How Effective Are Your Leaders at Crossing Borders?
To be effective leaders in the global market, senior executives need to be prepared to cross all types of borders: geographic, vertical, horizontal and cultural. Without the right skill sets in the C-suite, organizations will find it difficult to collaborate and develop partnerships that advance their long-term vision and goals.
Raymond McConnell, founder and director of JR Global Training/Sandler Training, delivered that message in his presentation, “How Effective Are Your Leaders at Crossing Borders?,” at the Dallas-Fort Worth Human Resources Roundtable’s February 10 meeting at Pearson Partners International in Dallas.
“Today, 97 percent of C-level executives believe that leadership collaboration is critical for organizational success,” said McConnell, citing his firm’s extensive research on cross-border leadership. “Yet, only 47 percent of these executives believe that the leaders in their organizations are skilled collaborators across borders.”
Overcoming the Obstacles
Drawing on his global business experiences from “Dallas to Dacca to Delhi and Denmark,” McConnell pointed to some of the cultural issues that can inhibit effective cross-border collaboration.
For example, managers in a patriarchal organization with a traditional culture may be reluctant to engage with their peers in other departments or organizations. They may feel more comfortable reporting to their superiors in the hierarchy, who would then meet with higher-level executives in other “silos”—a cumbersome structure that can delay or even derail the collaborative process.
“While the leaders in a company may talk about freedom and empowerment, the employees may want to be told what to do,” McConnell said. “That makes it hard to innovate or implement a change initiative.”
In many cultures, it’s difficult for managers to deliver bad news. “You can tell them to be open and honest, but they will simply say they agree with you and then tell you what you want to hear,” he said. Because it takes time to build trust and break down those barriers, it’s important for cross-border managers to have access to outside sources of information whenever possible.
When making international assignments, McConnell said, it’s important to choose executives who are interested and engaged by the new opportunity, and are willing to learn about the new culture. “Many times companies don’t send the right people,” he said. “To be successful, a cross-border leader needs to have a flexible mindset and be respectful of the local culture.”
McConnell added that corporate cultures vary considerably, even in the United States. “If I were in Silicon Valley today instead of Dallas, I would probably be 10 years younger and wearing a golf shirt,” he said. “But if I were in New York meeting with Wall Street bankers, I’d need my best suit and tie. In any case, you want to adapt and fit in with the existing climate.”
Building Cross-Border Skills
McConnell focused on four types of leaders who are most likely to be successful in cross-border assignments:
- Connectors who have the ability to link people and build relationships across groups. “Being able to link with other people and get their buy-in makes life easier for everyone,” he said.
- Ambassadors who can represent the interests and needs of divergent groups to each other. McConnell cited the example of South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela, who brought whites and blacks together in the racially divided nation.
- Mediators who can reconcile conflict and competition across groups. “It’s important to have coaching skills that allow other people to open up and express their thoughts,” McConnell said. “Sometimes people don’t show their conflicts externally until things finally erupt.”
- Scouts who can scan and amplify information across groups. That’s particularly important when an organization needs to address negative reports or correct inaccurate information, he said.
“You want border-crossing leaders to have these skills,” McConnell said. “However, you should try to build a team with these sets of skills, rather than cultivating one superstar. After all, that star might quit or retire, and you don’t want to start over again.”
Human resources executives should look within their organizations to find examples of these types of leaders. “Putting faces on these concepts is a big help when trying to identify senior executives for cross-border assignments,” he said. “When you find leaders with two or three of these skills, then you can focus on coaching them in the other areas. Having cross-border leadership skills is essential for many companies in today’s global marketplace.”
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