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Cultivating Global Leadership

“...find the best people, wherever they may be, and develop them so that they can lead big businesses, wherever those may be. It's truly about people, not about where the buildings are. You've got to develop people so they are prepared for leadership jobs and then promote them. That's the most effective way to become more global.” —Jeffrey Immelt1

In the past twenty years, the number of Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) in existence worldwide has grown from three thousand to over 63,000, and now accounts for “25% of the world’s gross product.”2 This remarkable recent growth is only the tip of the iceberg. Current rates suggest that international trade, which accounted for 30% of the global GDP in 2003, is expected to comprise 80% of the world’s total output by 2029.3 Certainly developments of this scale will necessitate new ways of working; requiring leaders to examine not only the strategies and structures of their organizations, but the skills their people need to operate in this new environment.

As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, commented,

“The Jack Welch of the future cannot be like me. I spent my entire career in the United States. The next head of General Electric will be somebody who spent time in Bombay, in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires. We have to send our best and brightest overseas and make sure they have the training that will allow them to be the global leaders who will make GE flourish in the future.”4

The first stages of this development have begun. Organizations are already beginning to see candidates with “dream resumes that show, say, an upbringing in Paris, a Harvard MBA, and summer internships in Japan.”5 However, these candidates are currently the exception, not the rule; and there is a vast difference between training and real-world experience. While organizations recognize the necessity for cultivating global leadership, their pipelines remain lacking in talent. A study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that 85% of Fortune 500 executives did not think they had “an adequate number of global leaders;” and 67% thought their existing leaders needed “additional skills and knowledge before they met or exceeded needed capabilities.”6 These statistics offer both a warning and an opportunity: whether and how individuals and organizations look to address these gaps will, in part, determine their success in the global marketplace. Those with the discipline to follow a deliberate development approach will, most likely, find themselves with a sustainable competitive advantage.


Fortunately there is a large body of research to draw from both when planning your development and when designing an approach to suit your company’s needs. In reviewing this research and considering my own experience over more than 20 years, I have identified three key considerations a company should take into account when cultivating global leaders: business need, a global leadership mindset, and a systemic approach. While every individual and organization is unique, these considerations provide a conceptual framework upon which customized programs can be built.

Underlining all three considerations is the need for developing leaders to experience cultural variations and mindsets first-hand. While it is possible to form an idea of how a country’s cultural context affects business operations by reading a book or an article, you will gain a much deeper understanding by spending time living and working within that culture. Clearly the opportunity to live in a country long-term allows for a more immersive learning experience, but this is often not feasible. Short-term global team projects can provide an effective alternative by allowing leaders to work alongside people from different backgrounds and cultures, and face “different values, business models, decision-making norms and leadership paradigms.”7 Leaders who have the opportunity either to be placed on expatriate assignments or to work on global team projects have the best chance to develop the knowledge and sensitivity required to successfully operate around the globe.

>> Click here to download the full PDF.<<

  1. Green, S., Hassan, F., Immelt, J., Marks, M., & Meiland, D. (2003). “In Search of Global Leaders.” Harvard Business Review, 81(8). p. 44. 

  2. Chanda, N. (2003). “The New Leviathans.” Yale Global Online. Available: 

  3. Alon, I. & Higgins, J. M. (2005). “Global Leadership through Emotional and Cultural Intelligences.” Business Horizons, 48(6). p. 501. 

  4. Gregersen H.B., Morrison, A.J. & Black, J.S. (1998). “Developing Leaders for the Global Frontier.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 40(1). p. 22. 

  5. Green et al., p. 44. 

  6. Gregerson et al., p. 22. 

  7. Morrison & Gregerson, p. 48. 

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