JOIN THE GLOBAL ELITE
Managers with a cross-cultural perspective are in high demand by Gregory C. Unruh and Ángel Cabrera – Harvard Business Review
You’ve read about and admired them, maybe met some of them. You’ve certainly benefited from their work: the growing elite of global businesspeople who are helping to define today’s international commerce. They are creating immense value for their companies and themselves—and, in many cases, making the world a better place.
The group includes top business leaders such as Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-Lebanese-French CEO of Japanese automaker Nissan; Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak, a UK-educated Bangladeshi who has worked in the United States for nearly 20 years; and Bob Dudley, the first American CEO of the British energy company BP. It also extends to lesser-known yet increasingly influential managers such as Saad Abdul-Latif, the CEO of PepsiCo’s Asia, Middle East, and Africa division, and Lalit Ahuja, who facilitated American retailer Target’s establishment of a second headquarters in India.
Most of these leaders have extensive international experience, speak multiple languages, and can tap into worldwide professional networks. But what really defines them is their ability to create value by helping their organizations adopt a global perspective. And thanks to the dramatic growth of international business in recent years, they are in high demand. During the past three decades, the value of exports across the world has increased from $2 trillion to $18 trillion, and half of them now come from emerging economies. In turn, the number of people working outside their company headquarters in foreign subsidiaries has rocketed from 25 million to more than 81 million, including notable shifts in the C-suite. As a consequence, 76% of executives surveyed by the United Nations Global Compact say that it’s important for companies to develop global leaders.
Our decade-long study of hundreds of these leaders shows that, despite its name, the “global elite” is not an exclusive group. Any businessperson willing to make a serious effort can join its ranks by learning to interact with and understand culturally diverse groups and organizations. Our own stories are indicative: We’ve both built global careers, but nothing in our upbringing suggested that we would. Our parents weren’t multilingual or multicultural, and they didn’t move us around the world as children. We became global by spending substantial professional time abroad and by connecting with people whose backgrounds and opinions differ wildly from our own.
You can’t rely on your company to expand your global horizons, though. Only a third of companies responding to an American Management Association survey in 2011 reported having programs in global leadership development. We know from our own experiences and those of the executives we’ve studied that a do-it-yourself mind-set is key. You need to push for assignments that deepen your international knowledge, and often you will have to migrate from company to company to round out your experience.
This article lays out a three-step plan of action for working your way into the global elite—and for making the best of your status once you get there. First, acquire the knowledge, skills, and perspective you need by both thinking and doing. Second, make use of your new global awareness by exploiting divergence, convergence, and networks. Third, transcend the boundaries of commerce to become a global citizen, ensuring that your work serves the world in positive ways.
Despite its name, the “global elite” is not an exclusive group.
Acquiring a Global Outlook
Cross-national, cross-cultural contexts are inherently complex, so developing the competencies required to join the global elite is neither simple nor quick. Even people born into international, cosmopolitan families and environments must work at it.
Learn by thinking. Begin to develop a broad outlook by teaching yourself to think globally. This starts with acknowledging that your existing frames of reference can lead you to misinterpret unfamiliar information. Specifically, you must:
Observe. Cultivate a curiosity about how places operate. Ask questions repeatedly, and don’t assume you know the answers.
Study. Formal education—in world history, economics, international affairs, politics, and international business—helps you broaden your perspective. Those subjects fascinate global leaders. But informal study is vital, too: Read international literature, take in foreign films, and so on.
Open your mind. Understand the importance of bringing out the best in people, regardless of where they hail from or what languages they speak. Respect and explore other cultures, welcome new experiences, and seize opportunities to work with people of other nationalities. Look at situations from multiple angles.
Open your heart. Develop empathy by learning about the issues that matter to people in other cultures. Invite an exchange student into your home or spend a vacation volunteering abroad. Globally minded companies such as IBM use international humanitarian assignments in emerging countries as leadership development opportunities.
Learn by doing. Of course, learning through action is at least as important as the global thinking you nurture. Take these active steps:
Forge relationships. Cultivate contacts and friends across national and cultural boundaries. Foster trust by connecting with those people emotionally and intellectually. Don’t start by asking others to help you; instead, add value to folks in your network by assisting them first. Your new contacts will give you insight into unfamiliar environments, paving the way for global business development.
Events such as the World Economic Forum, the Boao Forum for Asia, the Clinton Global Initiative, TED conferences, the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, and Google’s Zeitgeist are places where many global-elite relationships are first formed. You may not be receiving invitations to such exclusive gatherings just yet, but you can seek out international conferences in your own industry or in markets that interest you.
Start locally. Tap into your existing networks, such as alumni groups and professional associations. Social media has opened up new opportunities to connect and contribute from home. LinkedIn’s “network statistics” function, for instance, shows you the geographic reach of your network and where in the world it is growing fastest.
Work with others. Seek opportunities to collaborate with people from other cultures. Join teams that include members who hail from a variety of places and have disparate views. Those contacts will allow you to contribute to existing global initiatives in your organization and your community.
Be the center. Assess where you stand within your networks. If you’re at the periphery, move toward the middle by introducing people who would not otherwise be connected. Global leaders build bridges and transcend boundaries. They create value by connecting others—and enrich themselves in the process.
Go. International travel is vitally important, and it’s never too late to start. Firsthand experiences in foreign contexts will contribute the bulk of the knowledge you need to be a global value creator. While abroad, make sure you leave the hotel—and stay an extra day or two to explore. Accept an invitation from a local partner to attend a get-together with friends or family. Even if your agenda is fully packed, squeeze in a visit to a museum or attend a cultural event—it could be the most productive investment of your time.
Speak. Learn a foreign language and practice it with native speakers. Read articles or works of literature in the language you’re studying, and then discuss them.
