New Study Examines How to Develop Globally Competent Leaders
Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Technological advancements have brought about a global interconnectedness that has forever changed business. This new interconnectedness transforms how business is done and provides access to a wealth of new and diverse customers, suppliers, partners, talent, or competitors. 

Operating successfully in this new world requires a new set of skills—those that enable business leaders to operate effectively both within and across different cultures. But what are the critical skills that leaders need to be successful? And how can companies ensure they develop leaders with the skills and expertise to navigate the global business landscape? 

To pinpoint these skills, the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Human Capital Institute surveyed more than 300 HR and training and development professionals. Their findings are reported in Compete and Connect: Developing Globally Competent Leaders, which examines how organizations can develop global competence in their workforce. 

“A globally competent individual has the right attitude, knowledge, skills and functional business expertise to effectively work within and across cultures,” says David Roberts, a UNC Kenan-Flagler professor who teaches about effecting organizational change to achieve strategic goals for UNC Executive Development. 

When asked about the qualities most important for leaders to work effectively in a global business environment, the top answers are:

  • multicultural sensitivity and awareness (57 percent)
  • ability to communicate effectively (49 percent)
  • strategic thinking (47 percent)
  • leadership and the ability to influence others (45 percent)
  • respect for differences (44 percent)
  • ethics and integrity (42 percent)
  • flexibility and willingness to change (41 percent)
  • adaptability in new environments (40 percent)
  • collaborative (37 percent)
  • decision-making ability (36 percent). 

Some 63 percent of respondents say the need to develop global competence is urgent, and 92 percent agree that this can be developed through training. “Unfortunately, global leadership development at most organizations is in a poor state,” contends the UNC report.   
According to the findings: 

  • organizations are underdeveloped in multicultural sensitivity (38 percent)
  • high-potentials managers are able to meet future business needs (43 percent)
  • organizations have a strong leadership pipeline (35 percent)
  • senior leaders are satisfied with their current bench strength (24 percent)
  • organizations with global operations struggle to recruit talent for global leadership positions (52 percent). 

So what can organizations do to develop global competence? Regrettably, the study finds that the top two most popular ways organizations currently develop global competence are still passive: international travel and encouraging networking outside of the organization. Indeed, the survey reports that “most organizations aren’t taking a proactive or hands-on approach,” even though the “most effective methods are deliberate and experiential.” 
“They need to do much more than send individuals on business trips; they need a complete top-to-bottom training strategy. That kind of investment gives both organizations and individuals a competitive advantage,” Roberts says. 

A 2014 American Management Association (AMA) study, Global Leadership Development: Preparing Leaders for a Globalized Market, offers organizations some general guidance for developing global leaders. According to AMA, leaders should practice developing and executing strategic business plans, learn to communicate and work effectively with diverse internal and external colleagues and customers, and be trained on how to deal with change, complexity, and uncertainty in a confident manner. High performing organizations know that the four elements essential for effective global leadership development and market performance are:

  • immersion in cultures and customers for local markets
  • focus on collaboration and influence
  • selection made by objective behavioral evidence
  • training curriculum based on long term goals. 

Specifically, the UNC study finds that there are a number of methods that can help organizations develop leaders with global skills, including:

  • increasing the diversity of the senior executive leadership
  • developing knowledge and appreciation of different cultures and languages
  • providing immersion experiences that range from months to extensive cultural learning programs
  • having opportunity for cross-border projects and teams
  • implementing job rotation across geographic regions, business divisions, and functions
  • cultivating interpersonal and social ties among people based in different locations. 

The message is clear: Every organization will become global in one way or another, driving the need for companies to work today to enhance the global competencies of their leaders. “Key to success is understanding the variances of not just the locations you expand your business to, but also the unique needs and development requirements of the leaders you’re trying to develop. Through such a tailored approach, organizations can be sure their leaders have the global competencies to be effective wherever their business takes them,” concludes the UNC report. 
To learn more, download Compete and Connect: Developing Globally Competent Leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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