Using The Bench for Maximum Impact

179224573I was talking to a local sports coach who was worried about his team’s lack of bench-strength. During the season his players would get injured, ill, tired and fatigued, and he needed a strong bench to make it to the end of the season. If this is an unclear term to you, you are not alone. We realized that most of us in Talent Development talk about ‘bench-strength’, may not be clear what it really means or how to use it.

The bench comprises of strong and skilled players who do not start the game but sit ready to play when needed. A clever sports team manager tactically moves players off the bench and into, or out of the game to have an impact. Bench-strength is necessary for winning.

Players on the bench are there for a purpose. They come into the game at times when:

  • Players in high intensity positions are tiring.
  • Where the introduction of a key player can have an impact on the game.
  • When the opposition is weakening and specific players can take advantage of this to open the game up, or close it down.

Do you remember the term ‘First Team Players’ and ‘Substitutes’? The first significant point is that bench-players are not ‘substitutes’ who may possibly get a game if someone is injured. In the modern game, it is difficult for players in some positions to keep up the extreme level of intensity required in a full game. They are all ‘first team players’ and are rotated for maximum impact.

The second significant point is that a bench-player always plays at some point in every game. They have a specific role to play.

In Talent Management we talk about building bench-strength. What often happens is that employees are told they are in the Talent Pool, and then:

  • Have to wait months before an assignment.
  • Have to wait for someone to resign in order to get into the role.
  • Have few chances to get involved in high intensity situations.
  • And so get disillusioned.

What we can learn from the Sports Manager is this:

  • Bench-players are used as a strategy to give other players a rest, and so perform to a high level overall.
  • Players will tire, will get fatigued, and need to know there are other impact players coming on.
  • Players perform at high intensity for a given period of time.
  • Leaders need to know when to pull a player out of the game and use someone from The Bench.

A typical sporting team will carry a number of bench-players. This has implications for Talent Management:

  • Can you rotate your managers into and out of the game at strategic points when they can add real impact? Can you spot when this is needed? Can you move people in and out within your policies and processes?
  • The stress and strain of high intensity business implies some people will need to be rested for a time. Do you currently wait until ‘burn-out’? Is it seen as routine to rest people for a time? Can you do this?
  • Your bench is part of your key team. Are they included in the full business decision-making processes, or seen as substitutes in the absence of others?
  • Is your bench strong enough to play a strategic role, regularly?

Watch a professional team game, and observe how the coach moves players on and off the pitch, when, and with what impact. Don’t let your talent bench become the substitutes’ bench.

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Leading Authentically in a Curated World

This article was co-authored by Susan Tardanico.

When it comes to creating a personal digital brand, we’re all in.

As executives who also blog about women and leadership, we’ve seen up close the positive impact that savvy use of social media can have on individual careers and entire organizations. The opportunity that digital platforms offer to build and sustain two-way relationships in the marketplace is unprecedented.

But we also have some misgivings.

Because if we’re being candid, here’s the truth: We post things on Twitter and LinkedIn that make us look smart. We post pictures on Facebook and Instagram that show we are having the best experiences. We blog about our successes and the things we do better than other people.

In this era of personal brand building that is wide open for the whole world to see, we are very reluctant to talk about failures or fears. It’s hard to show weaknesses and vulnerability when we are trying to project an image to the world of a competent, polished, successful person.

The effort to create and maintain our professional image can be exhausting – and makes it even more difficult to be honest and authentic in person with the people we work with every day.

If we’re worried about looking stupid or incompetent, how can we say that we feel like throwing up every time we give a speech? Or that it took us eight hours to write a memo because we’re struggling with how to frame the issue?

The pressure to keep up appearances is accelerating in our curated world. It can affect anyone – and, when a big enough gap exists between our actual abilities and our perceptions of them, it can derail careers, as we explore in our new book Beating the Impostor Syndrome.

In our work as executive coaches over the past several years, we’ve found that many highly successful women in particular suffer from the Impostor Syndrome – a fear that they haven’t earned their success and that they will one day be proven to be a fraud.

