the ceo magazine, leadership,
Christie Caldwell, Director of Consulting (Asia-Pacific), Aperian Global

The HR VP for a major US corporation leans across a broad desk on the 33rd floor of a glossy office building in Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial district.

“We basically have a leadership crisis here in APAC when we start to hit the director level. From this level up, it gets pale and male.”

“And it’s interesting what we are seeing. There are all the normal issues that we talk about with leadership development in Asia-Pacific, the gaps when they start moving out of local roles into more global responsibility. But when we look at our high potentials, we have this group of individuals who have gotten to where they are based on their ability to adapt to this very American corporate environment. Now here is this next stage, the role change into the director level, where we are seeing the ceiling holding fast – it is really a transition from management into leadership. When you hit this level, you have to be someone that others want to follow.”

 “But by this stage, these leaders have adapted so much that they are seen as inauthentic by those that they need to lead. They actually experience themselves as inauthentic as well. This makes it almost impossible for them to really identify with being a leader because they have somehow lost themselves along the way up this American corporate ladder. This is what we are doing to our talent.”

Systemic Changes

As organizations or as leaders, if we forge ahead in this new global century with the intent to maintain existing power structures, then we will probably fare poorly. The shifting economic center requires all of us to shift fundamentally with it, towards a reality yet to be defined. A new generation of leaders is beginning to wield greater influence in global organizations, and will eventually redefine the nature of global leadership itself. The critical shift for most companies at this juncture is how to position these future leaders in a way that enables them to define leadership in their own terms, and through this to transform the organization.

There are a number of systemic adjustments most companies can make that will better enable their new leadership talent to come to the fore. Organizations that strive to be globally relevant need a leadership talent pool that is effective within multiple disparate contexts. Rather than creating clones of the organization’s dominant Western culture, the developmental model needs to be truly global: recognizing the value of a broad range of approaches while rewarding flexibility and adaptation in different cultural environments.

Redefining Leadership

Defining truly global leadership competencies, as opposed to just steamrolling one leadership style across all markets, will create a more globally agile organization. Making these leadership expectations explicit will also allow organizations to assess what competencies are necessary for global success rather than culturally-embedded expectations of leadership springing from cultural bias.

Reviewing the current leadership competency model for cultural bias and global relevance is a good place for organizations to start. First, organizations should look for leadership models and behaviors based on truly global research and use this as a benchmark for their review. Second, organizations should gather stakeholders who represent the diversity of the companies’ global presence in order to conduct this review. Reviewers can then focus on the following initial questions:

  • Which of our current leadership competencies are essential for operating in a global environment?
  • Which competencies are relevant for our new growth markets and are these reflected in our leadership model?
  • Are there other competencies necessary for success in a global market or individual growth markets which are not being measured or rewarded?
  • Which competencies are only relevant in a particular culture?
  • How are these competencies interpreted differently across different cultures and markets?
  • Are there competencies which are needed in the current organizational environment but which will be less relevant later?
  • Are there competencies which will be critical to the organization’s future global presence which should be built now?

Transforming organizations to position themselves for relevance in a world where the center has shifted is the work of leaders who navigate from a center no longer defined by old borders or static identities. Rather than losing themselves within today’s global VUCA environment, they find ways to lead from a new center as well and thereby transform the organizations of which they are a part.  

About the Author

Christie Caldwell is Director of Consulting (Asia-Pacific) at Aperian Global, and coauthor of Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts (Wiley, Sept). She is responsible for Global Talent Development solutions for Global 500 companies across the region. Based in Shanghai, she conducts research and writes regularly on globalization and leadership development in fast-growth markets. Christie earned a Masters Degree from Harvard University, and completed a Masters Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


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