Successful global leaders take risks by putting themselves in unfamiliar situations and challenging their mental models.
Don’t stop. It can be tough to stay on the path toward global understanding. The impulse to regress or succumb to culture shock is very strong. You may need an enormous amount of cognitive energy to consistently resist your natural biases and your mental and emotional shortcuts. Staying on course requires discipline, awareness, and humility.
What all these steps amount to is a willingness to take risks. Successful global leaders put themselves in unfamiliar situations and challenge their mental models. Consider Saad Abdul-Latif. Before he joined the global elite, he was “just a guy from the neighborhood”—in his case, East Jerusalem. Because of curfews and travel bans, his exposure to the outside world was extremely limited, but his curiosity took him to the American University of Beirut and then to a job, in Kuwait, in organizational development and human resources management.
Abdul-Latif exemplifies both the thinking and the doing aspects of global learning. He observed, studied, and opened his mind and heart. He says, for example, that engaging with thoughtful people about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while he was getting a degree at the Thunderbird School of Global Management showed him that he could disagree with friends and colleagues and still live, learn, and work with them. Conflicting cultural perspectives might intimidate some people, but Abdul-Latif saw them as opportunities to expand his worldview.
During his many travels throughout the Middle East and the U.S., he was constantly seeking opportunities to collaborate and build lasting relationships with people from other cultures. The value of that atypical profile was not immediately apparent to recruiters, so he initially received a rejection letter from PepsiCo during his post-MBA job search in 1987. However, an alert HR director at the company discovered his discarded CV and called him about a position in the Middle East. The resulting interview led to a general-management career at PepsiCo that has included diverse roles in North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.
During his rise at PepsiCo, Abdul-Latif’s ability to connect with others made him a central node in important networks both inside and outside the company. Today he is the CEO of a $7.4 billion division, overseeing the company’s operations in more than 100 countries. His territory includes roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. Abdul-Latif sees Asia as the epicenter of value-creating innovation. This year he opened a research unit in Shanghai (PepsiCo’s largest R&D center outside the U.S.) to develop local products, some of which he hopes will one day join PepsiCo’s world-renowned brands.
You’re in the Club. Now What?
Acquiring international knowledge is just the start. After you’ve built the competencies you need, it’s time to put them to use for your organization and yourself. Members of the global elite do that by tapping into three areas of value creation:
Divergence. Your job is to notice important differences among markets and to use those observations to create value. Beyond making the most of lower labor costs in developing economies, effective global managers explore how customer preferences, as well as employees’ skills and workplace needs, vary from market to market. And they use those insights to their advantage.
Convergence. At the same time, you should keep an eye out for commonalities—for example, widespread appetite for a certain kind of product or growing demand for a specific type of talent across a broad region, if not the world.
Networks. The connections you made before joining the global elite uniquely position you to identify or build trading networks and platforms that enable people in different regions to provide value to one another. You’ll be better equipped than others to find the right customers and suppliers, to link hiring managers with the best people for their staffs, and to encourage far-flung divisions to work together.
Lalit Ahuja, of Target, provides examples of all three means of value creation. After growing up in India, Ahuja traveled to the U.S. to study and learn about America and its culture. Then he spent years establishing the Indian operations for LG and News Corporation, which were expanding their global reach. Target hired Ahuja to help it outsource its IT operations to India. Using his understanding of U.S. and Indian business, Ahuja persuaded his bosses to instead establish what Target’s executives consider to be an extension of their Minneapolis headquarters in Bangalore. Target India now handles marketing and real estate development, as well as routine, commoditized work such as customer service and payroll.
Ahuja tapped into divergences such as lower wages and a time difference that allows Target India to maintain all back office operations 24/7. He also capitalized on convergences between the U.S. and India, such as knowledge of the English language and the availability of well educated workers. He made use of Target’s culture—emblemized by its clean red logo and customer-friendly attitude—to facilitate trust between Indian and American colleagues. “We’re all the same shade of red,” Ahuja says. His vision was realized with Target India’s first major project: a high-profile conceptual and architectural redesign of a Target store in Arizona.
Becoming a member of the global elite isn’t entirely about the bottom line or getting the corner office. Leaders who are truly global citizens understand the implications of their actions and take responsibility for them. They recognize that the prosperity of one person, one firm, or one nation depends on and influences the prosperity of others. As a consequence, they forge productive partnerships among business, government, and civil society that can have lasting effects in communities around the world.
In the past, leaders typically let national laws define the boundaries of their moral obligations. If their actions were legal, they were probably doing the right thing, or at least the right-enough thing. Many of today’s global leaders recognize that each decision they make either reinforces current practice or alters it. And where practice undermines shared prosperity, they work to change the status quo.
After receiving an engineering degree from the University of Arizona, Alan Boeckmann joined the Fluor construction company in 1974. He eventually took management assignments in the U.S., South Africa, and Venezuela. After rising to the position of CEO in 2002, he was constantly frustrated by the effects of corruption on the company’s international business, so he sought out like-minded government leaders who were interested in promoting cleaner business practices. In one country known for its corrupt customs agency, Fluor worked with senior officials to establish a second customs line staffed by agents trained in antibribery techniques. Boeckmann also cajoled his industry colleagues to change their culture, spearheading the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative at the World Economic Forum.
For Boeckmann and others, being a part of the global elite is about creating the world they want to live in. These leaders are inspired less by the numbers on their companies’ income statements and their own paychecks than they are by the variety of stamps in their passports, the cross-cultural experiences those stamps represent, and the opportunities they have to solve some of the world’s most vexing social problems. It’s this attitude that makes the members of this club a rare and extremely influential breed.
Gregory C. Unruh is a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Ángel Cabrera is the president of George Mason University. They are the coauthors of Being Global (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).