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What makes a successful global executive?

Even established organisations often feel their strategies for executive development are inadequate.

By George Hollenbeck and Morgan McCall . 01 December 2001

Even organisations with long histories and considerable success in staffing their global businesses often feel their strategies for executive development are inadequate. This article, based on an in-depth study of successful global executives,seeks to identify the best ways of developing their talent – arguing that they are made, not born. 


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The authors found that the underlying development processes are the same for global as for domestic executives, but that the experiences they need and the lessons they must learn are very different. The article discusses these and what both the organisations and the executives themselves must do to make it all happen.

Most organisations, whether domestic or global, lament the shortage of high-quality executives to carry out their business plans. The War for Talent may heat up or recede with economic conditions. As a Hong Kong executive put it recently, “the war for talent has been suspended” – but few think the recess is more than temporary. Even if firms can hire enough executives to meet their needs, most realize that too large a cadre of outsiders creates difficulties. Most companies want to develop their own executives, recognising that behind most business failures is an executive failure, and that, if their strategies are to succeed, they must develop the executives to carry them out.

Staffing problems are especially acute when organisations are global. Not only are the jobs more complex and more difficult, but the supply of executives to choose from may be meagre and their experiences too few and off the mark. Those recruiting for a global job may resort to “who do we have?” rather than “who can do the job?”

Too often organisations’ executive development strategies are also subject to the fads of the day, the whims of senior managers, and the vagaries of this year’s budget process. The methods used can date back to when they were simpler organisations in a simpler world. Superior executive talent does not grow from such soil, especially in a global world. Companies need an understanding of global executive development in terms both of processes and experience; they need a way of thinking about executive development and of tying development to strategy and the key experiences that grow executives; and they need guidelines and principles that work. Our research in recent years attempts to provide this.

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