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University of Sunderland

How does leadership and management translate across global contexts?

Posted on: February 13, 2023
World globe on chessboard

Our increasingly interconnected, globalised world has created increasingly interconnected, globalised teams and business environments.

While this brings with it a host of benefits – including increased competitive advantage, operational resilience, talent acquisition and access to new markets – it also generates a new set of considerations and challenges for leaders and managers of global businesses. Leading and supporting employees from around the globe means navigating diverse cultures and populations, with divergent expectations regarding hierarchy, work culture, interpersonal relations and power.

Today’s most-successful global leaders must draw on an awareness and skill set that enables them to understand how geographical and multiculturally disparate dynamics can impact leadership. As such, employers are actively seeking individuals with the business acumen and skills to excel in international business leadership.

What is global leadership?

If leadership – in a more general capacity – is influencing individuals to work towards shared objectives, global leadership is influencing a diverse group of individuals to work towards shared objectives within a global context. Global context refers to a global community – of businesses, communities and individuals – who operate within international and multicultural dimensions.

Global leadership generally involves managing multiple stakeholders, cultures and resources, and establishing and maintaining the organisational structures, processes and relationships required to do so effectively. Where local leaders and managers must think and operate within domestic boundaries, global leaders and managers think and operate without boundaries.

What are the challenges of global leadership?

Connecting team members and functions across temporal, cultural and geographical boundaries is not a simple endeavour. David Leader, expert in global leadership and cultural intelligence, points to three critical factors that consistently arise for leaders in global contexts

  • Increased complexity – including ambiguity, flux and unforeseen disruptions across much larger and different geographical demographics.
  • Flow – referring to the passage of information and relationships across a diverse workforce and stakeholder group.
  • Presence – leading and influencing people in a range of locations, simultaneously, at different times of the day and in the ways that each requires.

One immediate challenge for leaders working across global contexts is how to adapt leadership style to fit local circumstances in order to achieve business objectives. Local leadership models cannot automatically be exported and expected to work effectively in different countries; the processes and behaviours inherent in leadership can differ dramatically from region to region.

There have been many advances in global leadership, but common challenges remain. These often include:

  • handling culture conflicts
  • adapting leadership behaviours
  • developing shared goals and implementing shared work
  • managing tensions between global and local processes and approaches
  • communicating across barriers
  • understanding and managing external forces.

What leadership skills are required to manage global teams?

While global leaders are tasked with many of the same responsibilities and activities as other leaders, they must possess another, different layer of management skills to achieve the best outcomes for their businesses and their teams. Shifting strategies, business processes and personal management styles – key tasks for all leaders – are made more complex by the nature of operating in different environments and with employees whose backgrounds and motivations will be greater in number.

Cross-cultural management is just one aptitude they must develop. Research conducted by Aperian Global sought to identify five major competencies required by global leaders in order to be most successful:

  • Seeing differences. Cultural self-awareness is key to questioning personal assumptions and actions, arriving at the realisation that individual leadership styles and practices are not ‘set in stone’ and that what may work in one setting may not work in another. Respect for different national cultures and organisational cultures, the similarities and differences they bring to the workplace and, as a result, the most-appropriate and effective leadership styles to adopt.
  • Closing the gap. Understanding when, where and how to draw on the experiences of other colleagues and specialists is fundamental to leadership – but even more so in a global, multinational, foreign environments where knowledge and skills – from understanding local target audiences to expected customs and modes of communication in the workplace – maybe be lacking, the best leaders know to ask for help. Therefore, building strong, interpersonal relationships and connections should be one of the first orders of business for a new leader, helping to bridge cultural differences and facilitate smooth working.
  • Opening the system. Frame-shifting is, as defined by Aperian Global, “a competency that requires the cognitive and stylistic agility to not only see differences but to respond.” How do individuals of a particular country or culture expect their leaders to act? What approaches will inspire and motivate without alienating? For example, Harvard Business Review highlight that, generally: in the Netherlands, straight-shooting leaders who get to the point are more desirable; in Thailand, synchronised leaders who seek consensus in decision-making processes are better regarded; and across much of Latin America, leaders who are diplomatic and keep business discussions with friendliness and empathy are preferred. This requires high emotional intelligence, flexibility and a willingness to learn and grow.
  • Preserving balance. Adaptation is unequivocally important for international management and leadership, but so is adding value – including teaching alongside learning, and taking charge and making decisions alongside listening and drawing upon the expertise of others. Balance, in this context, requires leaders to be flexible and adaptive to local customs and practices, while also identifying where assertion, another perspective, or organisational change would be beneficial.
  • Establishing solutions. Leaders must focus on considering both global and local perspectives in the best interests of the people, work and objectives at hand. This is likely to include tasks such as: developing local talent; transferring knowledge and upskilling across regions; fostering and establishing ownership within individuals and functions; facilitating teamwork across intercultural, global settings; setting targets; making decisions; and supporting employees.

Naturally, not all leaders will be highly skilled across each of these areas, which spotlights another fundamental skill: possessing the self-awareness to identify when leadership development would be beneficial.

Pioneer transformational leadership for your global teams and businesses

Want to develop the ability to lead anyone, anywhere? Interested in learning the best way to adapt your leadership competencies and approaches to global teams?

With the University of Sunderland’s online International MBA programme, you’ll develop as a highly effective leader with keen aptitude and awareness of the right management practices to use with international teams. As well as key leadership theories and skills, your flexible studies will allow you to acquire business expertise across a broad range of key topics – preparing you to excel in fast-paced, evolving and pressurised environments. For example, you’ll explore organisational behaviour, human resource management, international strategy, organisational sustainability, project, management, marketing, and more.

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