Is there such a thing as a consistent pattern of successful global leadership?
To answer this question, during the last few years, we have met with about 30 CEOs who pass two critical tests for succeeding globally: (1) they have outperformed most of their industry peers and they have gained respect from their stakeholders in multiple ways; and (2) they lead companies originating from different cultures and successfully operate across the globe. Despite the differences in culture and mindset, our research suggests that these global leaders — whether they are from North America, Europe or India — seem to lead their companies differently than their peers. Most strikingly, they pioneer a leadership style which engages people in very different settings. For example, they put immense emphasis on:
- A higher purpose — These leaders make people feel emotionally engaged and inspire them to walk the extra mile. The company has to mean something to people rather than just being a place to work. This is probably especially important if the company center and the local offices are far apart. An example: When Jorma Ollila of Nokia describes their purpose as connecting people, it applies to the local office in Kenya just as it does to the head office in Espoo, Finland.
- Responsiveness to communities — In many of the developing countries where these companies are active, it is not self-evident that you get a license to operate. To be accepted, you need to build trust. More than simply being a good citizen and helping to educate potential future employees, being responsive to the needs of the local settings has to do with becoming a trusted insider. That is, for example, how Carlo Pesenti of the Italian cement giant Italcementi explains how they try to act when building up cement plants that minimize negative environmental impact in developing countries.
- Creating an internal social fabric enabling good collaboration across borders/levels — These leaders seem to put a higher and higher emphasis on local activities, and on attempting to connect these local activities in a smart way. This is complementary to the global processes that they also develop. Peter Sands of Standard Chartered Bank, for example, seems to give pride to connecting local offices on different continents to help build a truly global united firm and reward people that make ideas travel across functions and geographies.
In addition to these overarching guiding principles, we found that these leaders also share a set of practices. These common practices are similar to those that leadership scholar Robert J. House and colleagues found in the late 1990s when they studied leadership in 62 countries to explore if there were leadership characteristics that were universally seen as good or bad. They found that people all over the world described good leadership with terms such as reliable, have high expectations, win-win problem solver, communicative, team builder and fair. These characteristics are even more relevant today, and we found that they still drive the success of the global leaders that we talked to:
Reliable: These CEOs are strong advocates for creating long-term successful strategies that speak to both head and heart. They have what the Finns call sisu — they stay the course, build success quarter by quarter and are persistent in creating both economic and social value.
Have High Expectations: They invest heavily in growing both the social and economic side of the corporation, and they set high objectives for both — their performance management takes both of these aspects into equal account.
Win-Win Problem Solver: They do not compromise by doing trade-offs between social and economic value — they creatively find ways to get the two to be mutually reinforcing.
Communicative: They work hard to be present in company locations all over the world, not only to spread messages but to learn and listen. They seem to prioritize direct meetings, but use all sorts of modern communication technology extensively to connect with the vast ends of the global corporation.
Team Builder: Not only do they take great pains in building long-lasting top teams; they are also very focused on building an aligned leadership system, engaging with dozens of management teams to ensure that the values and practices are spread around the world.
Fair: Most of them addressed how they were driving not only respect for diversity, but — taking it a step further — building a strong community out of diversity rather than one built on similarity. They also described how they attempted to create processes for strategy and development that would feel fair to those involved, and how fairness became especially important when people had to be laid off.
Our findings lead us to believe that a new model for global leadership is emerging — one which is not simply headquarter-centric, but one that embraces the complexity of a large organization and its role in the world, driven by the principles and practices above.