Today nothing is local and everything is global, but do your employees have a global mindset? Before you answer, picture the country (other than your home country) that’s most important to your business. It may be the country that is your largest market, or that is home to a major manufacturing facility, or that you believe represents your greatest opportunity. Whichever country you’ve identified, consider these questions: If asked, how many of your employees would name that country? How many could explain why (or how) it’s important to your business? How many have a basic understanding of the country’s culture? How many can speak that country’s language (or languages)? How many could even find it on a globe?
If you can confidently answer “many” or “most” to those questions then your organization is probably truly global – not just in its operations, but also in its mindset. But If you have to answer “some” or “a few” then I posit you are working for a local organization that does global business. The difference is more than semantic. In our information age, any company with a global mindset has a competitive advantage over those that do not. Just for starters, those fluent in more than one culture can be more responsive to customers and markets. And those that are diverse and inclusive can be more innovative and agile. Beyond that, truly global organizations can position themselves as thought leaders and influencers.
The question, then, is how do leaders who see an opportunity to foster a truly global mindset – whether in a team, a location, or the whole organization – do so? There is no one-size-fits-all design. (It hardly makes sense to simultaneously argue for diversity and unilateral thought.) But there are crucial steps to take that will shift people’s perspective and give them a framework for truly global thinking:
1. Educate on your global operation. Suppose you wanted someone who had never seen the Great Wall to know what it looks like. Would the best way to do that be to give her a pile of loose jigsaw pieces (without the box showing what the completed puzzle looks like) and wait for her to put it together? Even if she was highly motivated (and had all the pieces) it would be a slow, difficult process. And yet many organizations assume that employees will somehow see the big picture of their global operations and how the pieces fit together. Unless they are specifically educated, they won’t.
That doesn’t mean that employees need an MBA-level course in international business. But they should have a basic understanding of how the pieces fit together and the context in which decisions are made. For example, suppose you acquire an operation in another country. Did you do so to cut distribution costs? To gain greater control of your supply chain? To be more responsive to a major market? All of the above? What proportion of your revenue (or expenses) doe the operation represent? You’ll be better off if employees understand the contribution that the operation makes to the entire enterprise. Until that happens, you have no hope of getting past an us and them mentality.
Giving employees a sense of your global operation is also a crucial prerequisite for seeing the value and utility of the other steps.
2. Provide cross-cultural training. Once employees have a sense of the specifics of your business, it’s time to offer a broader perspective. The logical place to start is with cross-cultural training, because culture shapes communication, decision-making, motivation and every other dynamic of human interaction. Ideally, you’ll offer that training to all employees – not just to those going on expat assignments or working on a global team. That’s because the greatest value of the training isn’t necessarily in learning that Japan is a formal culture (though obviously that’s helpful if you’re doing business in Japan) but in understanding that people see and experience things differently. That awareness is crucial to seeing the value of different perspectives and to not seeing other ways of doing things as wrong. An additional benefit is that cultural awareness reinforces any inclusion efforts the organization may be making.
3. Decode the headlines. Politics has every potential to be a third-rail topic that many businesses are eager to avoid. That said, there are headline-making events that have real and sometimes dramatic implications for business. These events may be political (e.g., Brexit), political and/or economic (e.g., tariffs), or not political at all (e.g., natural disasters). Who better to help employees understand how these events are affecting a business than the business itself? Leaders can stick to the facts and take a neutral stand on the events while helping employees understand their impact.
4. Promote multilingualism. Fluency in a language – any language – helps us to communicate more easily and effectively with other people who speak that language. It also gives us insight into the culture and daily realities of other societies. For example, hyggeis a Danish word that doesn’t easily translate into any other language. It describes a sense of togetherness and coziness – important to the culture -- that includes friends, family, food, drink, light and warmth. You can find similar examples in most languages.
Given that there are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world, it’s antithetical to a global mindset to speak only one. And yet about 40% of the world’s population is monolingual. Because language instruction is both widely available and inexpensive, one way that organizations can help foster a global perspective is by encouraging employees to learn additional languages. A language initiative may take many forms, including making online training available, reimbursing the cost of classroom training, or supporting employee groups that give people a place in which to practice their skills.
These steps can all help shape a global mindset. But they will all be most effective if you explicitly – and repeatedly – promote the value of that mindset. When nothing is local and everything is global, a global mindset is a career advantage. It may be the career advantage of the 21st century.