Global v local HR leadership: are we faking it internationally?

Written by
Eugenio Pirri

06 Jun 2016

06 Jun 2016 • by Eugenio Pirri

In the age of connectivity, it’s not just the super corporates like Microsoft and Coca Cola that are global. Two young guys running an app development company from their bedrooms in Mumbai and San Francisco are leading international companies.

Global mobility; globalisation; ‘glocalisation’ (a portmanteau of globalisation and localisation, where big corporates in loads of markets attempt to camouflage themselves into local cultures); virtual conferences; international assignments – so many models have been put in place to try and make the world smaller. 

But are local leaders successfully making the jump to run global departments or businesses successfully? According to the Global Fortune 500, 86% of leaders claim they're able to do so. But having worked within many international businesses, my fear is that too many people are leading global teams in name, but are local leaders, hiding behind a global mask. 

Does truly global leadership really exist?

In order to grow, businesses need strong decisive leadership from leaders that think truly globally. But given the cultural idiosyncrasies that must be navigated, the idea of a “truly global leader” is debatably more of a dream than a reality. It's up to HR leaders, then, not just to find ways of leading teams globally (now in micro businesses rather than super corporates) but to empower their organisations to develop other global leaders. 

According to CEB, while CEOs are investing in international growth, few are confident they have the leaders in place to execute international strategies. Its survey of 11,500 business leaders defines “great global leaders” as those who define a vision for regional growth and re-emphasise it; take more risks early on in new markets and learn from failures; aspire to leadership responsibility and ownership; are networked in the organisation and across silos; have enough cultural sensitivity that it won't derail them in their role or paralyse decision-making; spend more time with external stakeholders than with internal stakeholders to gain critical market intelligence; and identify and develop rising local talent to lay the foundation for longer-term sustainable success in the market.

It’s hardly a straightforward job description especially when it comes to people leaders.

In short, “global leadership” is a term thrown about in C-suites, but in reality, truly successful global leadership exists only in a minority of businesses. So what is the “Holy Grail” of global leadership and what should corporates strive for?

Do you have global aspirations?

To lead globally, you need to have an open mindset and be an active listener, you need to be sensitive to other cultures, you have to have a decent amount of common sense, a healthy dose of empathy and a good old sense of humour. 

Having localised leaders helps to bring customers, market needs and the understanding of the country’s own people into the company, but a company needs a leader (or leadership team) who provides a clear purpose, vision, values and direction from a global perspective.

Great global leaders recruit the right cultural and businesses fit in all locations; then they allow trusted teams to put their regional spin on things. Companies employ intelligent and capable adults, yet it’s not unusual for them to be handed down policy 'from head office' which has little resonance in their location yet they feel unable to challenge it.

Look towards a more nurturing, collaborative and trusted work environment where your people's talents and expertise are truly valued and respected. Encourage your people to embrace changes and also take initiatives on their own, but offer them support in the implementation. 

Ensuring you have world-beating operational excellence requires decisive leadership, for example; equally, pushing for long-term visions needs constant and unwavering determination to be able to stand up against critics and the short-term pressures. Plus, the ever-important driver of innovation needs to be at the top of your mind because global creativity is spurred on by connections between people from all markets.

As consumers and markets are literally emerging before our eyes, 21st century leaders will need to make sure they have a good understanding of their needs and their cultures. 

Global leaders must know how to compete in this environment and how to hire the best talent to help take them forward. I’d love to hear some other suggestions for cracking the conundrum of great global leadership, so let’s get the conversation started. 

"Global leaders must know how to compete in this environment and how to hire the best talent to help take them forward"