Looking for the Path to Global Leadership?

Being globally minded is no longer a professional choice. It’s a business requirement. To achieve global progress and shared value solutions to the big problems that are facing our planet—challenges such as food security, economic development, access to clean water, and adequate healthcare distribution—every corporate Joe or Jane must transform to meet the new standards of global leadership. Those who meet or exceed these expectations will lead the world to a better future. Those who do not are likely to fall behind, and, inevitably disappear.

But who is the enigmatic global leader? As leadership development pedagogy has grown, the true meaning of global leadership has become increasingly vague. A few scholars, however, have managed to develop greater clarity in this domain. In Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World, Ángel Cabrera and Gregory Unruh detail three primary foundations for an individual’s global leadership potential – global mindset, global entrepreneurship, and global citizenship.

Multinational companies in rapid-growth markets are aware that these problems critically constrain their international expansion. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Beth Brooke, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at Ernst & Young, stated, “When my organization commissioned a survey of more than 800 business executives working in 35 markets, not even a third of them expressed strong confidence in their top management’s ability to build and execute a global talent strategy.”

Cabrera and Unruh point out that today’s world economy is dramatically different from twenty years ago. Global leadership today requires a mastery of a complex mindset and competencies, and an understanding of the business and cultural realities in emerging markets that are quickly industrializing.

Companies such as IBM are placing the three ideals of Being Global at the forefront of their business operations to address this challenge.  Over the past five years, IBM has sent 500 employees around the globe annually on its Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program, one month assignments in which employees volunteer their professional skills for a nonprofit, government agency, or enterprise. Unlike the multinational model of old, talent and resources are shared freely between geographies in a globally integrated enterprise.  These employees hone their leadership skills, while building relationships with other IBMers and organizations in new markets.

Mindset, Entrepreneurship, and Citizenship

Interestingly, these three primary competencies of global leadership all intersect directly with the theoretical underpinnings of this type of International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) program.  ICV, a relatively new, but growing practice among leading corporations, involves sending teams of employees across international borders to serve as volunteer consultants for between three weeks and three months to NGOs and governments in the developing world.

These programs cultivate global mindset in employees.  The challenge of meeting professional objectives in a foreign environment forces volunteers to transcend cultural barriers and see through a multinational lens. Returning employees consistently report increased cultural awareness, enhanced problem solving and team work abilities, and a better understanding of their company’s role in the developing world.

ICV programs open up avenues for global entrepreneurship, allowing companies to create new partnerships with for-profit, non-profit, and government sectors. For example, through the CSC program, IBM developed a close working relationship, with the government of Cross River State, Nigeria. Grounded in the common objective of saving the lives of mothers and children, this volunteer program grew into a cross-sector partnership between the state and IBM that is still active today.  Cross River State’s health care system now has up-to-date technology that provides health care to communities across the region.

This experience engenders knowledge and connections that often inspire employees to become global citizens, a force for global change and community impact. IBM, along with several dozen other multinational companies, are developing global leaders by actively engaging them in the growth of a sustainable and inclusive global economy.

In the final words of their book, Cabrera and Unruh capture this sentiment:

“The world needs global leaders now. We hope we inspired you to start on the path to becoming one. And we hope you’ll make the lifetime commitment to pushing yourself to acquire, develop, hone, and expand the skills of a global leader. It’s the only thing that will address our global challenges in a way that builds sustainable prosperity for everyone.”

This spring,  Ángel Cabrera gave the closing keynote address for the 4th annual ICV conference on Responsible Leadership. Shortly thereafter, Cabrera and his coauthor Gregory Unruh published a piece in the Harvard Business Review, calling attention to the fact that, according to an AMA survey in 2011,  less than one third of companies have global leadership development programs. While the individual aspiring leader can follow Cabrera and Unruh’s three-step action plan to join the global elite, companies that seek to capture global market share, learning from IBM, John Deere, Merck, and others, will need to reassess their priorities in order to succeed in a competitive marketplace.

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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