A new report from the Boston Consulting Group underscores a significant obstacle to the development of women leaders in global organizations: an imbalance of opportunities for global mobility. While women are slightly less willing than men to relocate internationally for work, BGC found that among those who are willing, fewer women than men are afforded the chance to work abroad:
Among the women we surveyed, 55% told us that they are willing to move abroad for a job assignment (including 44% of women in relationships and with children). Our research also shows that this percentage is not fixed: companies can take measures to increase it.
However, only a small subset of women currently get the opportunity to take international postings. According to our data, fewer than 30% of the women who were willing to move had actually done so, compared with nearly 40% of the men in similar situations. In other words, there’s a gender gap that companies need to overcome. If companies continue to assign more men than women to international postings, they will unwittingly be putting their promising female managers and executives at a disadvantage, decreasing the diversity of their future leadership teams.
Now more than ever, international experience unlocks doors to leadership roles in multinational firms, and while global competencies are hardly the only thing leaders in such organizations need to succeed, the absence of those skills can quickly derail a leader’s career path.
At Fast Company, Rich Bellis takes a look at an innovative approach some global tech companies are taking toward employee retention: namely, exchange programs that send employees to other countries for brief stints working with their international colleagues, providing them with an exciting and rewarding experience while also building cohesion within a far-flung global workforce:
Exchange programs don’t just let employees experience their companies’ work cultures. They’re also designed to showcase foreign countries’ cultures overall. Johana Leeflang is an events and community marketing manager at AppLift, a marketing data platform. She spent a month in Bangalore at the tail end of a six-month experience called the “International Talent Program” (ITP). Prior to going abroad, Leeflang spent five months working remotely with three international team members on a specialized ITP project—theirs was on corporate culture—which took up roughly 10%–20% of her normal working hours on average.
At the LSE Business Review, Ken Fireman stresses the increasing importance of global skills for leaders at multinational organizations:
As the world becomes ever smaller and more interconnected, the ability to train and manage an international workforce has become a key requirement for corporate success. But finding sufficient talent to handle this challenge can be a daunting task, one that requires careful planning and a significant commitment of resources. And it is not clear that business schools at U.S. universities are doing enough to meet the challenge by preparing the next generation of managers for life in this globalised environment.
The changing landscape is reflected in the sheer numbers of multinational corporations. There are now more than 100,000, up from 40,000 two decades ago, and they employ tens of millions around the globe. Some of the world’s best-known brands, such as Nestle and Honda, now have most of their operations and workforce outside their home country, which means more employees than ever are being sent on international assignments. Many multinationals are finding their greatest growth opportunities in countries outside the developed world, such as India, China and Brazil. …
But finding talent that meets this standard can be difficult, and the stakes are substantial. A survey of more than 800 U.S. companies in 2014 found that 86 percent said their overall business would grow if they had more staff with international experience, and 43 percent said it would increase a great deal.
A few years ago, CEB did some in-depth research into the qualities of effective global leadership. One of the most important findings of that study (which CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read here) was that although not having intercultural skills can derail the success of global leaders, the competencies that make a global leader great are actually many of the same skills that make all leaders great. Influence skills were found to be the most important for great global leaders, followed by skills such as vision, decision making, and resource allocation.
In other words, while “global” competencies definitely matter, if organizations are overly focused on finding and developing talent with international backgrounds, language skills, interest in travel, etc., they run the risk of not getting the talent who will really succeed in global leadership positions in the long term.
With most Fortune 500 companies anticipating the majority of their future growth in emerging markets, Tom Manning comments at Chief Executive that one critical skill missing in many American boardrooms today is international experience:
Even though most boards have directors who claim international experience, few of these directors (only about 14% according to the most recent Egon Zehnder Global Board Index) have either lived abroad or have led operations in overseas markets. Many directors are internationally savvy to be sure, but that might not be enough in the current hyper-changing global economy. Yesterday’s Europe is not the same as today’s post-Brexit EU, nor is today’s China the same China a director might have visited just five years ago. How much advantage might be gained if the board could better tune its skill set to match the future geographic profile of the company? Quite a lot, given the benefit of specific and accurate planning and execution in markets that are among the most dynamic and rapidly-evolving markets in the world.
Several quick tests would be valuable for American boards, beginning with the obvious—a check of the real international experience of its directors. Second-order questions are key, such as years lived abroad, languages spoken, frequency of travel, and current links with foreign business projects and overseas influencers. By estimating how much of the current and prospective business can be enhanced by more current and relevant emerging market skills, companies could shed light on the value of re-skilling the board.