The Impostor Syndrome doesn’t impact only women; in fact, about two-thirds of all executives we’ve coached over the past few years exhibited signs of it. But it is very consistently an issue with the women we coach. These women don’t call their issues “Impostor Syndrome,” but they talk about its symptoms: lack of confidence, not ‘leaning in,’ perfectionism, overwork. These behaviors emerge because they feel they aren’t good enough, they’re not the right fit and they don’t have the right credentials.

A highly self-motivated, over-achieving woman may feel like she has been under the microscope her entire career. So, understandably, she becomes hyper-vigilant about her image and keeping it polished – and that drives her farther and farther from her authentic self.

Anyone who has a deep sense of “I don’t naturally belong here,” – including people of color and those who are “different” in terms of economic, educational or cultural background – may also feel like impostors. The Impostor Syndrome, coupled with the constant digital curation of our careers and lives, makes honesty and authenticity a challenge. Showing doubt or talking about struggles or admitting to mistakes is frightening.

We have to get away from this mentality. We need to be able to share our struggles because those struggles are what help us become more effective, more compassionate and more successful individuals.

We don’t have to start baring our souls on Facebook (too many people do that already!), but we do need to start opening up to people we trust. We might just find that others – sometimes those, in fact, that we respect and admire the most – have some of the very same fears and challenges that we do. Talks with them can help us realize the flaws in our own self-perceptions. And that’s an important step in ridding ourselves of negative beliefs about our own abilities and enhancing our performance as a leader.

Many of us feel compelled to cultivate a strong digital brand that positions us for success – and that’s ok. These days, there’s really no way of getting around it. Just don’t forget that the real you still needs tending too.

Portia Mount, senior vice president and chief of staff at the Center for Creative Leadership, and Susan Tardanico, founding partner and CEO of the Authentic Leadership Alliance, are co-authors of Beating the Impostor Syndrome (CCL Press, 2014).

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Microsoft CEO Says Trust the System

“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.

I found this statement interesting, not because it was related to women and asking for a pay raise (that’s another topic altogether), but because it clearly demonstrated what Mr. Nadella believes happens in organizations. He believes that people get raises and are given more responsibility because they have faith in the system.

Really? Is that how people get raises and get promoted? Is that what you believe? That is certainly one perspective. And I’m not surprised it is his perspective, because he is a CEO.

His perspective is consistent with what I found in a research project a few years ago. In that study I asked a sample of 2700 respondents whether people get ahead because of their performance or because of their skill at office politics. What I found is consistent with the belief system Mr. Nadella espoused: People at higher levels are more likely to believe that employees get ahead because of their performance, while people at lower levels are more likely to believe that employees get ahead because of their skill at office politics.

It is understandable that leaders believe that they have achieved their positions primarily because of their performance, and that they believe others get ahead as a result of performance. At the same time, leaders need to realize that those below them in the organization do not have the same belief about why people get ahead within an organization. The lower you go in an organization the more likely people are to say that others above them got there because of their skill at office politics rather than because of performance.

If it wasn’t clear before, the outcry over Nadella’s comments makes it clear that leaders need to think very carefully about how they communicate regarding how people get ahead within their organization. While pushing a performance-based explanation is understandable, leaders need to realize that to many of those lower in the organization the explanation may be perceived as self-congratulatory, ignorant of reality, or deliberately deceptive. Rarely is it going to be perceived as completely honest and accurate.

Unless, of course, the leader explicitly adds that they believe a critical component of performance is skill at office politics.

What explanations for success in organizations resonate with you?

Posted in Talent Management & Development | 6 Comments

What was that all about? Another waste of my time!

Have you ever sat in a meeting wondering what the purpose of it was? Have you ever had a conversation with a manager and decided it was all rather pointless? Most people have at some time in their lives.

This got me thinking about how the CCL view of leadership can be translated into a very practical and day-to-day tool to help managers in their conversations with, well, anybody. CCL views leadership as a series of outputs; when you see evidence of direction, alignment and commitment, then leadership is happening. Stay with me, and I will show you what I mean.

