Are we global or colonial leaders?

Written by
Changeboard Team

13 Sep 2011

13 Sep 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Are you an adaptable leader?

On paper, some managers can seem perfectly positioned to succeed in foreign offices. They can be skilled, ambitious, multilingual, have great leadership qualities, and be willing to adapt to different working conditions and new ways of life.
But while they possess the intellectual, psychological and social capital that research has found to be essential when it comes to the managerial global mindset, success is still not a guarantee.
And should this manager, so perfect in theory, eventually fail, people inevitably start looking for something to blame. Often the blame falls on the difficulties of working in a ‘strange and hostile’ foreign environment.

Should we have inter-cultural training?

This attitude is not new. As a culture, we've encountered it in narratives of colonial history and literature, Forster’s A Passage to India or Greene’s The Heart of the Matter being two of the most popular examples. The colonial society was an isolated community to which the 'natives', with their alien customs and behaviour, seemed at best exotic. Colonial rule has long since been confined to the history books, but segregated ethnic areas still exist around the world despite global growth and integration. 

Of course, in today's technological age, we are able to find out anything we like about foreign countries at the click of a button, which has definitely made traveling easier. But there is still often an ingrained attitude that encourages the perception that people we meet abroad seem different or 'other'. This can lead some people, including our perfect-in-theory managers, to perceive indigenous populations as beneath them. With this in mind, to what extent do we, as a culture, still adhere to colonial patterns of thought? 

As long as expats subconsciously buy into the myth of their ethnic superiority, then even the most promising managers will find themselves unable to put their well-intentioned theories on and training in interculturalism to practice. 

In fact, intercultural training is another aspect of our intended or unintended colonial thought patterns as that training is rarely extended to the native company managers and employees in foreign branches. This implies, even if not consciously, that they were are not eligible or important enough for this level of education.

Spotlight on Standard Chartered Bank

One exception to this problem is Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), whose history dates back to the 1850s in India, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Much of the growth at SCB today is in their traditional markets across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East - with exceptional growth in India and China. 

To help build closer links between their Chinese and Indian teams, SCB launched an exchange programme where they regularly send 10 Chinese managers to Mumbai and bring 10 Indian managers to Shanghai. By living and working with their local counterparts, these teams are breaking down barriers and finding common ground on which to build relationships. In addition, the bank’s selection of expatriates and inpatriates is no longer limited to executive level.

Peter Sands, CEO, Standard Chartered Bank:

“By design we are among the world’s most diverse organisations, so top talents from all walks of life are attracted to us because they know they will be embraced as central to our mission, rather than peripheral.”

In fact, of SCB’s 75,000 employees there are 125 nationalities.

There is currently talk of a new, truly global, race to find the best talent. In a misguided attempt to stay ahead of the curve, our organisations will most likely focus on improve their expats’ conditions, and on creating even more Western schools in Asia, buying more expensive flats in Singapore, and handing out even higher remuneration packages so that this indigenous 'other' may be tolerated. 

The problem is that, as long as we view a move abroad, for which managers receive extravagant compensation, as a burden, we will keep on missing the point. If we continue to focus on our own needs - just as in colonial India or Kenya – we will continue to ignore the local demands of an increasingly global marketplace.