How to Lead in International Environments


It could be said that a vital component of good leadership is adaptability.

When we consider that the CIPD definition of leadership is “the capacity to influence people to achieve a common goal” the need to be adaptable is clear. Leaders should be able to flex their approach, so that they can communicate effectively with different people, and adjust quickly to a variety of environments and cultures.

In short, when it comes to leadership, there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’.

It is partly for this reason that identifying and developing leaders is such a complex issue: how will anybody know how effective they are as a leader, until they have been properly tested in a range of environments? Since every country has its own unique culture and characteristics, working internationally only adds to the challenge.

The general lack of effective leaders remains an ongoing concern for many organisations, despite a significant level of investment in highlighting and developing leadership and management capabilities.

If effective international leadership is a concern that impacts your organisation, the CIPD has identified three steps to help you start tackling the issue.

1. Define what ‘leadership’ really means, in the context of your organisation

Regardless of global differences, what specific styles of leadership does your organisation need: not only now, but for the future? What are the desired outcomes?

This level of analysis involves taking a look at a potential leader’s individual competencies, values, and outlook, then aligning these with the way leadership tends to happen in your organisation.

2. How will you train your leaders?

No matter how competent they already appear to be, leaders at all organisational levels must receive the right training in order to deliver on their objectives.

In an international context, this could involve familiarising potential leaders with specific custom and practice, as part of set initiatives that have been designed at local level.

While this can be an additional challenge for organisations in which leadership development is defined and supported centrally, an element of ‘on the ground’ knowledge and expertise will be crucial to success.

3. Align your organisational structure for success

Ensure your leaders are properly set up for success, by aligning your organisational systems and structures so that they are supportive of managers and employees who deploy leadership capabilities.

Defined structures, in which goals and expectations can be clearly understood, are essential to good leadership, as are effective performance-measuring systems – and of course, clear and regular communication.

A 2014 CIPD report, ‘Tackling the Barriers to Leadership’ sets out some additional obstacles organisations may face when attempting to develop its leaders:

  • Rigid, hierarchical structures can lead to slower decision-making, or even prevent empowered people from making decisions at all. Instead, a sense of trust should be developed so that leaders are not afraid to embrace uncertainty; itself a vital component of successful change.
  • Short-term, bottom-line focus, in which immediate results are always needed can lead to high performers’ ethics going unquestioned, in a ‘halo’ effect that sees management expectations exceeded first. However, it is important to ensure any frameworks for ethical behaviour and decision-making can be properly adhered to.
  • Individualism may reward high performers for achieving specific targets. Yet organisations should take care to ensure that performance objectives are aligned with wider company goals. This will help to sidestep directive, micro- management styles, in which all that counts is the blind achievement of a set target. As I read this part of the report, it reminded me of a Simon Sinek video that I watched about “performance vs trust” which is worth watching.
  • An ‘Us and Them’ mentality can value ‘sameness’ over the diversity required to lead effectively, particularly in international organisations. Bear in mind that diversity does not simply comprise differences in people’s demographic characteristics (such as gender and culture), but work styles and opinions.

In a nutshell, when developing effective international leaders, organisations must analyse, challenge, and be willing to adapt their structure and approach.

They must take their findings, and align them with a specific leadership context that both supports and allows for development of the skills and abilities they need the most.

If you work in international environments or have a particular need for French HR support, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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