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Transnational Leadership Counts

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

Christine Springer

Springer junePublic managers increasingly need to be able to operate worldwide, build organizations that have heterogeneous teams that recognize the significance of diversity and inclusion in a global environment and deal with differences on multiple fronts including diverse customers, employees, suppliers and stakeholders.

I recently completed surveys and interviews with 260 public and nonprofit leaders ranging from the ages of 33 to 67. Thirty-four percent were women and 66 percent were men. All of them held management positions that required transnational work. The individuals who participated were identified by their peers as leaders and asked by them to participate in the study.

What we learned through the study was that there are five behaviors specific to successful leaders:

  • Uncertainty resilience.
  • Team conductivity.
  • Pragmatic flexibility.
  • Perceptive responsiveness.
  • Talent orientation.

Uncertainty resilience builds on differences and complexity so that individuals are able to function in ambiguous and vague environments. Team conductivity works across boundaries and borders by integrating and connecting activities and ideas from where they are conceived. Pragmatic flexibility accepts and integrates other cultures, both from within an organization and other cultures, to be able to adjust their values to other values and norms. Perceptive responsiveness operates with a high degree of sensitivity to others’ needs and values enabling the ability of the individual to function through intuition as much as fact. Talent orientation focuses on developing other people as a key to success by being able and willing to take personal responsibility for talent development.

We also learned is that these behaviors are rarely all active at the same time in the same person, but that they are all important to transnational leadership. What is essential in everyone is the role of culture in translating the behaviors of leaders into global effectiveness due to their ability to accentuate and create a setting that is oriented toward achievement, self-actualization, humanistic encouragement and bringing the five behaviors together.

There were real differences between the best transnational leaders and those who function better in more local settings. However, we also saw numerous commonalities between the leaders due to both sets of leaders having a constructive impact on the culture of their organization. Both share a strategic orientation, vision, client focus, good people leadership skills, a results orientation, team focus, a strong moral compass, high personal integrity and the ability to adapt to new and unexpected situations.

Transnational leaders possess, at least to some degree, the following traits: strategic orientation, vision, client focus, good people skills, results orientation, team focus, strong moral compass and high integrity and adaptability. They don’t have to work as hard as local leaders at inclusion and diversity because they are unconsciously competent in the area. They don’t have to be convinced to try new things because they do so naturally. They have developed themselves to be natural innovators while local leaders often are conforming. Transnational leaders are not necessarily better than local leaders and in fact, organizations need both depending on where the organization’s focus and strategy is. One thing is certain: success is not possible if the goal is to have strong results globally or in a diverse community with a substantial number of leaders that have a local versus global mindset.

Diversity and inclusion are important. Most transnational leaders have moved from a conscious state of seeking diverse talent to a more natural or subconscious state of competence and building and working with heterogeneous teams  by recognizing the significance of diversity and inclusion, being able to deal with differences on multiple fronts including diverse customers, employees, suppliers and stakeholders. Men and women responded with few differences implying that women are as suited as men to transnational leadership roles. Successful transnational leaders embrace differences in every aspect of their profession and human values and principles. Of the transnational leaders that we spoke to, experience in a global setting has shaped the thinking. Their beliefs and behaviors are defined and refined as they recognize the power and synergy created through experience and immersion in different societies, cultures and geographies. The terms diversity and inclusion were used extensively in the conversations that we had with leaders and as one individual shared:  The terms are not the same. Diversity is the mix of people and things. Inclusion is making the mix work.

We heard repeatedly from many transnational leaders that they had early experiences that shaped and cultivated their transnational skills. Some had opportunities very early in life, even before they reached the age of 20, to live in a multicultural environment and to learn from people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We also heard from a smaller number (24 percent) who did not have these early experiences to shape their leadership style but were highly successful in the global setting. We found that these individuals, in their early years, tended to explore new and varied things. They introduced multicultural experiences into their day-to-day activities by reading diverse literature, enjoying music of various genres, attempting to learn different languages or seeking a deeper learning of history, arts and sciences.

In order to develop transnational organizational capacity, four actions are necessary according to the leaders that we interviewed:

  • Assessing and selecting global talent.
  • Developing the potential of future transnational leaders.
  • Accelerating current transnational leadership growth and capabilities.
  • Creating a nurturing and sustainable multicultural global environment.

In order to assess and select global talent, it is necessary to explore the five behavioral dimensions with employees and prospective employees by asking them to reflect on their formative years, describing their early activities, experiences and environment. By doing so, individuals will become more aware of their personal cultural, emotional, moral nuances and propensities.

In order to develop transnational leaders, offer international assignments and cross cultural exchange opportunities to high-potential employees. The earlier that these experiences are offered in one’s career, the longer lasting and more accelerated the development will be. Both short and long-term expatriate assignments, job swaps, internships and long-duration travel assignments should be developed that allow employees to spend time in unfamiliar countries and cultures.

In order to accelerate current transnational leadership growth and capabilities, traditional interventions should be elevated to deliberately changing the nature of employee assignments to ensure that they are globally complex as well as involving cross-border assignments that present multicultural and diverse team challenges and experiential events that shape and cultivate cultural sensitivity. By doing so, the organization assists employees with uncovering their values and take ownership of talent development rather than simply relying on the human resource department.

In order to create a nurturing and sustaining multicultural global environment, entry-level, mid-level and senior executives should be encouraged to take on new roles that they personally will benefit from and that will allow them to address risks through support and networking on the ground. Assignments in this area that generally turn out to be positive are those for which the organization provides support in making adjustments, either through assigned mentors, networking or on-the-ground leadership connections.

Having and developing transnational leaders within the organization is a critical component of success in public administration. Organizations must maintain a consistent focus on the issue of global talent, develop and communicate regularly on the progress and quality of talent, and make global assignments real career enhancers that talented employees aspire to participate in as a way to accelerate their careers.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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