5 Key Abilities of Highly Effective Global Leaders

By Myriam Callegarin • August 27th, 2013

As a global leader, for example as an expatriate or manager working with international teams, sooner or later you will be confronted with situations that leave you disoriented and frustrated. Besides the emotional charge, such situations can have a strong impact on performance and business results.

In this article you will learn why a German executive failed in South Korea, and what could have helped him to succeed instead.

What happened

Dietmar was a highly experienced Sales Director with a successful track record in Germany and France. When his German company sent him to South Korea on a 3-year expatriate assignment to increase sales in the Far East, he was excited and confident. However, his confidence sank rapidly. His Korean team proved to be passive and uncooperative, and whenever he tried to engage his reports, for example by asking for their opinions during meetings, he only saw quiet nods or uninterested glances. Sales stagnated, team morale was down, and after struggling for 1 and 1/2 years, Dietmar was requested to interrupt his assignment and to return to Germany.

What had gone wrong?

Dietmar’s intentions were good, he had a deep knowledge of sales, and was an experienced leader. However, he failed because he lacked the intercultural effectiveness that would have been crucial for the assignment’s success:

  • He failed to communicate with his Korean team in a way that would earn their trust and respect.
  • He failed to adapt his professional skills (both technical and managerial) to fit local conditions and constraints.
  • He failed to adjust personally. He was stressed, and spent most of his leisure time with other expats.

What he would have needed instead

In order to maximize his team’s potential and to turn his international assignment into a success for everyone involved, he would have needed to pay more attention to the following five key abilities that distinguish highly effective global leaders:

1. Pull Competencies:

The ability to attract people from other cultures towards you, through an open mind and flexibility. This expands your readiness to find ways to collaborate.

2. Push Competencies:

The ability to drive forward your proposals and to focus on goals without distractions, even in physically and emotionally challenging situations.

3. Active Communication:

The ability to listen actively, to understand how you are being perceived by others, and to ensure that the other person has clearly received, understood, and accepted your message.

4. Cultural Knowledge:

The curiosity and ability to gather important information about other person’s culture, including values, beliefs, assumptions and rules. This helps you to understand your stakeholders’ behaviour, make better decisions, and manage your feelings.

5. Leadership across cultures:

The ability to influence global stakeholders by finding out who holds power, by building relationships, and by adapting one’s own communication and leadership style to achieve results, while remaining authentic.

It seems that Dietmar focused mostly on pushing his goals forward (ability no. 2). By bringing more attention to the other abilites, he would have understood his reports’ behaviour and could have found better ways to build trust and engage them successfully.

Highly effective global leaders know how to balance the above abilities depending on the different and unique contexts they work in. When thinking of your current international role, which of these 5 abilities do you tend to focus more on? Which ones do you put less attention on? What would change if you invested more energy in these ones?


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