The traits that unite the global elite

The traits that unite the global elite

You’ve read about and admired them, and you’ve certainly benefited from their work: the growing elite of global businesspeople who are helping to define today’s international commerce. They are creating immense value for their companies and themselves – and, in many cases, making the world a better place.

The group includes top business leaders such as: Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-Lebanese-French CEO of Japanese automaker Nissan; Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, a UK-educated Bangladeshi who has worked in the United States for nearly 20 years; and Bob Dudley, the first American CEO of the British energy company BP.

Most of these leaders have extensive international experience, speak multiple languages and can tap into worldwide professional networks. But what really defines them is their ability to create value by helping their organisations adopt a global perspective.

And, thanks to the dramatic growth of international business in recent years, they are in high demand. During the past three decades, the value of exports across the world has increased from $2 trillion to $18 trillion, and half of them now come from emerging economies.

In turn, the number of people working outside their company headquarters in foreign subsidiaries has rocketed from 25 million to more than 81 million, including notable shifts in the C-suite. As a consequence, 76% of executives surveyed by the United Nations Global Compact say that it’s important for companies to develop global leaders.

Our decade-long study of hundreds of these leaders shows that, despite its name, the ‘global elite’ is not an exclusive group. Any businessperson willing to make a serious effort can join its ranks by learning to interact with and understand culturally diverse groups and organisations. You can’t rely on your company to expand your global horizons, though; a do-it-yourself mindset is key. You need to push for assignments that deepen your international knowledge, and often you will have to migrate from company to company to round out your experience.

Acquiring a global outlook

Cross-national, cross-cultural contexts are inherently complex, so developing the competencies required to join the global elite is neither simple nor quick.

Learn by thinking

Develop a broad outlook by teaching yourself to think globally. This starts with acknowledging that your existing frames of reference can lead you to misinterpret unfamiliar information. Specifically, you must:

  • Observe Cultivate a curiosity about how places operate. Ask questions repeatedly, and don’t assume you know the answers.
  • Study Formal education – in world history, economics, international affairs, politics and international business – helps you broaden your perspective. But informal study is vital, too: read international literature, watch foreign films, and so on.
  • Open your mind Understand the importance of bringing out the best in people, regardless of where they’re from. Respect and explore other cultures, welcome new experiences and seize opportunities to work with people of other nationalities. Look at situations from multiple angles.
  • Open your heart Develop empathy by learning about the issues that matter to people in other cultures. Invite an exchange student into your home or spend a vacation volunteering abroad.
  • Learn by doing Learning through action is at least as important as the global thinking you nurture.
  • Forge relationships Cultivate contacts and friends across national and cultural boundaries. Foster trust by connecting with those people emotionally and intellectually. Don’t start by asking others to help you; instead, add value to folks in your network by assisting them first. Your new contacts will give you insight into unfamiliar environments, paving the way for global business development.
  • Start locally Tap into your existing networks, such as alumni groups and professional associations. Social media has opened up new opportunities to connect and contribute from home.
  • Work with others Seek opportunities to collaborate with people from other cultures. Those contacts will allow you to contribute to existing global initiatives in your organisation and your community.
  • Be the centre Assess where you stand within your networks. If you’re at the periphery, move toward the middle by introducing people who would not otherwise be connected. Global leaders build bridges and transcend boundaries. They create value by connecting others – and enrich themselves in the process.
  • Go International travel is vitally important. Firsthand experiences in foreign contexts will contribute the bulk of the knowledge you need to be a global value creator. While abroad, make sure you leave the hotel – and stay an extra day or two to explore.
  • Speak Learn a foreign language and practice it with native speakers. Read articles or works of literature in the language you’re studying, and then discuss them.
  • Don’t stop The impulse to regress or succumb to culture shock is very strong. You may need an enormous amount of cognitive energy to consistently resist your natural biases and your mental and emotional shortcuts. Staying on course requires discipline, awareness and humility.

What all these steps amount to is a willingness to take risks. Successful global leaders put themselves in unfamiliar situations and challenge their mental models.

You’re in the club. Now what?

After you’ve built the competencies you need, it’s time to put them to use for your organisation and yourself. Members of the global elite do that by tapping into three areas of value creation:

  • Divergence Your job is to notice important differences among markets and to use those observations to create value. Effective global managers explore how customer preferences, as well as employees’ skills and workplace needs, vary from market to market.
  • Convergence At the same time, keep an eye out for commonalities – for example, widespread appetite for a certain kind of product or growing demand for a specific type of talent across a broad region.
  • Networks The connections you made before joining the global elite uniquely position you to identify or build trading networks and platforms that enable people in different regions to provide value to one another. You’ll be better equipped than others to find the right customers and suppliers, link hiring managers with the best people for their staffs and encourage far-flung divisions to work together.

Global citizenships

Leaders who are truly global citizens understand the implications of their actions and take responsibility for them. They recognise that the prosperity of one person, one firm or one nation depends on and influences the prosperity of others. As a consequence, they forge productive partnerships among business, government and civil society that can have lasting effects in communities around the world.

In the past, leaders typically let national laws define the boundaries of their moral obligations. If their actions were legal, they were probably doing the right thing, or at least the right-enough thing. Many of today’s global leaders recognise that each decision they make either reinforces current practice or alters it. And where practice undermines shared prosperity, they work to change the status quo.

Gregory C. Unruh is a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Angel Cabrera is the president of George Mason University. They are the co-authors of Being Global.


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