What does this look like to a first-line manager? Let’s look at most meetings, they tend to run like this story from a new I.T. supervisor:

‘My manager told us of the problem, and then we dived in and started to talk about down-time, fixes, bugs in the software, ways of re-writing the codes, and so on. Half the team lost interest, and we ended up after two hours no further on than when we started!’

Here’s a diagram of what should have been happening. 

Goal:   Most meetings have a goal (or should), however this needs to be revisited several times in the meeting, and a check made that everyone is clear and moving towards the same goal. Stating the purpose once at the start is not enough because most meetings change direction.

Work:   People start to work on various tasks and look very ‘busy’, but this is often non-productive. This is where most of the time is spent, and most of the manager’s focus is making sure lots of ‘work’ is done to solve the immediate problem. However, people often end up working on separate problems out of alignment.

Climate:   Nobody checks that others are engaged, have a chance to contribute, or are even interested. People switch off if they have no part to play, or feel marginalised and ignored. It is a rare manager who asks people how they feel a meeting is going and ask about their commitment.

A manager who asks simple questions about goal, work and climate will find the chance of a successful meeting, one-to-one, or discussion, will increase.

Leadership is not all about a grand vision or a large strategic initiative. It can be seen in the little things, small meetings, conversations on the way to the coffee machine, and private discussions.

Makes it all rather easy doesn’t it? Or if you prefer, you could hear people leave the meeting asking:

‘What was that all about? Another waste of my time!’

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The obsession with getting half-way

How many evaluation sheets have you filled in at the end of a training event? I’ve been part of the training industry for over 15 years and I’ve handed out my share of these ‘happy’ sheets. I’m also increasingly confronted with our institutionalized obsession with getting half-way. I’m talking about learning transfer here. I’m talking about the gap between the dream of demonstrating behavioral and performance impact over time and the reality of giving ourselves high-fives on a ‘5’ star satisfaction score at the end of the event. I’m talking about how getting half-way just isn’t good enough.

The end game of leadership development is what leaders do afterwards in terms of their behaviour. It isn’t a halfway stop like increased knowledge – not even the very important self-knowledge-, or satisfaction, or a test score, or a certificate, or setting goals, or feeling confident we are capable. As important and even essential in the development process as these are: they are intermediate achievements. They are getting half-way. I just think we can do better than that.  Don’t get me wrong: CCL and others in the industry are providing a developmental service. As any service provider we should demonstrate the quality and satisfaction with the service and we can do so with satisfaction surveys and net promoter scores just fine. But as an industry we are so focused on doing that, that for a mixture of reasons and excuses the evaluation of the developmental part all too often remains rather thin.

What is stopping us as an industry?

  • Split accountability: The measurements of the ultimate yard stick are not within the scope of either HR or its training provider. In corporate training there is the heritage of a ‘belt line’ approach to development that we inherited from the education world. A university’s goal is to issue diplomas (again, a half-way achievement) which serve as entry tickets to the next stage of the belt line: the job market. Similarly the mental model in corporations is “we from HR get them capable, and then you folks in the business lines use them and make profit”. This split world view leads us to optimize sub-parts that in reality are neither independent nor sequential
  • Time horizon: There is the complicating factor of time. Typically the impact of leadership development takes time to manifest itself and has an impact over a long period– even for your next employer.  Satisfaction scores are what we can immediately measure.
  • Show me the money: Asking surveys about satisfaction (a poor indicator of learning impact) or intent to change behaviour (people are known to over-estimate their capability to changing habits) is very easy and cheap to do. Anything more substantial not only requires collaboration between stakeholders and requires patience, it also brings extra costs. I’ve never encountered a client who wasn’t interested in measuring learning impact – until it became a budget line.

So what will help us move beyond half-way?

