What Does It Take to Develop Globally Competent Leaders? - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #541

What Does It Take to Develop Globally Competent Leaders?

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Most companies recognize the importance of training top leaders in global competence skills, according to a new survey of more than 300 HR professionals. Many companies, however, are unsatisfied with their leaders’ and potential leaders’ skills in this area. A variety of methods can help build multicultural sensitivity and other global capabilities. 


The annual leadership survey conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School was focused in 2015 on the development of globally competent leaders. Global competence is required for success as a leader in today’s ‘flat’ world, yet many leaders are weak in this area — and companies may not be training them with the most effective methods.

More than 60% of respondents to the survey said developing global competence is an urgent priority. Not surprisingly, there was some difference between respondents from national and regional companies and globally active companies. Forty-five per cent of national companies rated global competence as very or extremely important, while 91% of global companies emphasized the importance of global competence. Western European companies of any size were far more likely to emphasize global competence than American companies (92% to 70% respectively).

According to respondents from multinational or global companies, the most important global competence qualities are multicultural sensitivity (57%), effective communication skills (49%), strategic thinking (47%), the ability to influence others (45%) and respect for differences (44%). Ethics and integrity, flexibility or the willingness to change, adaptability to new environment, the ability to collaborate and decision-making ability rounded out the top skills required of globally competent leaders.

Many of the respondents lamented the state of global leadership development in their organizations. Less than 35% believed their organization had a strong leadership pipeline, and just fewer than 45% believed the high potentials in their organization were prepared to meet future business needs. About 50% said that their organizations had problems finding talented leaders for global positions.

While most respondents agree that global competence can be developed through training, such training seems to be more passive than active. For example, the two most popular ways to instil global competence, according to survey respondents who believed global competence was important to the success of their organizations, were through international travel and networking outside the organization.

Effective global competence development is more deliberate and experiential. Asked to list the most effective methods for developing global competence, the respondents offered the following:

  • Projects with team members from multiple countries (89.1%)
  • Expatriate assignments (88.2%)
  • Short-term international assignments (85.9%)
  • Global stretch assignments (85.9%)
  • 360 multi-rater global competency assessment (85.8%)
  • Formal action learning projects (84.6%)
  • Emotional Intelligence training (82.5%)
  • Access to a professional coach practitioner (81.4%)
  • Formal mentoring (81.1%)
  • Foreign legal, political, and economic systems education (80.4%)

International travel for business comes in 11th place, based on effectiveness according to respondents.


For many years, companies believed that sending executives on international trips was enough to give them the multi-cultural sensitivity to become global leaders. Today’s companies realize that developing global competence requires a concerted, hands-on approach.

Expatriate assignments can be very effective for developing global competence, but unfortunately, such assignments are usually reserved for a select group of individuals within the organization.

For broader efforts to develop global competence, companies should, according to a white paper based on the survey:

  • Increase the diversity of the company’s senior leadership team
  • Develop knowledge and appreciation of different cultures
  • Provide long-term immersion experiences, including extensive cultural learning programs
  • Give employees and managers the opportunity to work on cross-border projects and teams
  • Implement a job rotation process that allows people to move across geographic regions, business divisions and functions
  • Encourage and enable interpersonal and social ties among people who are based in different locations

The ultimate goal is to build global attitudes (e.g., respect); skills (e.g., collaborative); knowledge (e.g., cross-cultural knowledge); functional expertise; and behaviour.



Connect and Compete: Developing Globally Competent Leaders. UNC Leadership Survey 2015 (May 2015). 

Firms Lack Strategy to Develop Globally Competent Leaders. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School News Release (19th May 2015).

Compete and Connect: Developing Globally-Competent Leaders. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and Human Capital Institute (HCI). Webcast Slides (2015).

Compete and Connect:  Successful Navigation of Global Stretch Assignments. Horace McCormick. Podcast (June 2015).



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Idea conceived

May 1, 2015

Idea posted

Aug 2015
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