Becoming the Global Leader that Local Leaders Welcome

Published on: September 2017

Written by: Philios Andreou

By Dr. Philios Andreou Sphika, Global Partner, BTS

Someone once told me that there are three lies all new Global leaders are told by their local managers:

– Hey boss, nice to see you! Please visit whenever you want
– Thank you for coming, this visit has been so valuable
– Goodbye, and do come back soon…

Managing people is a tough thing. You need active listening and communication skills, a solid understanding of when and how to intervene and when to step back, a knowledge of when to delegate and when to handle things yourself, and the ability to balance directive and guided coaching, among a myriad of other skills… Furthermore, in a leadership role, you face the challenge of dealing with the individuals that you work with – they each have their own personalities, experiences, baggage, and preferences on how to communicate, be managed, and lead…


Becoming the Global Leader


Being a new Global leader, how do you manage a team that spans across the globe – full of multi-cultural, multi-language and multi-location challenges? My guess is that the right answer is… “very delicately.” As a global leader, you add several additional ingredients to the management pot, like Diversity, Cultural issues, and local frameworks, beliefs and norms. This can make the right answer in your home market the wrong answer in another and vice versa. For a global leader to be successful, they must be able to navigate through these challenges – a skill that requires patience and the willingness to understand and adapt.

At a seminar I attended recently at Harvard Business School, they determined that successful Global leaders shared 3 characteristics:

  1. They must have worked and lived in more than 2 countries
  2. They must be able to demonstrate humility (be humble)
  3. They must be ready to accept and adjust to opinions of others
Experience abroad:

Whether working and living in two countries is a true requisite or not, the point here is that new Global leaders need to have truly experienced integration and diversity. This means possessing the lived experience of having to deal with complex cultural situations and diverse norms or ways of doing things. This type of experience is sometimes overlooked in organizations, as people at Headquarters tend to believe that leaders with field experience and willingness to travel can be fit for global challenges, but this is not always true. Global leaders need to be able to pick up cultural differences and work with them, whether this means adapting to a different management style to create an impact or simply accepting local variations to the way of doing things. For example, people from Latin cultures may appreciate more of a sense of direction, people from the Middle East may want a more relationship first business second approach, and people from Asian cultures may think highly of a more reflection-based approach, acting only after thinking, while certain other cultures may prefer a more consensus driven approach. Global leaders need to balance local preferences with global business needs and the market imperative to make the actions necessary for success while keeping spirits and motivation up.


This is an increasingly recognized attribute for great leaders, and was recently featured as a top-level core quality for Level five leadership (the highest level) in the Great Companies feature of Jim Collins’ Good to Great framework and research.

One interesting way to look at humility is deconstructing its dimensions. The following is a good way of thinking about it in a number of constructs:

  • Being self-aware and honest about one’s own weaknesses
  • Recognizing the strengths and achievements of followers
  • Modelling ‘teachability’ and being correctable — that is, modelling the behavior of not always being right
  • Treating others with respect

In a recent study in Asia, it was evident that in Asian culture, a few more traits were thought of as essential parts of humility:

  • Showing modesty (being able to step back from positions and accept other ideas/solutions)
  • Being part of the team (doing things that others do, working with the team and being available)

Being humble and demonstrating humility is extremely important and difficult for global leaders. Global Leaders must align organizations around the Headquarter thinking, whilst at the same time be open to listening and learning, accepting of discrepancies, and willing to bring back knowledge and ideas from other markets.

Adaptability – readiness to accept and adjust:

Being a Global Leader is about adding value for the local guys who tend to be in the field all the time, and know the customers and local situation better than anyone. These local leaders tend to be the experts in the local delivery of the service or the product, therefore, adding value is not easy. Local leaders are more often than not wary of the global leader coming from the outside to bring wisdom to the local experts. Local leaders often believe that:

  • They are not understood or listened to (since Headquarters tends to believe they are always right or full of wisdom)
  • There is less respect as to the way things are done there (as the struggle for standardization as a way of efficiency kicks in)

In the end, Local leaders are forced to apply things that they know will not work but are part of the “price” to pay of being a global company.

New Global Leaders must be able to overcome this mindset and be open to listening, understanding and creating an organization that has learning agility. This means that the system can both learn from the center and the parts at the same time.

One exercise I always engage in with my leaders is to ask them to think back over the last two months, and really think carefully about their conversations with people. I ask them to do a self assessment and determine the percentage of times that they actually changed or adapted a solution (or what was on their mind) after a discussion or a conversation. This exercise allows leaders to self-reflect, and see, as many leaders do, that they believe they are more open and adaptable than they really are.

The value of the Global Leader:

A Global Leader must be able to demonstrate the value they bring to the table by doing two things: first, they must help use global and local customer insights to drive growth, and second, they must help use standardization and operational knowledge to drive effectiveness. The combination of both can bring the desired results to the company.

When thinking of customer insights, the key is understanding what drives buying behavior in the different markets, and how different segments respond to combinations of price, offer, and quality. In many markets, the standardization principle may not apply. An example of that may be when entering emerging markets, a global product with global pricing and global positioning may not be able to provide you access to greater market segments. You need to find ways to localize the offering, and to some extent the price, without lowering the price to match local providers. The social and technological factors are also very important in considering what to offer. Uber, for example, has been very successful in some emerging markets as it allows for increased security (knowing the driver, the tracking of the vehicle, and paying by phone) compared to normal taxis. These features are also present in more mature markets, but are not as high of a priority for clients who may value more the choice of vehicle, the speed of service, and the control over the service.

In terms of operational knowledge, the global leader has a great platform to combine global benchmarks with local knowledge. This aids in determining where inefficiencies exist and where improvements can be made. In many cases, something as simple as introducing best practices across markets to help speed the experience curve will transform the business. In other cases, it is about the ability to extract trends from some markets and apply them in others to gain time advantage over local competitors.

Managing businesses and people is neither easy nor simple, and doing so on a global scale simply escalates these issues to a higher degree. Mastery of the role of Global Leader is only something that can be achieved by having a thorough understanding of the task at hand, humility while managing others, and the ability to learn by being adaptable throughout the process.

Sources Cited

Burak Oc et al. “Leader humility in Singapore”, The Leadership Quarterly Vol26 february 2015
Collins J “Good to Great” William Collins October 2001
Bill G “The New Global leaders” People + strategy, Summer 2015