Companies often send executives overseas on the assumption that a successful domestic track record is a good predictor of success in the global arena. Unfortunately, such assumptions often lead to painful experiences for the executive and the corporation. The conventional wisdom among experts and global leaders seems to be that the best way to develop an individual’s global leadership capabilities is by posting that person in different parts of the world. Exposure to other cultures and other ways of doing things, the argument goes, will help develop the manager’s skills in dealing and working with people from other cultures.

While we agree with the logic, we also have found that the trail-by-fire method is not foolproof. Far too many executives going through such a developmental experience actually fail. They can’t handle the complexities in their work environment and fail to learn and build their capabilities.

Even when this approach works, it usually takes many years to produce results. Posting the wrong type of executive — the type who does not have the propensity to learn and succeed in global environments — can be a long, painful and expensive process for the executive and the company. Conventional wisdom surrounding effective global leadership development is missing a key ingredient. We believe this key is “Global Mindset,” a set of individual attributes that help a global leader influence those who are different from them. The three critical dimensions of Global Mindset include:

– Intellectual Capital, which refers to global business savvy, cosmopolitan outlook and cognitive complexity.

– Psychological Capital, which refers to passion for diversity, quest for adventure, and self-assurance.

– Social Capital, which refers to intercultural empathy, interpersonal impact and diplomacy.

Our research has focused on the meaning, measurement and development of a Global Mindset. Combining Global Mindset attributes results in global leadership effectiveness. Global leadership is best defined as the ability to influence others who are unlike the leader, in order to achieve an organization’s global ambitions, goals and strategies. The core of global leadership is a process of influencing a variety of individuals, groups and organizations from different social, cultural, political and institutional backgrounds.

The world is not flat

Contrary to what you may have heard, the world is not flat. Tom Friedman’s bestselling book argues that the world is flat because nations, communities and individuals are more interconnected now than at any other time in human history. While this is true, it does not mean that leaders are ready for this level of interconnection. As one executive put it, “The fact that I now know more about you does not mean that I like you or that I want to work with you!” While influencing people who are like you is not always easy, influencing people who are different from you is even harder.

After interviewing more than 200 senior global executives in the United States, Europe and Asia, and surveying nearly 6,500 individuals all over the world, we developed a definition of Global Mindset as a set of individual attributes that help global leaders better influence those who are different from them. Individuals with high levels of Global Mindset are likely to be more effective global leaders because of their ability to do three things:

1. Understand and interpret what is going on in a global situation by being better prepared to understand and interpret the signals and messages around them;

2. Exhibit high doses of flexibility, which allows an individual to see different ways of doing things, and which gives the individual the willingness to act differently in different situations;

3. Choose the right behavior and approach in different circumstances.

Leading with a Global Mindset

Leaders with a Global Mindset consider at least three questions when they enter a new environment: What is the game in my new global context? What are the rules in this game? And how do we win? The ability to answer these questions effectively results from a complex set of interactions among Intellectual, Psychological and Social Capital.

Intellectual Capital includes three main components. A leader with a high level of Global Business Savvy has sophisticated knowledge of the global industry, grasps how global customers behave and how competitors target their markets, and has a good grasp of country risk issues in global strategic decision-making. A high level of Cognitive Complexity requires understanding the complexity of global business and the ability to find solutions to complex problems. The leader with a significant Cosmopolitan Outlook is interested in, and has a substantial understanding of, culture, history, geography, political systems and economic systems in different parts of the world, is open minded and receptive to different ways of doing things.

Psychological Capital also has three main components. Passion for Diversity means enjoying exploring other parts of the world, other cultures, countries, and people, and different ways of doing things. Quest for Adventure means finding joy in challenging oneself, and thriving in unpredictable and complex environments. Self-Assurance requires a leader to have self-confidence, a sense of humor, a willingness to take risks in new contexts and high levels of energy.

Social Capital also can be divided into three components. Intercultural Empathy is the ability to show empathy, emotionally connect to people from other parts of the world, be able to work effectively with them, and understand the nonverbal expressions of people from other cultures. Interpersonal Impact lets leaders build trusting relationships with people who are different from them, bring divergent views together, develop consensus among different parties, and be good at building networks. Leaders with high levels of Diplomacy are good listeners who are at ease in conversations with others and who ask questions. They understand the local context by being curious.

Can leaders improve their Global Mindset?

The good news is that these attributes can be developed, but accomplishing this fully is demanding of both the individual and the organization. Intellectual Capital is usually the easiest to develop because it is heavily cognitively based and consists of knowledge and information.Social Capital is somewhat harder to develop because it is mostly relationship based and requires experiential opportunities for learning.

Psychological Capital is typically the hardest to develop because, as adults, our psychological makeup is already firmly set. Yet we believe that with the proper tools, global leaders can develop improved levels of the characteristics that define Global Mindset and succeed in international assignments through the interactions among these attributes.

Mansour Javidan, Ph.D., is Thunderbird’s Garvin Distinguished Professor and head of the Najafi Global Mindset Institute. Mary Teagarden, Ph.D., is a Thunderbird professor of global strategy and editor of Thunderbird International Business Review. David Bowen, Ph.D., is former Robert and Katherine Herberger Chair in Global Management and professor of management.