With global virtual teams becoming more common than ever, effective global leadership that embraces diversity and inclusion is a business necessity. Companies cannot succeed on a global stage without the kind of cultural awareness and inclusion that we call a Global Mindset – what could be simpler or more obvious?
But this year, our annual Trends in Global Virtual Teams report found that many team leaders feel they are not very effective at leading virtual teams, especially when colleagues are scattered around the world. And that corroborates a 2014 academic research paper finding that 39% of US companies fail to exploit international business opportunities because they didn’t have enough leaders with the necessary international experience.
I was recently involved in academic discussions when I gained some additional insight into how global business might address this problem: focus on self-aware and authentic leadership.
In the rest of this post we’ll explore some of those connections: 1) self-awareness is a universal characteristic of great leaders; 2) self-awareness is critical to being authentic; 3) authentic leadership is key to engaging “followers,” and 4) engagement is critical to high performing diverse teams. Finally, it’s documented – as well as clearly observable – that organizations with well-managed diverse teams have better business performance.
Self-Awareness: The Defining Trait of Global Leaders
Harvard Business School professor Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, conducted research which showed that self-awareness is the single common trait among effective leaders, period – global or domestic. Interestingly, his research demonstrates that self-awareness has that singular position mostly because it enables leaders to be authentic.
We developed similar thinking when we created the CultureWizard Global Leadership Course, which teaches leaders to translate leadership skills across cultures and diverse styles. A key component is the concept that Self-Awareness and Authenticity are critical for superior global leaders because authenticity is recognized across cultures.
The reason self-awareness and authenticity are so important to being an effective intercultural leader is that before you can understand “foreign” cultural behaviors, you must first understand yourself and your own culture. Culture shapes nearly everything we think and do. It affects management styles, priorities, motivation systems, relationships, and more. We’re all shaped in different ways by our experiences and our cultural backgrounds. Even two people of the same culture can be radically different because our individual experiences, personalities, and socio-economic backgrounds shape who we are and what kind of leaders we may become.
The more you know “who you are” in a cultural context, the more you can begin to compare your preferences to those of people from other cultures. You may even begin to realize that mindsets you previously thought were “universal” are actually a product of your culture, or your own particular experience!
I’ll never forget a meeting I had with a British colleague. Nothing about our project was going as planned, but I felt optimistic and told him, “I’m sure we’ll get it right. We’ll get some greater insight tomorrow.” He quickly replied, “That’s so American of you!” It turns out that Americans tend to be optimists and think of “tomorrow” as a “better day” in which things are likely to improve. Other cultures, like my British colleague’s, don’t necessary share that optimistic view and consider that tomorrow could be even worse!
When you begin to understand yourself in the context of the global picture, it becomes evident that other people feel as strongly about their own values as you feel about yours. This awareness helps you to see yourself from an outside perspective.
The Strong Connection between Authentic Leadership and Diversity and Inclusion
Meanwhile, research from Illinois’ Benedictine University identified a strong connection between authentic leadership and organizational diversity. Researchers found a strong relationship between “perceptions of the CEO’s authenticity and the company’s level of gender diversity and organizational inclusion.” In other words, if a company wants to have a thriving diversity and inclusion strategy, they must focus on building and maintaining authentic leadership styles.
This connects solidly with George’s work and our own ideas about leading multi-cultural teams, virtual or otherwise. You can only be authentic if you know yourself, your personality traits, your leadership style, and what you are willing to negotiate and be flexible about when it comes to business interactions.
To that end, we suggest mapping out your own values, traits, and important events in your life. This can give you exceptional insight into the experiences that have shaped your perceptions, reactions, and leadership style. Self-awareness may require “persistent and often courageous self-exploration,” according to George, but if you are secure in your beliefs and values, you can remain faithful to your goals and objectives while adapting or flexing your style to be inclusive of diverse perspectives.
The Link Between Diversity, Inclusion, Authenticity and Productivity
George’s research also found authentic leadership is the key to driving long-term business success. He wrote, “It may be possible to drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way to create long-term results.”
I believe this is true because authentic leadership can only come from self-awareness. And, as we know, self-aware authentic leaders who embrace diverse workplaces enjoy the well-documented business performance benefits that come from well-managed diverse teams.
A growing body of research is identifying links between gender- and culturally diverse workplaces and financial success. I’ve written before about the $12 trillion boost in global business productivity that McKinsey & Co. say can occur if companies become more gender-diverse and inclusive. Similar gains are possible from cultural diversity, too: a separate McKinsey report found that companies with more racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns that exceed their respective industry norms, and those who lack diversity are less likely to see above-average returns. And our own Global Mindset Index Study found that businesses achieve far more of their top strategic business priorities when they’re better at recognizing and adapting to other cultures’ work styles and behaviors.
Why? We’ve found that effective, authentic global leaders (who are self-aware and self-reflective) encourage the intellectual contribution of others, facilitate collaboration, and help colleagues be as productive and effective as possible. Superior global leadership has the power to inspire people to contribute their maximum value to a multi-cultural team, even if they’re working halfway around the world.
Self-aware leaders are skilled at inspiring multicultural teams to feel their best and contribute their maximum value to the organization. By carefully considering the best ways to flex their natural style to engage with others most effectively at all times, we think that authentic global leaders are more likely to not only embrace diversity and inclusion, but understand how to elicit the synergistic abilities of multicultural teams, boosting organizational productivity to a new level.