Developing 21st Century Global Leaders in 2015


"Today’s world is enormously complex and more interdependent than at any time in history. Organizations are confronting global issues they have never faced before. To be effective, the leaders of tomorrow must be able to collaborate while navigating cultural, regional and political differences.”[1]

 - SHRM Foundation

The world of work is in the midst of dramatic change. The influences of a global workforce, social media, technology, security, privacy, rapid innovation, and economics challenge leaders in ways we’ve never seen. What does it take to be a 21st century global leader?

In this post we will attempt to address the below questions, spawned from these changing demographics.

1.       Whose role is it to take ownership in developing leaders?

2.       What are the key skills needed in global leaders of tomorrow?

3.       What are the most effective ways to develop global leaders?

Whose role is it to develop global leaders: NGOs, Governments, Corporations, Universities or Individuals?

There is no single responsible party; everybody should partner to create a systems approach. However, we do feel that in the near term, corporations and individuals have the most to win from taking ownership. These five compelling statistics help prove this stance:

1.       Less than 1 percent of foundations invest in leadership development[2]

2.       Universities are measured on speed of job placement and average salary, not on quality of leaders[3].

3.       93 percent of CEO's recognize the need to change their talent strategies, and 1/3 have already developed plans to do so[4].

4.       While only 14 percent of CxO's have confidence in their leadership pipeline[5], the investment in leadership development is increasing, as much as 14 percent in recent years[6].

5.       Applications for leading MBA programs, like Harvard's, continue to increase year over year[7].

Both individuals and corporations report that they are directing more resources and time into developing themselves, and others. According to United Nations research[8], 76 percent of executives feel it is important for corporations to invest in developing leaders, however it might still be a while until all corporations have holistic leadership programs. As such, the best leaders continue to purse opportunities to grow on their own. According to an HBR article Join the Global Elite "We know from our own experiences and those of the executives we’ve studied that a do-it-yourself mind-set is key. You need to push for assignments that deepen your international knowledge, and often you will have to migrate from company to company to round out your experience…"

While this might be true, at Microsoft, we like to take a partnership approach with our employees. Take the Leaders in Action and MySkills4Afrika programs as examples. In both cases, employees take initiative to apply for a program where they can volunteer their skills overseas. While Microsoft provides some training and support, employees are asked to take initiative to find mentorship support throughout, lead development conversations with their managers, and reflect on their own. In addition to one volunteer calling it “The most socially impactful thing I’ve done at this company” survey results indicate that employees rank it as one of their top – if not the top - development experience at the company.

What are the key skills needed in global leaders of tomorrow?

Ultimately, corporations want global leaders because of "their ability to create value by helping their organizations adopt a global perspective"[9]. More and more, it is the softer skills that are most in demand[10], namely:

1.       Communication: Listening, speaking, and aligning messages to and from diverse audiences.

2.       Team Building & Collaboration: Aligning people with diverse experiences into high-performing units.

3.       Innovation and Operating in Ambiguity: Proactively identifying opportunities that can improve efficiency.

4.       Diversity Awareness: Diversity, if harnessed, can create massive potential.

5.       Understanding of Customers: Staying close to customers to innovate on their behalf.

What are the most effective ways to develop global leaders?

According to the previously mentioned UN report, "A broad range of different approaches to learning are required to develop these knowledge and skills... Because the issues are complex, the most effective learning and skills development comes through practical experience... conventional e-learning and lecture-style learning are less rated by executives." [11].

In a recent blog post on titled Why your boss should give you time off to travel, and pay you for it, the benefits of international skills-based volunteering experiences that facilitates immersion in new and unique settings. Indeed, according to popular articles published on HBR "people who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity" and "a global orientation is apt to become even more dominant going forward".

In our own experience (as well as backed by extensive research), field experience is the most effective way to find this experience. At Microsoft, we find this in a few ways:

1.       Hiring people with diverse experiences.

2.       Using collaboration, unique team structuring, and more to facilitate interaction and cross-learning.

3.       Empowering future leaders through programs like reverse mentoring.

4.       Providing access to an international skills-based volunteering program called "MySkills4Afrika" that gives our employees the opportunity to volunteer their skills overseas.

5.       Developing innovative leadership programs, like Leaders in Action, that places virtual and in-person teams with skills-based volunteering opportunities.


Josh Bersin, leader of a Deloitte division focused on Leadership, says it best in his popular Forbes article "Time and again stories show that companies that look at leadership as part of their competitive advantage build capability that drives innovation, performance, and engagement at the same time they’re shipping new products and capturing market share."[12]

The great thing about leadership development, especially in a global context, is that it truly benefits the people by exposing them to more opportunities and helping them achieve career goals; it helps the company remain more competitive; and we believe it also has an intangible benefits in that it makes companies and its people more globally aware and socially conscious. As such, we believe that effective global leadership programs must use experiential learning where people, and their companies, can partner for growth.

Authored by:

Ross Smith really enjoys getting a paycheck to play with cool technology. He is an author of “The Practical Guide to Defect Prevention” and holds six patents. He is a blogger for WeKnowNext and publishes a newsletter on management and innovation.

In 2010, Ross was invited to the White House for a discussion on Women in STEM fields. He was recently welcomed as a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and is a member of the Anita Borg Institute Organizational Change Council. He also loves to cartoon, snowboard, and play video games. More at   Twitter and Facebook

Prem Kumar has held several roles in various spaces of the software industry, from customer facing to internal IT, and most recently product management. Prem currently works in the Dynamics Organization at Microsoft. In his spare time he loves to stay active, cheer on Seattle sports teams, and support his favorite charities. Follow Prem on twitter @premkumartweets.

Mark Horoszowski helps people volunteer their skills around the world. He is the co-founder at, a social enterprise that helps organizations catalyze leadership development programs with international, skills-based volunteering. Follow Mark on Twitter @markhoroszowski and @Experteering


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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