World Business Essays 2006: Leadership - Global leaders are required urgently

Heidrick & Struggles is an international executive search firm with leadership, consulting and interim services.

by Kevin L Kelly, global CEO, Heidrick & Struggles
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Increasingly, there is a cadre of globally savvy CEOs who are confident and comfortable wherever in the world they are doing business. Look at the names leading some of the world's biggest corporations. The world is their boardroom. Coca-Cola is headed by E Neville Isdell, a peripatetic Irishman, who has worked for the company in Zambia, South Africa, Australia, the Philippines and Germany.

The CEO of Alcoa, Alain Belda, is a Brazilian citizen, but was born in Morocco; Kellogg's CEO, Carlos Gutierrez, is Cuban; a Welshman runs L'Oreal; and the Brazilian Carlos Ghosn runs the French car company Renault after successfully turning around the Japanese company Nissan.

Research by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that of 250 companies in 10 markets over 18% of board members were of a different nationality than the company they managed. This figure will certainly increase in the years to come. None of this should come as a surprise.

There cannot be a significant company in the world that does not either compete globally or face global competition. The implications of this are particularly pressing and profound for business schools and MBA students. Business schools have to help their students acquire the skills utilised by these truly global leaders. In practice, this means that business schools must help their students accumulate the right experience in a number of global markets.

Given that only 25% of Americans have passports, the number of potential global CEOs likely to emerge from the US is more limited than you might think. Similarly, at Harvard Business School non-Americans account for only 33% of the MBA intake. At UCLA's Anderson School, the figure is 24%. There is a long way to go if the future demand for CEOs with global experience is ever to be met.

The second key element is leadership and motivation. "The reality in my company is that 30 per cent of the people do 70% of the work. My job as CEO is to get those 70% to do something," one CEO confided. Despite the profusion of books, programmes and advice on leadership, leaders remain a rarity.

The third factor for tomorrow's leaders is the ability to balance analysis and emotion. The best CEOs have a clear sense of the purpose and ambition of their organisation. They are passionate and clear, adept at applying analytical and emotional skills. One-dimensional analytical leaders have had their day.

The fourth factor almost goes without saying in a global business environment: cultural sensitivity. Research at London Business School concluded that companies require executives with what they label, global business capabilities, "the power to think, decide and act efficiently and innovatively in an unpredictable global business environment".

Nowhere are these more vital than in the corner office of the CEO. Global CEOs need to be comfortable with people and comfortable with people from a range of cultures. The reality is that country-specific cultures are still important.

The fifth element is the ability to make sense of complex market data and strategic plans. Plain vanilla number crunchers need not apply, but even so tomorrow's business leaders will need to be able to assimilate and act on a huge amount of data and information.

They need the ability to cut to the key figures and then act. The final element is staying power. The skills required of global CEOs are demanding; so, too, is their schedule. Global business leadership requires physical resilience as the air miles are clocked up.

This poses fundamental questions about how we prepare executives for leadership roles. The identikit global CEO I described is not simply the product of a two-year MBA programme, but the culmination of decades of development and experience in truly global settings. Such global savoir-faire is not easily acquired, but having it tops the agenda for tomorrow's business leaders.

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