Global Leadership Training: What’s Missing?

A leadership development program that more fully taps into the experiences of all participants has the potential to foster behavioral changes on the spot.

By Ernest Gundling, Ph.D., Aperian Global

Global leadership training programs perform important functions and will play a valuable role for a long time to come. In particular, the face-to-face connections and network-building that take place between high-potential leaders from around the world are usually well worth the investment. Participants often remark afterward that, thanks to their new network, they are able to solve problems in a day that previously would have taken months to address. However, such programs also often fall short when it comes to fully leveraging the contributions of diverse participants and building a truly global mindset.

Program Design: Going Global?

Contemporary leadership program designs typically involve anywhere from 20 to 40 participants, and their contents include elements such as:

  • Preparatory work:
  • invitation and messages from top executive(s)
  • readings on leadership
  • completion of self-assessment and/or multi-rater instruments
  • kickoff of coaching relationships
  • face-to-face or virtual meetings to orient participants to the program agenda
  • review of global business data
  • Webinars by expert speakers
  • Joint training for seven to 10 days in an important emerging market location, which includes:
  • feedback on self-assessment and multi-rater tool results
  • visits to customer or supplier locations
  • interaction with local leadership and employees through presentations
  • tours of facilities and shared meals
  • observation of retail outlets and consumer behavior
  • dialogue with customers and/or community members
  • unvarnished views from local industry analysts
  • cultural experiences such as visits to historical or religious sites
  • presentations from experts on leadership, innovation, industry trends, culture, and the local marketplace
  • activities in support of corporate social responsibility (housing construction, environmental clean-up, donations, and visits to schools, etc.)
  • daily debrief and discussion of participant reactions to new experiences
  • kickoff for action learning projects with multicultural teams
  • Action learning projects that continue during a several-month interim period with virtual coordination between team members
  • Ongoing one-on-one coaching for each program participant
  • A final week together at headquarters for:
  • presentations by top executives
  • informal interaction with company executives and other headquarters counterparts
  • simulations to cultivate leadership capabilities in areas such as business acumen or crisis response
  • reports on action learning project findings and recommendations
  • wrap-up of coaching relationships or planning for next steps
  • application of program learnings to one’s own job
  • personal career planning.
  • Post-program networking, self-development based upon training and coaching experiences; alumni events

Although this kind of program design has many virtues, it often carries within it critical flaws, as well. Leadership models shared by executives, academics, and consultants—even those explicitly labeled as “global”—frequently are shaped in unacknowledged ways by Western and largely U.S. cultural perspectives. But what about, for example, considering Chinese or Indian approaches to leadership that have pedigrees of more than 2,500 years?

Western leaders are steeped in relatively egalitarian and consultative leadership styles that are regular fixtures of standard leadership development program fare. Such leadership models also tend to be individualistic, emphasize very direct communication techniques, and highlight tasks and execution. They are less likely, though, to prepare leaders to operate effectively in the cultures that comprise the majority of the world’s population and are profoundly hierarchical, group-oriented, and relationship-based, with different approaches to time and to task completion.

There is a potential hazard that leadership development programs, although global in name, will replicate and reinforce the limitations of an organization’s current state rather than cultivate behaviors that can take it into the future. Other common flaws of existing programs include too few participants from emerging markets due to a real or perceived scarcity of “high-potential” personnel from these locations, and Western participants who dominate discussions based on factors such as assertive communication styles, language facility, and prior exposure to the program contents. For companies that are trying to grow in emerging markets, having a preponderance of Western participants doing most of the talking and referring to models that derive from their own cultural background—especially in presentation-heavy programs that involve a lot of sitting and listening—is not the best way to challenge participants to think and act differently.

Often there are participants in the room with first-hand knowledge of emerging markets whose voices, perhaps more tentative or less fluent, have the potential to transform the dialogue and to create a fresh sense of mutual learning. These voices, combined with meaningful opportunities for participants to see an unfamiliar market with their own eyes and to hear directly from customers and local colleagues, can spark genuine inquiry and jaw-dropping new insights. Here are examples of a few comments made by leadership program participants that have set off serious reflection and intense debate:

“Our prices are too high by a factor of 10 for this market segment.”

“Normal businesspeople here feel that bribery is not an ethical issue; ethics means how loyal you are to friends and family.”

“There is a counterfeit copy of one of our products installed in this room.”

“The average monthly wage for workers in our factory is around $200.”

“The footprint of our leading product is much too large for the typical office space in this city.”

“Our most active local competitor is growing twice as fast as we are in this market.”

“Local customers don’t care about our brand, which is so famous in its home country; to them, it is still just one among many.”

“Our local JV partner is planning to sell its products abroad starting in two years.”

“There is nobody with significant experience in this market in the top executive team.”

“The average employee turnover rate here is 20 percent per year, which means a company can have close to 100 percent turnover in five years.”

“Consumers here don’t like making purchases with a credit card over the Internet; they prefer to pay cash. Many don’t even have credit cards.”

“The communications infrastructure installed in this city over the last few years is more advanced than London or New York.”

One means of generating a learning environment that deliberately leverages such perspectives is to introduce key behaviors of successful global leaders and craft a venue that enables participants to begin to apply them right away. Several sample behaviors that are easily linked with the objectives of most programs and with standard leadership competencies are Results through Relationships, Frame-Shifting, andExpand Ownership.*

A leadership development program that more fully taps into the experiences of all participants has the potential to induce deep insights and to foster behavioral changes on the spot. It is not easy to invite such voices into the discussion for various reasons, such as culturally based communication standards for careful and eloquent expression, or concern about hierarchical factors that may be present in the group. And not every program participant has the self-awareness, flexibility, or willingness to share his or her own sometimes-painful experiences. So those who seek to design and deliver global leadership programs that are truly transformational must deliberately prepare, model, and cultivate channels of deep mutual inquiry and exchange.

*These are three of 10 global leadership behaviors described in the book, “What is Global Leadership? 10 Key Behaviors That Define Great Global Leaders” by Ernest Gundling, Terry Hogan, and Karen Cvitkovich. Chapter 7: Training the Tenprovides practical advice and illustrations on how these behaviors can be effectively developed through training programs. The book in its entirety distinguishes the behaviors required of global leaders, provides insights from global leaders worldwide, and provides recommendations for individuals and organizations that wish to accelerate the development of these behaviors.

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D., is co-founder and president of Aperian Global,, which provides consulting, training, and Web tools for global talent development with offices in Bangalore, Dubai, Kolding, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo. This article is based on content from “What is Global Leadership? 10 Key Behaviors That Define Great Global Leaders” by Ernest Gundling, Terry Hogan, and Karen Cvitkovich (published by Nicholas Brealey). For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.