more likely to report higher market performance. That's not a big surprise, since globally expanding organizations are more likely to require such programs in the first place. We also found that, even among companies with such initiatives, there's still a lot of progress to be made. Only about two-fifths of respondents strongly or very strongly agreed with the statement that their "leadership development program is highly effective."

Given these circumstances, what can organizations do to improve their global leadership development programs?

First, they should think about which competencies they wish to instill in their global leaders. Critical thinking and problem-solving competencies are important and commonly taught, according to the study. Perhaps even more important, the research shows, are teaching global leaders how to stay agile and adaptable, how to manage innovation well, and how to expand the organization's brand in local and global commerce.

Maria Van Parys, Director of Leadership Education and Talent Management at i4cp-member-company Boston Scientific, notes that her organization's global leadership development initiatives focus specifically on competencies such as adaptability, agility and innovation—competencies that she states become "more important the higher up you go in organizations." She also notes that Boston Scientific is increasingly focused on developing stronger global competencies in the areas of resourcefulness, perseverance, accountability, and team building.

Another potential area of improvement lies in the involvement of senior business leaders. Our study found that when the senior executive team is involved, regardless of the specific role they play, both program success and market performance tend to be higher. Senior executive teams are most often involved in communicating about their organization's leadership development program and in establishing the needed business results from the program. The good news is that simply having your senior leaders communicate more often about the global leadership development program—a relatively easy practice to implement—is associated with success. If an organization doesn't already engage in any of these practices, getting improved communication from senior executives is a good place to start.

But there are many other levels at which executives can become involved. At Boston Scientific, for example, the executive team is not only engaged in shaping the competencies covered by its global leadership development program but in the evaluation, selection and development of program participants. Members of the executive committee also engage in mentoring and coaching, and they sometimes teach other elements of the program as well, recounting their own experiences in managing change and driving success.

A third key finding of the study is that metrics matter. There are strong statistical relationships between the degree to which companies evaluate these programs and their reported success. Especially interesting is the fact that "the amount of learning achieved from the initiative" is the one metric significantly correlated with market performance and has the highest correlation with global leadership development program success. Companies should use this metric even as they examine other metrics such as business results and behavioral changes.

Boston Scientific covers basic metrics such as number of courses and participants, but it also looks at what Van Parys calls the "ultimate outcome" of bench-strength readiness. This refers to the number of high-performing managers who are prepared to move into senior leadership roles. Between 2008 and 2009, the Boston Scientific program was able to move the mark from 20% to 42%.

A fourth key finding is that, while most respondents say their organizations use outside vendors or other external experts to help in the creation or implementation of their global leadership programs, they might not be using the best selection criteria. We found that organizations are most commonly looking for subject matter experts as well as a proven track record demonstrating an ability to execute. Less popular expectations for outside suppliers are the ability to handle multiple language requirements and wide geographic representation. Our study found, however, that the ability to handle multiple language requirements is actually well correlated with the global leadership development success index, and using vendors based on their ability to represent each geographic region was the only variable associated with significant improvements in both market performance and global leadership development success.

However, it's also clear from our interviews that flexibility, adaptability and creativity can be key requirements. Van Parys notes that at Boston Scientific, external providers become "extensions of ourselves" and so must be flexible enough to accommodate the organization's specific needs. For example, her company requires all its vendors to follow the same processes so that the program can be provided in a unified, seamless way.

Flexibility is also one of the key criteria that SGS—a global provider of inspection, verification, testing and certification services—looks for in a vendor. Vice President of HR Dominique Ben Dhaou notes that her organization requires external providers to listen well in order to understand the unique needs of SGS. External partners not only need to be flexible but also creative and highly responsive.

i4cp's 4-Part Recommendation:
1. Decide which competencies are most critical for the success of global leaders in your organization.
Query senior leaders, external experts and key business partners about what they view as key competencies. Although every organization will have unique needs, keep in mind that in today's shifting global environment, global leaders must often stay agile and adaptable, know how to manage innovation well in a highly diverse workforce, and have a good idea of how to expand the organization's brand in a global marketplace.

2. Involve your senior leaders. At the very least, ensure they play a key role in communicating the value of the global leadership development initiative to participants and high potentials in your organization. Also consider having them become more deeply involved in the process of establishing the business results you want from the initiative, shaping program content, selecting key participants, and even helping teach courses or engaging in coaching.

3. Measure the impact. Of course, it makes sense to track the basics, such as number of participants and courses and satisfaction with the programs. But also try to track the business results derived from particular development opportunities, changes in leadership behaviors, the amount of learning achieved and the impact on the bench strength of your leadership pool.

4. Choose your external providers wisely. Start by making a list of the characteristics you want in a provider. Subject matter expertise and a proven track record are key, but so are other criteria, such as flexibility, agility and responsiveness. Make sure that vendors are listening carefully to your organizations' specific needs. Also, keep in mind that for organizations with a broad global scope, criteria such as geographic representation and the ability to handle multiple languages can gain prominence as selection factors.

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About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.