If you are considering stepping into an international leadership role, and are asking yourself if this is the best move for you, there are five things that you should look for in your skillset that will help you decide whether you have what it takes to be a truly global leader.

It goes without saying that to succeed as a global leader you need to be good at your job.  However, numerous studies have shown that leading successfully at home does not necessarily guarantee international success. 

1. National Success, International Failure

An Australian company was purchased by a larger Korean competitor. While most staff kept their jobs, the Korean leadership decided to put trusted Korean leaders in key positions: CEO and CFO. The CEO had been educated in the US, and had travelled to several European countries, and settled down to work very quickly. 

It was clear, however that the CFO was struggling from a very early stage.  He had built up a reputation in Seoul as very professional, with an excellent eye for detail and for astute financial analysis.  He had been heavily involved in the decision to purchase the Australian company.

The company had invested in English language training and he had found a great apartment in a very nice area in Sydney, only 20 minutes from the office.  However, at work it looked as if he had become a different person.  He was unable to produce coherent reports, and his analysis of the financial situation was confused and lacking cohesion. 

After a lot of soul searching, it became clear that the CFO did not have the necessary skills to function in an Australian business context.  He was used to having a solid team who would support him, providing large amounts of information that he would collate, and ask someone else to put into a usable format. 

The more egalitarian, task-focused culture of Australia was not suited to a hierarchical, relationship-oriented Korean leader

He didn’t have a formal finance education but had managed to get by with a high level of intelligence and team motivation.  The Australian team were accustomed to having a boss who had progressed through the ranks, had learned the skills and who delegated work across the team. 

The more egalitarian, task-focused culture of Australia was not suited to a hierarchical, relationship-oriented Korean leader, who, despite being highly educated and professional, has an entirely different approach to team management, leadership and motivation.

Further reading

2. Know Thyself

The first step is, to be honest with yourself about what your skills are and what is actually needed in the role – particularly if you are tasked with being (and being seen as) a global leader.  This will probably involve some research.  For example, in some cultures, the leader is expected to have a very high-level, superficial knowledge of the technical side of their role, and is there to coordinate the team and help the subject matter experts take decisions that fit the organizational strategy. 

In other cultures, you should lead by example, demonstrating first that you know the technical requirements of the role and are able to mentor the team. 

Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

By doing your research, you will know what the expectations of you as a leader are.  This will be less at a national level, than at an organizational level. 

Ask others in similar situations or reflect on the skills of your line manager.  Self-awareness is a good place for any developmental work, but it is even more important to understand your own strengths, weaknesses, and “default” behaviours in an international setting.

Leading internationally requires flexibility in attitude, judgement, communication style and leadership behavior

If you want to go deeper, there are several excellent psychometric tools, such as The International Profiler which can help explore your intercultural competencies.

3. Flexibility

The primary challenge facing global leaders who transition into an international role is that it is not enough to have a strong leadership style. 

Leading internationally requires global leaders to demonstrate flexibility in attitude, judgement, communication style and leadership behavior: how you inspire and motivate a team in Dubai will be significantly different from how you inspire a similar team in Manila.

A leader in Australia is expected to be a coach and mentor.  In Poland, the leader shows others what to do.  In Denmark, the leader is an example who leads shoulder-to-shoulder with the team. 

The primary challenge facing leaders who transition to an international role is that it is not enough to have a strong leadership style

In France, the leader directs from the rear.  A global leader must be able to lead teams made up of Danes, Poles, Australians and the French, uniting them with a common vision and direction.

Expert or Coordinator?

This raises another challenge: in some cultures, the leader is expected to be an expert – for example, Germany – who is the most proficient in his or her field.  In Korea or Russia, for example, a leader is a coordinator who brings together the most effective resources – the leader serves as a fulcrum or figurehead and may have very little in the way of technical expertise, relying on the team to provide expert support where needed.

Why Global Mobility Needs to Help Shape an Organization's Talent

Global leaders must develop a balanced flexibility.  Flexible in that they must be able to adapt to the styles and expectations of others, but balanced in that a leader still has to lead. 

The leader sets the direction and general path but has the flexibility to allow for slightly different approaches which do not delay or hinder achieving the final goal.  A leader who is unable to set consistent direction across cultural boundaries will lose focus, demoralize the team and fail to deliver performance objectives.

4. Curiosity

Once you have learned your own cultural leadership profile in the context of your organization and developed a balanced, but flexible, leadership style, you need to be able to recognize the cultural values of your individual team members. 

R G Collingwood, the famous historian, wrote in his book, “The Idea of History”, that, “the historian is a detective.”  In the same way, a global leader must be a detective to uncover the values, attitudes, motivations and assumptions of the individuals within their team. 

5. Cultural Programming

This may seem an unnecessary complication – surely, teams should subscribe to corporate values and general business ethics?  Superficially this is a rational approach: most people do adopt the cultural norms of those around you.  However, at moments of pressure, we tend to revert to what Hofstede calls “the software of the mind” – our cultural defaults. 

The stress may come from a crisis or heavy workload, it may be a situation that is unrelated to work, or it may be that an unseen line has been crossed. 

This can have a dramatic impact – an efficient team can become dysfunctional overnight; a close-knit team can unravel and fragment.  In the worst case scenario, you will not notice that the change has happened until it is too late to fix!

There are tools which can help you identify the national traits of your team members, but the most effective tool is your own cultural curiosity.  Using a cultural tool as a starting point take an interest in the individuals around you.  Spend time finding out what makes them tick.  If you have an important meeting with an international client, ask around, use your network to identify what you can expect culturally. 

It is by no means easy to move from a national role to an international role with many failing. Being a global leader is not for everyone – but those that persevere discover a new found strength and degree of flexibility that only comes with working and leading globally.