Leadership Development for a Global Workforce

When organizations grow, expansion leads to new challenges and opportunities. Among the challenges is overcoming geographical and cultural differences to form an integrated leadership development program that bridges offices and cultures and adequately identifies, assesses and develops leaders. In doing so, organizations ensure they have the right leaders in place to turn business growth into results, drive sales and increase profits.

In many organizations, leadership development is synonymous with standardized development tools such as 360-degree reviews. But when a corporation grows and expands globally, it also introduces a variety of cultural backgrounds, competencies, styles and experiences into the mix, requiring learning and talent management leaders to work together. A growing organization would be remiss to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach and standardized tools to develop its leaders.

Instead, with careful and mindful consideration of employees and business goals, an organization can use a mix of cost-effective strategies and tactics that leverage its growing employee base to create leadership development programs. These programs increase consistency across departments and geographies, ensure the right development and placement of leaders in critical roles and contribute to overall business success. There are several assets that should be a part of this type of program.

Competency modeling: Recognizing the need for — and the value of — a formalized leadership development program is a critical first step that many organizations overlook, but even those that don’t can still get tripped up during the process. Too often, multinational organizations first focus on tailoring development by geography and specific cultures.

Organizations should first tailor development to overall corporate culture, and then layer culture-specific elements underneath. Once the overall corporate culture is established, the program can be tailored for cultural differences and nuances and to ensure leadership development across geographies is woven together with a common thread.

A business needs analysis can help define this common thread and determine where gaps exist in an organization’s talent development strategy. Based on the results from the analysis, an organization should formally establish global competencies to ensure leadership development efforts — regardless of culture or location — map to overall business objectives.

This can be done by employing an evidence-based competency model that uses both performance management data and human resource analytics to determine the competencies that contribute to an organization’s success, establishing direct connections between performance, knowledge, skill and the bottom line. These competencies form the centerpiece for a global leadership development program.

Consider T.D. Williamson, a Tulsa, Okla.-based global pipeline and equipment services firm that has grown in the last 10 years due to organic growth, new technologies and acquisitions. With 1,900 full-time employees in 30 countries on six continents, the company plans to double in size by 2015. This type of growth requires a concrete, evidence-based leadership development program that would enable the company to:

• Determine the individual strengths and opportunities in the senior management team. Collectively, the team has been successful to this point, but do leaders have the right skills to take the company to the next level?
• Examine the C-suite’s effectiveness as a team and determine if specific practices are conducive to an aggressive growth strategy.
• Determine the most pivotal roles within the organization and help identify and develop the company’s future leaders.

Customize assessment and development: Establishing competencies that match business objectives and global growth plans is critical to ensure the effectiveness of a leadership program. In 2010, T.D. Williamson used this information to implement a top-down leadership strategy to first determine the strengths and opportunities for improvement within its senior management team. This would help to ensure they could take business objectives to the next level, and it’s an example for other organizations looking to assess leaders across geographies and boundaries.

T.D. Williamson’s senior executives participated in a simulation-based assessment to determine individual strengths and areas for improvement. They also worked with coaches as a group to analyze how the team came together to support global growth plans.

“The competencies that served us well when our growth was moderate had to change once we started growing quickly,” said Bruce Binkley, president and CEO of T.D. Williamson. “Today, our leaders need to take on more risk, and they face more accountability and have to be agile to adapt to the quickly changing needs of the marketplace.”

Identify and develop the right talent: Identifying, investing in and developing the right talent is key to build talent on a global scale — especially with limited resources and with more organizations cutting back on discretionary investments. Organizations should not view talent investments as optional, or something to cut back on. Investing in the right talent entails a heavy focus on pivotal roles — those jobs that make the most difference within an organization. These roles also serve as feeder pools to key leadership positions, so training to enhance their performance ensures future readiness.

Development efforts should include high-potential talent, and investing in such talent means more than simply training and promoting those who show leadership promise. Instead, organizations should provide these employees with stimulating and challenging work assignments, as they tend to be especially driven and crave challenges to remain engaged. Aligning high-potential talent with stretch assignments critical for business success is one way to ensure an organization’s talent investment contributes to the bottom line.

