India Knowledge@Wharton | What makes a global leader?

India Knowledge@Wharton | What makes a global leader?

Growing multinationals, whether based in the US, India or elsewhere, all face a common problem: developing leaders who can manage global enterprises and take advantage of strategic opportunities. But, do global leaders require a set of skills entirely different from their domestic counterparts?

J. Stewart Black, the Singapore-based director of the Insead Center for Human Resources in Asia, conducted research among business leaders in the late 1990s and discovered that successful leaders exhibited “a unique global mindset", as he writes in the fourth volume of the edited collection, Advances in Global Leadership.

And, what is the key trait that defines such a global mindset? According to Black, it is inquisitiveness. “When in a new country, high-potential global leaders seek out new experiences. They want to try the local food, not the internationalized cuisine at some five-star hotel. They pick up the local newspaper; they talk to local residents."

While such a basic orientation towards new experiences may be an inborn trait rather than a learnable one, Black notes, companies can “select" for inquisitiveness among potential leaders before sending them abroad for international experience.

According to Wharton management professor Larry Hrebiniak, global leaders need to understand not just the culture and markets of other countries, but also how to manage the resultant diversity. “They should ask themselves: ‘How do I organize myself to handle country differences but still have a coordinated thrust worldwide for my product? How do I create a structure that builds in local control, side by side with international or global control?’ That’s hard to do. There is always a tension between the country managers and the locals."

Citibank, he says, has done this well: “They have a matrix system set up in their global operations where, in fact, they have people in countries who report to both country managers and people at the home office. They handle this complex system fairly effectively."

Hrebiniak also notes the difference in skills that are needed for CEOs and top managers vs line managers. “It comes down to a difference between corporate strategy and business strategy. The leadership at the top is more responsible for managing the portfolio and doing due diligence, and for weighing whether it is better to acquire a firm, or develop a strategic alliance. The line managers in businesses or SBUs are concerned with how to compete, how to overcome cultural differences and respond to local tastes, and how to integrate key functions or processes within the business to achieve local success."

Selling your ideas to people, and organizations

Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca once noted, “You can have brilliant ideas; but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere." In their new book, The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor G. Richard Shell and management consultant Mario Moussa provide a systematic approach to idea selling that addresses the problem Iacocca identified.

As an example of effective persuasion, they tell the story of rock star Bono’s visit to then Senator Jesse Helms’ Capitol Hill office to enlist his help in the global war against AIDS. Bono had all the facts and figures at his fingertips, and launched into a detailed appeal based on this data. He was, in essence, speaking to Helms the same way he had spoken to executives and technical experts at the many foundations and corporations he had approached.

But, within a few minutes, Bono sensed he was losing Helms’ attention, and he instinctively changed his pitch. Knowing that Helms was a deeply religious man (and drawing on his own born-again Christian values), Bono began speaking of Jesus Christ’s concern for the sick and poor. He argued that AIDS should be considered the 21st century equivalent of leprosy, an affliction cited in many Bible stories of the New Testament. Helms sat up and began listening, and before the meeting was over, had promised to be the Senate champion for Bono’s cause.

Examples such as this illustrate what Shell and Moussa mean by “woo": It’s the ability to “win others over" to your ideas without coercion, using relationship-based, emotionally intelligent persuasion. “Bono is superb at the art of woo becausehe understands what it takes to be a super-salesman, in the best sense of that term," says Shell. “(He) had the sense to switch from public policy talk about debt relief—what we call in our book the ‘rationality’ channel—to religious talk about poverty and disease—what we call the ‘vision’ channel—and he touched Helms’ heart. He sold his idea and, in the process, created trust."

When selling ideas, a common mistake people make “is to think that their job is finished once they succeed in getting someone to say ‘yes’ to their proposal," Shell adds. “That’s only the beginning. A minimum of eight people need to sign off on even simple ideas. The number goes up from there. So, after you move the individual, you also have to move the organization."

A management handbook from Indian literature

Business has often looked for guiding principles in ancient literature from various lands, including the sixth century Chinese military treatise, The Art of War by Sun Tsu, or India’s Vedas, including the battlefield epic Bhagvad Gita.

Now, a new book brings to a global audience the management and leadership insights contained in the Thirukkural, a collection of 1,330 aphorisms written some 2,000 years ago by Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.

According to V. Srinivasan, author of New Age Management Philosophy from Ancient Indian Wisdom, the aphorisms, or kurals, form a manual for governments and corporations, and they are a favourite of Indian finance minister P. Chidambaram.

Srinivasan, who is CEO of IT services firm 3i Infotech in Edison, New Jersey, notes that “the Thirukkural talks about how territories maximize their wealth, and how there were princes, ministers and ambassadors. You (can) equate a prince to a CEO, a minister to a COO and an ambassador to a sales and marketing executive—the qualities prescribed for each of these functions correspond."

The Thirukkural has much to offer about leadership, Srinivasan adds. “Generally, a leader believes that certain things are right. In an open forum, even the adverse aspects will come out. But, if you start punishing those who point out the adverse aspects, then nobody will give you the right information, and whatever you do will fail. A kural on this is: ‘A leader should have the virtue to hear the words that are bitter to his ears’."

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