Why Global Team Leaders Need a 21st Century Set of Skills

If power and authority was the currency of leadership in the past, trust and respect is the currency of leadership in the 21st century of global leadership. You have to trust people to make decisions while you are asleep.

Leading a global team involves extreme leadership because everything is harder on a global team. That is very good news. If you can lead a global team, you can lead any team. Even better, if you lead a global team, you learn the skills all leaders will need in the 21st century. Leading a global team is your passport to the future.

The basic disciplines of leading a global team are more intense than with a domestic team: Communication is harder; building trust is harder; understanding each other across cultures, language, and time zones is harder. Goal setting is harder because the needs of the center and the needs of the outposts are often different; achieving fair process in making decisions is also harder. Finally, global teams are harder because getting the basic routines and systems working is harder. When things go wrong on a domestic team, you can see it immediately and deal with it easily. On a global team, problems are harder to spot and harder to solve.

As a leader on a global team, people expect more of you. They want to see high skills to justify you coming halfway round the world. But more than that, they expect to see a different set of skills. They expect to see the skills of the 21st century leader.

Leadership Through the Centuries

In the 19th century, bosses had the brains and workers had the hands: Ideas flowed from the heads of the bosses into the hands of the workers. It was a simple world in which workers were treated like unreliable machines.

Expectations of leaders rose in the 20th century because workers got educated: They could do more, but they expected more. Bosses lost their coercive power. They discovered that workers had to be treated like people, not machines. In addition to good IQ (being smart), bosses had to have good EQ (being good with people).

In the 21st century, the performance bar has been raised again. In the past, leaders made things happen through people they controlled. Now, you have to make things happen through people you do not control. You rely on people in other departments and other firms for your success; even the people who report to you are professionals who need to be persuaded, not instructed. In this new world, you have to learn the art of influence, not control. You have to influence people and decisions, align agendas, know when and how to fight battles, build networks of trust and support, and gain access to funds and decision-makers. The end of command-and-control changes everything for leaders. In addition to good IQ and EQ, you need good PQ or Political Quotient: the art of making things happen without formal authority.

The art of PQ is acute on global teams. You have to influence people and decisions you do not fully control and you may not see; they probably have different agendas in a different language, different culture, and different time zone.

Trust and Respect

If power and authority was the currency of leadership in the past, trust and respect is the currency of leadership in the 21st century of global leadership. You have to trust people to make decisions while you are asleep. As one global hedge fund manager put it: “Systems can stop people making non-compliant trades; they cannot stop people making dumb trades.” Equally, your team has to trust that you will look after their interests and manage decisions over which they have no control. Trust is a two-way street.

Trust is partly about credibility, or doing what you say. The problem is not in doing, but in saying. When you say things such as,  “I hope, I will do my best, I will try,” people hear, “I will.” It is no good coming back two weeks later saying, “I tried, but…” Despite the excuses, all trust will be lost. The challenge of expectations is even greater on a global team where language and cultural barriers mean things get lost in translation easily. Behind good trust lies very good communication.

The best global teams, even the most high-tech ones, regard e-mail as a plague. You cannot motivate, build trust, or manage performance by e-mail. The solution to the 21st century challenge of global leadership is ancient: You have to meet your team face to face. Buy that plane ticket, find an excuse for a conference or training event. Once your team meets, it can build trust; that enables good communication and is the platform for great performance.

Global teams demand 21st century skills of influence, power, and trust. But building trust is personal, as it always has been. Leadership is still a contact sport, and always will be.

Jo Owen is an award-winning author and a leading social entrepreneur in the UK. His book, “Global Teams,” is published by Pearson. For more information, visit: https://www.ilead.guru/

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