Identifying the right talent, however, is best accomplished through measures that map to overall business goals. For example, T.D. Williamson chose a select group from across the organization to be in a high potential program. The company evaluated participants — those best able to perform two levels above their existing position — against pre-set metrics and via online tools. This measurable selection process provided added validation that the company was selecting a ready and qualified crop of high-potential future leaders in line with company metrics. And, with online tools, T.D. Williamson was able to validate leadership potential and development decisions earlier in the leadership pipeline and therefore accelerate leadership development. This was critical given the increasing scope and complexity of the growing global organization.

“Prior to using online tools mapped to our objectives, we lacked a clear and measurable way to confirm we chose the right candidates to participate in our high potential program,” said Mike Dills, vice president of human resources for T.D. Williamson. “We are now fully confident in the 23 leaders going through the process.”

T.D. Williamson also saw the value in having a ready pool of talent and worked to increase its leadership bench strength across the globe as part of its succession management plan. The company sent candidates for senior-level positions through two-day, simulation-based assessments. From there, leaders established ongoing development plans to ensure they stayed focused on their growth trajectory. The company next plans to expand the program and launch a mentoring initiative. Its current group of 23 high-potential employees will actively mentor and develop the company’s next generation of high potentials.

“This will be an excellent development opportunity for our current group of high potentials, while also providing a new development dimension to the new group entering the program,” said Don Thompson, director of talent management for T.D. Williamson. “We’re excited about the depth and scope of participants in our high potential program and how the mentoring program will build upon the program’s success.”

Blended learning: Once an organization determines its global competencies and potential opportunities for improvement among its leadership base, the next step in establishing an effective leadership development program is training. Training should target and develop each segment within the development pipeline, ranging from building skills to offering real-world practice and accountability.

Blended learning approaches can address this need by bringing together multiple tools and channels that directly address overall business challenges. From a logistics perspective, blended learning fits especially well with global organizations because it can leverage technology, enabling organizations to quickly and efficiently scale it to leaders across offices and geographies. A blended talent development approach also should map to the established global competencies to make the purpose and objectives of all training clear to participants.

For T.D. Williamson, blended learning took shape in many ways, including action learning processes, and the organization tasked potential leaders with solving real-world organizational challenges with peer potential leaders. High-potential employees split into three groups, and during a six-month period, with the assistance of a senior executive sponsor and a coach, each team examined a real business issue and offered substantive solutions.

While identifying issues and finding solutions to high-level, highly visible problems was half the goal, the other aim for participants was learning how to tackle problems beyond the scope of their current role. T.D. Williamson expects participants across the organization will apply that learning to future endeavors.

“Action learning exercises gave our high potentials the ability to work across groups, become better listeners and enhance team dynamics,” Thompson said.

A fixture for success: If an organization fully and correctly implements a leadership development program, it should become a fixture in its growth plan.

T.D. Williamson’s experience supports this assertion. “Ten years ago, leadership development and succession plans got stuck in three-ring binders and received little attention,” Binkley said. “Now, these selection and skill development programs are a key part of our strategy.”

In addition to enhancing the capabilities of current and potential leaders, leadership development programs can help organizations gain better insight into other important issues. T.D. Williamson found redundant practices in its internal planning processes and made changes to enhance process effectiveness while providing insight on how planning could have a broader impact. The insight gleaned from the leadership development efforts also helped the organization refine its commercialization strategy and identify key steps to introduce new technologies to the marketplace. Finally, as a result of its organizational redesign, T.D. Williamson was able to enhance its global supply chain strategy with a more clear-cut implementation roadmap.

According to Binkley, the leadership development efforts also provide senior team members with the tools to be introspective about their own leadership attributes.

“When you reach a senior management level, it’s typical to think you have everything you need,” Binkley said. “Our focus on developing a leadership development strategy led to refinements that can make us better leaders. This includes making talent development a matter of course in the organization, and creating an environment where all leaders understand the broader business beyond their specific areas.”

Tom Daniel is senior vice president at PDI Ninth House, a global leadership services company. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.