World-class Leadership
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Global businesses need global leaders. What are the challenges of leading across national boundaries? And can the necessary skills and cultural awareness be taught?

John le Carré once remarked: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”. For business leaders in an increasingly global, 24/7 environment, running a team is no longer about engaging, inspiring and motivating people in the same building, town or even country. Today, a team is likely to be multilingual and multicultural, located across different time zones and markets. While many organisations have been operating in this way for years, more and more are using technology to help them work across borders.

Even the most globe-trotting manager cannot be everywhere at once. How can leaders develop the skills and qualities necessary to manage effectively across national boundaries? Can managers cultivate a mindset where they are attuned to the different cultural and societal expectations of globalised teams? And how can an organisation’s leaders ensure that the business hits the mark globally without losing sight of the local differentiators that help a team outsmart its competitors in São Paulo, San Francisco or Shanghai?

According to Theresa McHenry, Microsoft’s HR director for the UK, fostering an ability to look at yourself and how you manage is a start. Being aware of the issue of ‘reverse impact’ – how what you are saying is perceived by others, especially if English is not their first language – is also relevant.

With 90,000 employees in 170 countries, Microsoft is well versed in managing diverse teams. It runs mandatory online diversity and inclusion training for managers, with extra programmes offered for those likely to work with staff across geographies. “We have training about hidden bias and on how to manage different ways of working,” says McHenry. “You have to value difference, so we look at issues, such as differing leadership and cultural styles. There are also online sessions that include people who have experience in managing global, remote and diverse teams.”

Traditionally, when organisations expand their operations overseas, either as a multinational or because they are beginning to test foreign markets, they face two choices, suggests Dr Jonathan Trevor, co-director of the Centre for International Human Resource Management at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School.

“You can align to a single, one-size-fits-all global structure, with economies of scale, efficiencies and transparency. Otherwise, you can align to local or regional markets where you have to accept that organisations require distinct management in different areas. This gives you more flexibility to align products, services and behaviours to a host country, with great potential for reward,” Trevor says.

Management styles will also depend on what the business is doing in a given market. If the company is selling a relatively standardised product or service, a centralised, execution-focused approach to staff may be adequate. But, if the business is more engaged in knowledge-based activities or has to be quick-witted and responsive to the vagaries of local markets, a more flexible form of leadership may suit.

Establishing a set of standardised principles, behaviours or performance expectations to sit across an organisation at global level – a vision for the business – frees up a company to focus on attuning regional operations to local markets, argues Laura Harrison, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s head of strategic development, HR Capability.

“If you have a global employment brand, how you express that in different markets may be quite varied because staff value different things. In one country, it might be training and development. In another, work-life balance may be a greater priority,” Harrison says.

Technology plays an increasingly important role for companies operating at a global level, but its limitations must be considered, argues Microsoft’s McHenry. “Organisations can embrace technology and use it to enhance relationships, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for personal conversation,” she adds.

Peter Reilly, director at the UK’s Institute for Employment Studiesand author of Global HR: Challenges Facing the Function, notes that the recent tough economic climate has seen some firms moving away from the nuanced, inclusive leadership approach.

“The largest companies, in particular, are increasingly going for standardised models, with people management driven from the corporate centre,” Reilly observes. “It’s laudable to get organisational alignment, but if it is taken too far it can become a hindrance. Ask: if everyone in an organisation is a clone, how does it grow and innovate?”

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