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Developing International Management Skills

Some years ago I was working on a project for my company on how to develop international managers and I thought I would start by asking companies who had been doing it for years.

I went to Paris to meet with the French HR Director of a multinational oil exploration company and asked him what was the “secret” of building a truly international management group?

He told me “No secret, there are just 2 simple steps.

First – you recruit people around the world in proportion to your business, if 10% of your business is in Nigeria, 10% of your managers should be Nigerian .

Second – You mix them up. If they never leave their homes they never become international managers, send them on visits, expatriate assignments, put them in international teams and projects so they mix with their colleagues and learn.”

”What next” I asked

”Nothing” he replied “If you do these 2 things, in no more than 50 years you will have an international management group.”

It as still one of the best answers I ever got to my question – though my boss was not happy when I told him it could take 50 years!

His basic message was a good one – recruit for diversity to match your environment and build experience and common ways of working to get things done.

It takes time to develop a truly global mindset and management capability and, for companies relatively new to working internationally it can be a whole management generation before people with this capability work their way through to the top of the organization in sufficient numbers to really make a difference.

I think we can accelerate the process with the right international management training and exposure to international experiences – but a lot of management training continues to carry a very mono-cultural view of the world (usually Anglo-Saxon management theories.

What is different about international management – we talk about DCCT – distance, cultures, timezones and technology

National cultural differences are often the first thing that people notice but rarely the toughest one to solve, with the right mindset we can learn to enjoy and manage cultural differences quite quickly.

Distance is a bigger barrier – people are much more comfortable with face-to-face contact and the lack of this can have major consequences for trust and management styles

Timezones are a fact – there is no right time for a global conference call, we just have to be aware and adapt our practices to recognize this.

Technology is both an enabler and a barrier; it makes international management possible but can often get in the way of communication and effectiveness (think of all those unnecessary emails and conference calls).

An additional barrier is the sheer business complexity of large multi-site organizations – the subject of my book Speed Lead – faster, simper ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies

When we talk to managers about developing these skills they are often skeptical about the investment of time in training. When we ask them how they learned to work internationally they often tell long stories of the mistakes they made and the time it took to recover and put things right.

Our question is always – can you afford the time and cost of letting everyone in your organization learn by expensive trial and error?

Selecting & Developing the International Manager

The key question though is, ‘How does an organisation identify and develop its international managers for the future?’

This article looks at some of the issues involved in the selection & development of the global manager

Whether working in a ‘Global’ or ‘Transnational’ organisation, or simply one that exports to its customers from its home country, the successful international manager needs to have developed the competencies and personal attributes necessary to allow him or her to work effectively in an international and cross-cultural environment.

An environment in which they will be expected to interact, manage, negotiate, live and work effectively as individuals and in teams with people whose values, beliefs, languages, customs and business practices are different from their own, and in relationships where misunderstandings can lead to costly mistakes and even business failures.

Increasingly, organisations are looking for ways to develop their managers to handle this important dimension, and many are attempting to fill Board and other senior appointments with people who have a proven track record in successfully managing an international business.

The considerable costs that can be incurred when an international assignment fails means that organisations do need to develop professional and focused processes for ensuring that only the best people are selected and developed for such roles. Seldom is it possible to find a perfect match. A professional approach to the selection and development of international managers, however, can help avoid the problems that invariably arise from appointing people who subsequently become the ‘Missionaries’, ‘Mercenaries’ and ‘Misfits’ amongst international assignees, and who can do so much harm to the business.

The first step in this process should be to identify not the people but the competencies, motivation and personal attributes required for success. International assignments are so often filled as a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ with the most ‘technically’ competent and readily available person, and frequently someone who, until that point in time, had never really considered an overseas assignment as part of their career. Experience shows, however, that ‘technical’ competence, whilst important, does not of itself produce an effective international manager.

There is also the danger that, in their eagerness to take an international assignment or perhaps the fear of possible harm to their careers of being seen to refuse one, people will not think through the personal implications for themselves or for their partners or families. To compound this problem, organisations frequently offer inflated international remuneration and benefits packages to help ‘convince’ the individual that this is the right career move for them and leave them to sort out any ‘personal difficulties’.

Planned process

What needs to be done, therefore, is for the organisation to clearly define their criteria for success at international, managerial, functional and personal levels and then select and develop potential international managers against these.

Whilst there are international competency models that have been developed to help in the selection and assessment process, it is essential that the one which is eventually used by the organisation reflects both the specific or various cultural needs of its markets and the organisation’s culture, which sometimes can be in conflict. In identifying the personal attributes needed, it is also important not to assume that there is a single attribute (or personality) profile for all markets. For example, the person who is ideally suited, in terms of their motivation and personality, to work in one market, say the USA, may find it very difficult to work in another, say Germany or Venezuela.

Avoiding over-reaction

This assessment process should not be left until a vacancy arises. It should be ongoing and one through which people who are considered as high performers with international potential are identified as early as possible in their careers and then given the appropriate opportunities to develop their experience and skills in that direction. These should include opportunities to develop their experience and skills in that direction including the opportunity to regularly discuss their aspirations for an international career and, if appropriate, their family’s level of support.

Consideration should also be given to planned exposure to the international side of the business through projects that require them to visit and work for short periods in the organisation’s overseas operations, or with its customers. This would allow in-market senior managers to assess and provide feedback on how effectively, or otherwise, the person is able to work with the local team and in the different cultural environment.

Allow an informed decision

A further part of the process should be to give individuals the opportunity, with their partners if this is appropriate, to attend relevant country briefings and cross-cultural awareness workshops. This can help them more fully appreciate the opportunities and challenges of an international career and allow them to take an informed and objective view of what they might be letting themselves in for. In this way, there can be a process of self-selection which helps ensure that the people who eventually are offered and accept an international assignment, and their families are fully committed to it. Once committed in principle, the process might then include the use of international focused development assessment centres in which the in-company assessors themselves have a proven international track record and who can become mentors to people once they take up an assignment.

Having identified people with potential as international managers, and who are able and willing to take up international assignments, appropriate formal training should become an integral part of the process. Ideally this will include advanced management and functional skills training, and country briefings covering in some detail the historical, political, economic, social and business environments of the market(s) the individual will visit or be asked to move to. Also required will be cross-cultural awareness training to help them appreciate the values, beliefs and practices of the other cultures and how their own culture may be seen by people from the host culture.

Where appropriate, language training is also very important and should not be left until the person has to take up their appointment. Experience in this area shows that most people become so deeply involved with the operational task from the outset of the assignment that they can seldom find the time to acquire more than a basic social vocabulary in the other language.

In summary, a key strategic imperative in managing an international business must be to develop effective international managers. People who have the knowledge, skills, experience, motivation, personal attributes and cultural sensitivity that will allow them to create a sustainable competitive advantage through the ways in which they are able to interact and operate with people from other cultures.

The bottom line for any organisation, therefore, must be to identify, assess, select, develop and train their international managers against clearly defined criteria that reflect their markets and which fully support the international management needs of their overall business vision and strategy.