Leadership for a Tiny Planet

aug_2008_blog_pictures-world.jpgWhen I worked at HP/Agilent back in the 1990’s we focused mostly on the US market and a bit on Europe. Now my friends who still work there are making frequent visits to India, China and Poland, markets that were too minuscule to warrant any significant R&D budget, and certainly not personal visits more than once in a blue moon. Domestic sales for many international companies now make up a minority of the revenue stream.

These days it’s very humbling to live in the US and watch the changes that are happening on the planet. I find myself musing about the fact that England was the richest and most powerful country in the world in 1900, and that China will soon be the country with the most English-speaking people on earth. For the past 3 years most of my consulting work has been outside of the US, and I have mostly been working with people from Japanese companies in Asia, Europe and sometimes the US. As a result I’ve learned a lot about working in, and leading, global teams. I’ve started to think of myself as a global citizen first and a US citizen second. All of this has given me a different perspective on the volatility of any one country’s position in the global pecking order, a big change from the fairly sheltered existence I had as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Some people have the advantage of growing up in a multi-cultural environment. For example, today I met a guy who is German, but when he met his French wife in Spain 10 years ago both of them were speaking Spanish. They continued their relationship in Spanish until their first child was born, at which point they switched to speaking a mixture of French and German at home. Not everyone is so lucky to have such a wonderful preparation for the world in which we must now lead.

Leading in a global business environment is not all about cultures, time zones and languages. The global business environment has created an accelerating rate of change even within my home country borders. Many people used to work at one job for pretty much their whole life. For lots of reasons, people starting their careers today will have 10: 14 different jobs by the time they are 40 years old, and over half of employed people are working for a company where they have worked less than 5 years. And 25% of people have been working for their current company less than 1 year. I think a lot of this has to do with the rapidly shifting global economic situation, as companies react to changes in their market and the mercurial competitive demands of their businesses. Having a higher proportion of new people has implications for leaders, who must constantly deal with people coming and going in their teams. More and more, leading locally turns out to be impacted by global conditions.

Leading globally has turned out to be based on the same fundamentals as leading a team in your own backyard. Goals must be clear, communication is a top priority, roles must be worked out so everyone knows what is expected of them, and most people aren’t getting enough recognition, so dispensing sincere words of appreciation periodically does wonders for the self-confidence and morale of employees. My experience is that global leaders must also constantly extend themselves well outside of their comfort zones, eating strange foods, politely enduring unfamiliar behavior, communicating with a great deal of body language, and maintaining an attitude of curiosity and appreciation of the tossed salad of life served up in their work environments. It can be exhausting, but one approach that works well for me is to act as though I am embarking on a diplomatic mission as a citizen of the world each time I work with an international team. I imagine that everyone who comes in contact with me is influenced to have a more positive opinion of our global community or a lesser one. I pass out smiles freely, and practice three times as much patience and kindness as I normally have the inner strength to muster at home. I make a wish that some extraordinary magical encounter will transform my experience from a job to an adventure. And I set a clear intention to make a positive difference in the world, just one small pebble thrown into a gargantuan pond, but one pebble nonetheless.

Time and again my global leadership treks are the most savory part of my life. There’s something intensely magical about working with people from around the world. When I’m part of a global team I am filled with an overwhelming sense of being connected to every other human being on the planet. In those moments I feel certain that we will courageously overcome any threat to our global community by working together for our mutual benefit. (And then I watch the news and . . . well, my enthusiasm wanes a bit.) But I’m always ready to take another chance and believe that the people of this world can learn to work together to transform the planet for the better. Competent global leaders are required to make this happen. If you’re a leader, I hope you’ll join the global consciousness conspiracy and make the leap to the next level of leadership where what’s at stake is the future of our planet!

– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.


6 thoughts on “Leadership for a Tiny Planet”

  1. It is interesting to read this discussion in 2010. How fast to world can change. No one, in these post credit crunch days, would question the growing power and importance of the China and Indian markets with China still forecast to grow by 9% and 10% in 2010 an 2011 compared to 2% and 2.4% for what the IMF call advanced nations http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2010/update/01/index.htm.
    The world in most certainly shifting and this is very good advice for those project managers. How to manage the diverse and globally scattered and increasingly complex project teams is a real challenge for many project managers. You advice is a very good start.

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    Yes, so true! In fact, one hope I have for the world is that it will become unprofitable for countries to attack one another. Until recently, no countries that had “McDonald’s” in them waged war against one another (aside from border skirmishes and civil wars) since the McDonald’s were built, a fact that Thomas Friedman pointed out in his book “The World is Flat”.

    Global leaders have a responsibility to lead with the best interests of the global community in mind, whether they are governments or corporations. Looking forward to discovering mechanisms that can motivate them to do so profitably!

    – Kimberly

  3. Kimberly,

    I would like to add one other point. The relationship between countries is becoming less important. Consider the fact that there are 180 entities in the world that had revenues over $50B in 2007. Only 61 or those entities were countries, the other 119 were corporations.

    Now obviously this could all change, but in 2008 it seems reasonable to presume that if the 20th century was about resolving national sovereignty and capitalism vs communism, then the 21st century will be about how to regulate supra-national entities.

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    Thanks for your pithy insights, Andy! VERY interesting, and I appreciate your reading recommendations as I spend a LOT of time hunkered down in an airplane seat.

    I sure don’t expect China to easily rise to the #1 economy in the world with 800,000,000 peasant farmers. That’s a huge burden for them to overcome. And I don’t expect the US to sink into insignificance either. Like you, I look forward to the US being integrated into the global community. Personally, I will feel much safer when we are one of many healthy, thriving economies, and less known for “dominating” anything.

    – Kimberly Wiefling

  5. Kimberly,

    I’m interested by your take on the world becoming smaller. It certainly is. However, you seem to have been caught up in the current popular hysteria about the decline of the US. The facts simply don’t support this view.

    The world is changing and America is becoming more integrated with the world. If you’re interested, there are two wonderful books you might consider reading on your international flights.

    1. Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making by David Rothkopf

    2. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

    Wonderful and very enjoyable books.

    As to the question of whether America is declining, please remember that America totally dominates space and the oceans with the most powerful navy the world has ever seen and for that matter has the most powerful military the world has ever seen. Also, the US economy is larger than the next three economies combined (Japan, Germany and China).

    As to China’s rise, note that the US has a $14T economy with 300M people, while China has a $3.2T economy with 1.3B people. Also note that China is largely an exporting nation whose economy will surely contract significantly next year. China probably faces very significant problems next year also, but that’s a different story.

    None of this is to say that the world isn’t changing, it certainly is. Hopefully America becomes massively more integrated and less isolated.

    As for England being the wealthiest country in 1900, that is true. However, remember that since about 1880 or so, the US has been responsible for between 21 and 25% of the worlds GDP every single year. The only change to expect is that the US percentage will probably increase and Europe’s will decrease.

    Hopefully this is helpful and thanks, I feel much better now…


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