Not long ago, I attended a conference of global leaders and leadership scholars, in Barcelona. At one session, CEOs of international companies were invited to debate about global leadership vs. local leadership, and answer the question: do boundary-less organizations require a different kind of leaders, or do they just require the same set of leadership skills as any other organization, though at a global scale?
As the CEO of Blue Trail Software, this question is important to me because we work globally, with large presences in the United States and Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay. I understand, at a very personal level, the challenges and opportunities of operating a boundary-less organization.
Dr. Jim Ludema of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership moderated the panel of executives. He set the context by saying global leaders face three main challenges:
- Complexity, as the same causes might not necessarily produce the same effects, depending on the geography
- Flow, as cross-boundaries networks need to be created to organize and coordinate ideas, decisions, information, talents and resources
- Presence, that addresses physical movements of employees and leaders between geographies.
Although the panelists were CEOs from very different background (industries, nationalities, and size of the companies they were running), they all converged and insisted on one single thing: they considered themselves the Chief Culture Officer of their company, and they would devote more time promoting corporate culture than dealing with strategy, finances, or operations. For these leaders, the most necessary leadership skill of a global CEO is the capacity to bring to life a shared culture, despite geographic boundaries.
One of the panelists said that building culture was woven into everything she was doing, no matter how much time she would spend in any other area.
As a CEO or other global executive, how do you operationalize that concept? What do Chief Culture Officers do to make sure their companies perform at a high level? Three main facts emerged from the discussion:
- The corporate core values are the main driver, and not the vision and mission, as it is often the case in mono-cultural environments; core values need to constitute the framework for all decision-making and actions.
- Alignment of values is critical; CEOs must ensure that there is a complete alignment of values among processes, goals, incentives, job descriptions, jobs evaluations, etc.
- International corporations are dealing with an even greater amount of change than mono-cultural ones; as a result, continuous change needs to be engrained in the company culture.
In summary, the panelists argued that CEOs of international corporations need to consider themselves the Chief Culture Officer, constantly promoting the company’s core values, and making sure all processes remain aligned to these values, despite the additional challenge of the rapid pace of change.
Going back to the original question: is global leadership simply leadership on steroids or is it really different?
In my experience as global CEO, I would say that the constraints brought by international settings (multiple cultures, languages, currencies, time zones, etc.) are not necessarily the hardest challenges CEOs face. The real challenge for a global CEO is to rise above your own culture to become the Chief Culture Officer for the whole company, in each geography it represents. The CEO must truly care about the core values, and not consider their values just a marketing message, as is sometimes the case in mono-cultural environments. In other words, no matter the size of their company and the complexity of their operating environment, CEOs should ALWAYS consider themselves Chief Culture Officers, and maintain an operation predicated on core values.
Finally, the panelists were asked about the impact that running an international operation was having on their own life. I was encouraged by the responses.
The executives said dealing with different cultures is a humbling experience; one CEO said that it takes brutal transparency and honesty with herself – deep dives of introspection – and it is helping her become a more humble leader.
With that in mind, they also said leading a global company is a transformative experience; a panelist mentioned that the biggest change for him had been to become more vulnerable and let people in, which is absolutely necessary in order to understand the cultures of various countries and regions, and to integrate those appropriately into the company’s culture.
So are the leadership skills necessary for a global CEO the same as those of other leaders, just in a broader context? Perhaps. But the challenges are greater, as are the opportunities for corporate growth and personal transformation.
Dr. Remi Vespa is the CEO of Blue Trail Software and a graduate of the Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership.
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