Leadership for a Complex Global Environment

August 30, 2016

Leadership for a Complex Global Environment

Systemic Changes

If we forge ahead in this new global century with the intent to maintain existing power structures, we will probably fare poorly. The shifting economic center requires us to shift with it, toward a reality yet to be defined. A new generation of leaders is beginning to wield greater influence in global organizations, and will eventually redefine the nature of global leadership itself. At this juncture, it is critical for companies to position these future leaders in a way that enables them to define leadership in their own terms and thereby transform the organization.

There are a number of systemic adjustments most companies can make that will better enable their new leadership talent to come to the fore. Organizations that strive to be globally relevant need a leadership talent pool that is effective within multiple disparate contexts. Rather than creating clones of the organization’s dominant Western culture, the developmental model needs to be truly global: recognizing the value of a broad range of approaches while rewarding flexibility and adaptation in different cultural environments.

Here are several examples of pivotal “make or break” areas for creating an organization able to harness the potential of a new generation of global leaders, and ultimately be transformed into a truly global company.

Leadership Competencies

Defining truly global leadership competencies, rather than just steamrolling one leadership style across all markets, will create a more globally agile organization. Making these leadership expectations explicit will also allow organizations to assess what competencies are necessary for global success.

Organizations can start by reviewing their leadership competency model for cultural bias and global relevance. First, organizations should look for and use as a benchmark leadership models and behaviors based on truly global research. Second, the review should be conducted by stakeholders who represent the diversity of the companies’ global presence, who can focus on these initial questions:

  • Which of our current leadership competencies are essential for operating in a global environment?
  • Which competencies are relevant for our new growth markets, and are these reflected in our leadership model?
  • Are there other competencies necessary for success in a global market or individual growth markets that are not being measured or rewarded?
  • Which competencies are only relevant in a particular culture?
  • How are these competencies interpreted across different cultures and markets?
  • Are there competencies needed in the current organizational environment that will be less relevant later?
  • Are there competencies critical to the organization’s future global presence that should be built now?


Company Brand

As the organization’s revenue footprint begins to shift outside its home market, its identity must be re-assessed for relevance on a global platform. Does the company’s brand resonate with its new target consumers? Does its mission attract the best talent in the markets where it wants to grow? Do its values inspire commitment from the high potentials it wants to retain?

Companies must also retain the aspects of the brand that makes them recognizable and attractive to consumers in new markets while changing aspects of the corporate personality that prevent top global talent from having a true sense of ownership.

  • Does the organization have an attractive Employee Value Proposition that can be leveraged among diverse talent in different geographies?
  • Does the organizational brand–its mission, vision, and values–serve to unify globally diverse talent?
  • Does the brand enhance the organization’s ability to recruit and retain talent in all key global locations?
  • Do the organization’s values actively promote a globally inclusive environment?
  • Does the organization have a clear business case linking global talent to its strategic goals?

Companies can address this in a number of ways. For example, a medical devices company engaged its Indian employees in a rebranding exercise, redefining its mission, vision and values to better align with and motivate Indian employees. A global pharmaceutical giant tasked its Beijing R&D team with creating a vision for how China would engage with and transform the global organization.

In Bangalore, a European consumer goods company re-evaluated its employee value proposition in order to gain an advantage in the city’s fierce talent market. After mapping out local values ands key employee pain points, the company launched a campaign to brand itself as a “best work-life balance” employer. This completely countered the city’s prevailing work model, which often involved a great deal of overtime and required employees to work to US or European hours and holidays. The bold move not only attracted and retained top talent, but also boosted the brand’s local performance among consumers, who associated its goods with its respectful practices.

Executive Representation

It is very difficult for an organization to successfully transition to a mature global model if those leading the efforts are not themselves globally minded. As organizations move through the stages of globalization, strategy and resource decisions should increasingly be in the hands of leaders in disparate locations, and corporate headquarters should serve as a center of coordination, not control.

  • Are all key markets represented in the decision-making process?
  • Are employees from the organization’s key growth markets represented on the senior leadership team and the board?


In order to change the old guard, organizations must be purposeful and work systemically. Some level of discomfort should be expected as power shifts from its traditional haunts to new faces and locales. Equipping current leadership with the business case, ensuring a strong cadre of champions for change at the top and removing structural barriers to executive diversity are all critical. None of this will work without a diverse pipeline to grow executives.

Talent Flow

As the organization moves through the stages of globalization, the flow of talent should increase, eventually becoming multi-directional as the role of headquarters decreases and power bases shift to regional hubs or dispersed business units. As regions get more decision-making power, the organization’s talent flow should become multi-directional. Intra-regional or cross-regional assignments become more common, and flow to and from headquarters becomes less important. The purpose of talent flow becomes more about building global organizational knowledge more broadly, rather than about a one-directional knowledge transfer.

Organizations should assess whether their talent flow is multi-directional and builds global organizational knowledge across all key markets. Locating key business units within critical markets and decentralizing power from headquarters is critical.

Leadership for a New Center

Leadership for a shifting center means that organizations and individuals will need to forge a path that holds relevance and resonance across multiple markets and conflicting value systems. The ability to change, shift and adapt without losing one’s own center becomes the critical balance.

Organizations that can nimbly navigate the complexity of a world in which the markets are constantly dictating new power bases and giving voice to myriad new economic players are those that will survive this borderless century. Old hierarchies that dictate how business is done and leadership is defined are quickly losing their adherents and thus, their relevance. The winners are those organizations and individuals who are responding with agility to these colossal shifts by redefining leadership itself

Individuals who lead from a center no longer defined by old borders or static identities are the key. Rather than losing themselves amidst the seismic shifts, they find ways to lead from a new center and transform their organizations to relevance in a complex, changing world.  

The Authors: 

Christie Caldwell is director of consulting for Asia-Pacific at Aperian Global where she is responsible for global talent development solutions for Global 500 companies across the region. Christie drives thought leadership and innovative approaches to support clients’ global talent development needs. Based in Shanghai, she conducts research and writes regularly on topics related to globalization, and leadership development for high potentials in fast-growth markets.