Managing in a Global Environment

For the modern day leader, the interdependence of nations and hyper-connectedness of experiences provide a source of great opportunities. Yet, these go hand-in-hand with great challenges, given the immense technological, methodological, social and cultural differences between nations.

It is important for business professionals to be able to embrace the wider world and recognize the value in cultural diversity, however appropriate leadership conduct varies widely across cultures, and in fact there is no one best way of managing in a global environment.

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Management styles and practices are diverse and characterised by eclecticism, however successful global leaders also share a common set of values.  They must respond to a multiplicity of management styles simultaneously, balance between global integration and local responsiveness and be simultaneously centralised and decentralized – all important elements of cultural intelligence.

The concept of ‘cultural intelligence’ can be explained using McKinsey’s 7s model of corporate culture.

This places shared values in the centre, and around it three hard values – strategy, structure and systems – all easily identified and changeable. The soft elements – shared values, skills, staff and style – are harder to describe and change. These are continually evolving elements of corporate culture. The hard elements and soft elements are all interconnected, with shared values sitting in the centre like a spider in a web.

The soft elements in the McKinsey model can also be described as Cultural Intelligence (CQ), the capability to function effectively in culturally diverse situations. It includes four elements:

  • Cognitive intelligence is knowledge about context specific facts, such as social, economic, and legal systems in various cultures. High cognitive CQ helps the leader to form more accurate expectations and be less likely to misinterpret cultural behaviour.
  • Behavioural CQ is the ability to behave according to different cultural practices, being able to use the appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviour in a specific cultural context.
  • Motivational CQ is the ability to generate energy for dealing with unfamiliar situations or stress associated with problematic interactions. This is an important ingredient for a global mindset and sustains the ability to ‘become comfortable being uncomfortable’.
  • Metacognitive CQ is the ability to comprehend cultural knowledge and how to select responses. A leader with good metacognitive CQ constantly checks if her or his actions are appropriate for a specific cultural context.

In an interview, Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault- Nissan Alliance, mentioned three global leadership skills that in a way summarise the CQ or cultural intelligence abilities: listen, learn and love. Be curious, open to differences, mindful and humble; be willing to learn, reflective, flexible and resilient; be morally upright and happy to be there.

The good news is that CQ or Cultural Intelligence is a capability that can be enhanced by training and experience, meaning that this should be a focus for educational programmes aimed at future global leaders. They must be equipped with the tools to develop this global mindset.

Some Master programs are already creating a cosmopolitan elite, by promoting global citizenship, with a particular emphasis on the pursuit of excellence with high standards of performance and ethical conduct.

These programs also need a practical approach through engagement with the corporate world, and aim at creating responsible citizens with reflective critical thinking. This comprehensive leadership approach makes future leaders fully aware of their personal responsibility and of the ethical and cultural frameworks in which leadership is exerted.

Early exposure to other languages and cultures is particularly crucial. So-called ‘third culture kids’, of mixed marriages, who have lived and gone to school in different countries and speaking more than one language, have a huge advantage. Learning another language means becoming aware of your own culture and worldview. It opens the doors to the world, to different global perspectives, creates flexibility and enhances CQ capabilities.

Student exchanges, internships and foreign assignments create this exposure, but will only be successful if managed well, if future leaders are carefully selected, prepared, and coached.

It has been said that cosmopolitans lose or question their identity. But what identity are we talking about?

In different contexts, different aspects of identity will play: I am a child to my parents, a boss to my employees, a tennis player, a concert goer…  We all have multiple identities that we can choose from in specific situations.


As Amartya Sen argues, “the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute”. All our identities are connected, and our individual identity is the spider at the centre of the web. Reducing a person to one ‘identity’ is denying them the liberty to decide which group they belong to in a certain context.

Crucially however, a global leader also has to be the spider in this web: connecting people, transferring knowledge, developing locally and globally simultaneously and always increasing their capability to function effectively and responsibly in culturally diverse situations.

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