The Risks and Rewards of Global Leadership Development

As global roles at senior levels become more complex, talent development requires a shift in mindset, and specific development is needed to bridge that gap.

To achieve the greatest success with global leadership development endeavors, leaders must understand the challenges these programs present. These challenges include balancing expectations and tailoring development, coaching leaders to take more complex and global roles, working virtually across time and distance and embracing cultural differences.

Organizations typically spend considerable energy and time identifying top talent based on a process of reviews and senior management meetings. The risk is that senior teams conducting assessments do not always understand what the business strategy requires of future leaders and what competencies these leaders need. Senior teams should identify pivotal roles and capabilities that are critical for organizational success, rather than rely on the familiar nine-box grid to identify performance and potential.

Internal bias is another risk in selection to the talent pool. To avoid it, some organizations use psychologically-based assessment through a combination of individual analysis, team exercises and presentations with trained consultants. This makes the assessment more objective and focused on the company’s actual competency needs rather than historical value or market value. External headhunting consultancies are another alternative. They can provide detailed individual interview assessments benchmarked against market needs. This method is also shorter in duration and cheaper to administer but comes with a downside. It can prompt people to look outside the company and increase retention risk.

Any assessment process raises expectations in the minds of the talent leaders. Often there are fewer next-level appointments than new talent in the pool despite the assessed supply gap. Leaders should not make promises. Retention risks arise when long-term employees see themselves as more marketable elsewhere if the right role cannot be delivered internally.

Talent leaders can successfully tackle some of the risks inherent in the evolution of talent development by creating personalized programs with external coaching to identify gaps and career options and help potential leaders transition to the next level. The benefits include matching learning — which may include career coaching — to individual needs, developing strategic networking skills, managing the person’s visibility in the organization and shifting the person’s leadership style into a more adaptive model.

One challenge of external coaching is confidentiality. The coach has a contract of confidentiality with the individual and usually a three-way contract with the line manager. The internal talent leader or HR director may need feedback on the individual’s progress as a result of the coaching, and a good coach will balance confidentiality and the provision of data to senior leadership teams. Having coaches gather trends and patterns of behavior across coaching sessions on a non-attributable basis and presenting feedback to the internal talent identifies opportunities for targeted development for leaders in the talent group and any gaps coaching cannot fill.

“In talent development coaching, the voice of the organization is much more pronounced and demanding than in traditional executive coaching, and both organizational and individual needs must be met,” said Gil Schwenk, a member of the U.K. advisory board for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

Global leadership development is likely to involve leaders from across different countries learning together. Travel can be too costly for organizations and business leaders, and virtual learning saves time, carbon emissions and money if the learning approach delivers results equal to or greater than face-to-face learning. Two approaches are virtual action learning and virtual group coaching.

Virtual action learning: Senior leadership development often includes strategic action learning programs, operated cross-functionally by a group of leaders based on key strategic questions. This works because it enhances broader understanding of the business, builds networks, creates visibility to sponsors and allows leaders to step up and tackle issues that may have impact at the board level. Organizations such as G4S and Nokia have used this project-based approach for senior leader development.

Typically leaders meet on a group leadership development program for two to three days and form virtual action learning project teams for six to 12 months. Making virtual action learning work requires careful team formation, such as taking into consideration compatible time zones and language skills. Tools such as Microsoft Live Meeting, WebEx and Cisco TelePresence can help kick off the virtual action learning group with their sponsors and introduce a visual connection. An experienced facilitator is also a necessity so the group does not revert to task mode and abandon individual learning goals. Combining this with individual coaching also can benefit the learning process.

Virtual group coaching: At the middle management level, learning professionals may want to add virtual group coaching as a follow-up to a two- or three-day leadership development program. This approach has been successful in Nokia’s License to Lead program.

Following the Nokia example, group coaching can be done virtually over the phone with groups of six participants who meet twice monthly in three-hour sessions with an experienced coach. Using the same technology for all participants puts them on an even playing field and improves group dynamics. Having some on the phone and others on video can put the phone group members at a disadvantage. They cannot make eye contact and experience the body language essential for effective communication.

Participants are encouraged to share their leadership challenges and coaching successes from one session to the other. If leaders are stuck with a situation, coaching enables individuals to get insight from peers in the learning group. Three-hour group sessions work well because they build on the foundation of trust that has been established on the face-to-face module.

Nokia’s participants reported taking action that improved both individual and team engagements. In one example, following the group coaching, a participant coached a team member whose performance had been below standard for a long time. As a result, the team member’s performance improved. The participant/coach credited the coach training and support of the group for building the courage to have that conversation.

“Virtual group coaching will only work if there is a professional facilitator leading the dialogue as a structured process,” said Lise Palomares, Nokia HR manager charged with employee development. “In addition, I believe that the success we have had in Nokia using over-the-phone group coaching as a method to practice coaching skills with peers is due to the fact that participants have already met face-to-face and together established a trusted space where one’s own leadership challenges can be shared openly and worked through.”

This virtual process extends the development period by two months and builds in follow-up and increased learning with no travel costs. A side benefit is learning how to coach others on the phone, a skill many leaders need when working globally.

The broad range of cultures present in a global company creates a significant issue for senior leaders and those designing leadership development programs. G4S, an international security provider, created a global talent development program for senior leaders that focused on exploring both company culture and national cultures. It also proved valuable for exploring client and internal relationships.

Learning groups focused on cultural understanding use tools such as the cultural analysis tool based on MIT professor Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model and online applications to build knowledge and skill.

Participants were given tools that provided a language to discuss culture and asked to reflect on the people in their learning group and how they interacted and contributed differently. As a result, they built stronger working relationships, which made it easier to achieve the strategy.

“G4S has a presence in over 125 countries, and therefore it is critically important for our leaders to be able to use a range of leadership behaviors to suit the highly diverse global business that we are in, connect with our international customers, as well as differentiate ourselves from the competition,” said Jo Dunne, director of talent and resourcing for G4S. “We want our leaders to embrace difference and be skilled to spot and create opportunities that these differences bring. Practically, this also supports acquisitions or bids for work in new territories.”

Another approach to embracing cultural differences is to hold programs in key global business locations in the Middle East, Africa, Brazil and Asia where people can experience different cultures. When an organization is expanding globally through acquisition, this can be particularly important. Leaders with international roles appreciate the opportunity to travel and learn about new cultures. That learning can add value with their own clients and give leaders a common focus through which to connect and deepen their relationships and engage employees. Talent managers can leverage multicultural work groups to design programs and engage clients locally to visit the program.

However, organizations need to be careful about what activities they arrange. A cultural immersion experience, such as staying with people in their own homes or meeting university students from Indian or Chinese universities, is more effective than riding elephants in India or a trip to the desert in Dubai.

Taking a broad perspective when designing global talent and leadership development processes is important, as is recognizing the cultural and virtual environment involved. Using virtual approaches can reduce cost and help leaders learn new ways to communicate via coaching and action learning with professional facilitation. Using tailored approaches like individual coaching can bring benefits when learning is achieved. Discovering other cultural norms helps global leaders become more adaptable and effective.

Fiona Ellis is a director at Bath Consultancy Group, a consultancy specializing in organizational change, leadership and coaching, and a subsidiary of GP Strategies Corp. She can be reached at