Cultivating multicultural leaders

If companies don't develop multicultural leaders, they will fail to build a sustainable global competitive advantage

Farid Muna argues that if companies fail to hire and develop multicultural leaders, they will be unable to build a sustainable global competitive advantage.



In today’s turbulent, global economic environment, companies can succeed only if they become more multicultural both in their business practices and in their choice of leaders. But what are the characteristics of a successful multicultural leader?

To answer that question, my co-author Ziad Zennie and I did extensive field research in a dozen countries in the Middle East. The findings showed that multicultural leaders are cosmopolitan and worldly, they have acquired the cultural sensitivity necessary to bridge cultures (even when working within the same country) and are able to conduct business effectively across national borders.

Unfortunately, however, such multicultural leaders are in short supply. As a result, many companies are handicapped not only by a lack of diverse and multicultural senior management at their home offices, but they send executives overseas who, while they have the right technical and core business competencies needed to manage projects or business units while working in their home country, turn out to lack the cross-cultural skills needed to conduct business effectively with other cultures and nations.

The right people

Companies that want to hire and develop people who will become great multicultural leaders need to understand how to select, hire and develop such people.

Our research, described in Developing Multicultural Leaders, shows that most outstanding multicultural leaders go through three distinct stages of development. At first they can be described as potential leaders, people who have acquired some or all of the early ingredients for leadership success starting from childhood. These people then become aspiring leaders, those who during their careers have taken some or all of the paths that are part of the journey to success. After a time, some of them develop into outstanding leaders.

Potential leaders acquired some or all of the following five ingredients for leadership success during their childhood, adolescence, educational years and very early in their careers:

  • Self-development: They exhibit an insatiable thirst and hunger for more knowledge and self-improvement.
  • Taking responsibility: They have assumed responsibility early in life (from childhood to their early 20s).
  • Ethics and values: They have learned (from early in their lives) to believe in integrity, honesty, hard work, respect for time and social responsibility.
  • High-quality education: They have strong analytical skills and are creative thinkers; they also have strong social, team and leadership skills, which are learned mainly through extra-curricular activities.
  • Exposure and role models: They are open to learning from others, from experience, from other cultures and from role models. To vastly improve their hiring of multicultural managers, organisations should select only those who have at least two or three of the above ingredients — in addition to other core business competencies gained through education and work experience.

Aspiring leaders also need special development; the key is to look for individuals who work hard, smart and focused; implement training and career development plans; engage in self-development activities; develop cultural sensitivity; have sharpened emotional intelligence; and learn from experience and adversity. These are the paths to outstanding leadership identified by our research.

Outstanding leaders are special. When it comes to finding these more experienced leaders (either from within or outside the organisation), it is important to look for those who have already shown potential for growth and more responsibility. Here again, when seeking candidates for such positions, interviewers must cover each of the five early ingredients, but the task is much more difficult because, although these leaders have had years of experience, past behaviour is not always a significant indicator of future success for three reasons:

  • It is difficult to measure competencies and leadership potential. As a result, candidates for leadership positions must be asked probing questions about actual (not hypothetical) accomplishments, behaviour and situations. In addition, references (other than those supplied by the candidate) need to be pursued.
  • Strengths and weaknesses in one context may not be the same in a different context, culture or situation. (For example, Scott McNealy’s high-minded resolve became obstinacy at Sun Microsystems.)
  • A person being assessed for a leadership position invariably wears a mask (or several masks) when being interviewed. The task of the interviewer is to discover what that mask may be hiding. In brief, I have found that early life experiences, exposure to other cultures, and a strong desire to learn from successes and failures are strong indicators of future leadership success. What is critical, however, is that — once identified and hired — these future outstanding multicultural leaders be helped to reach their full potential through challenging assignments, mentoring, coaching and career development plans. These strategic actions will go a long way to ensure that companies have the right multicultural talent pools for succession planning purposes, and will help them avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach to global strategy.

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