  • Return-on-Expectations: I’ll state the obvious when I say we need to be clear from the beginning on what we expect the impact of the program to be. So if we’re after increase in competency mastery we can have a before and after 360 (eg CCL’s Reflection). If we are after more network links between leaders we can do an Organizational Network Analysis. If we are after more effective leadership behaviours we can use the performance review data, the engagement survey data and the input of line managers and direct reports.  I’ll go beyond the obvious by stating that if these expectations are not solely learning goals they shouldn’t be measured with learning evaluation. Being enrolled in a program with a prestigious business school might actually be more about rewards and retention than learning. If that is the case – measure it as such.
  • Interdependence: Over the years we have moved ownership of the learning process partly away from HR to the empowered learner. We will also need to move the accountability of learning from sitting squarely with the HR department or the training provider to a joint and interdependent responsibility of individual learners, training providers and the business.
  • Really finding it important: Ultimately we will need to really find measuring the ultimate impact of our development programs more important.  That means walking our talk and spending the time and money matching its importance.

So next time you receive an evaluation sheet, what will you do?

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Want to improve your leadership? Try sleeping on it.

This article was co-authored by Cathleen Clerkin.

Why should leaders care about their sleep?

For many leaders, lack of sleep is almost a badge of honor. At work, people mention how little sleep they’ve gotten, as if this fact demonstrates their effectiveness, dedication, or ambition. After all, what better way to get ahead of the pack then by putting in the extra hours? The current mainstream business culture reinforces this too, with round-the-clock demands: middle-of-the night conference calls, cross-continental travel, and constant interruptions. Yet, while burning the midnight oil may seem effective in the short term, research demonstrates that in the long term, skipping out on sleep is a sure way to damage your performance.

What impact does sleep have on leadership?

Sleep—or lack of it—can greatly affect your ability to lead. Neuroscience experts have shown that sleep deprivation impairs health, brain power, motor skills, and people skills—reducing effectiveness in decision making and problem solving in all aspects of life. For instance, sleep is required in order for the brain to consolidate memories and integrate new information.  Therefore, sleep deprivation can lead to poor memory, diminished focus and slower responses, making it difficult to make important decisions in uncertain and complex work environments.

Sleep deprivation also impairs mood regulation, often leading to anxiety and hostility, which can make it difficult to engage in the interpersonal processes necessary for leadership. In addition to mood and cognitive impairments, sleep deprivation has also been shown to have significant negative effects on physical health, including higher risks of accidents, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

So while putting in long hours may seem necessary to manage heavy workloads, in the long run (taking into account the tolls on your cognition, mood, and health) the better way to increase your performance and productivity is to actually work less and sleep more.

How can leaders get better sleep?

Research shows that getting an ample amount of sleep will improve your performance more than trading sleep for additional working time.  But what if you just can’t fall asleep? Fortunately, sleep experts have discovered a number of tactics that are effective at improving the quality of sleep.

Leaders who are ready for a better night’s rest should try these 6 tips:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule (going to bed and waking up at the same time)
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual to help unwind (take a bath, read a novel, etc.)
  • Refrain from using your bed as a workspace (e.g. no eating, arguing, texting, typing)
  • Leave bed if sleep isn’t happening (do something relaxing, return to bed when you’re tired)
  • Avoid getting revved up at night (no work messages, bright lights, caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine)
  • Exercise early and daily (avoid working out within 3 hours of bed time).

What if you were no longer sleep deprived?

Like any leadership skill, improving your sleep requires self-awareness and takes some practice. We at CCL would like to challenge you to try improving your leadership through getting better sleep. To accept this challenge, try out the following steps:

  1. Start paying attention to your sleep habits. How many hours of sleep are you getting? Are you well-rested in the morning? What helps you sleep and what hinders you? (e.g. eating, drinking, working) Try keeping a sleep diary to keep track of your sleep habits.
  2. Learn the strategies of good sleep. We’ve described some of these sleep tactics in this blog. For additional tips, check out Harvard Medical School, The Sleep Foundation and The Sleep Council.
  3. Make changes to your sleep routine. Use the information you’ve gained from learning about sleep and paying attention to your sleep habits to inform and change what you do at bedtime. Experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. Make sure you are paying attention to what habits lead to your best night’s sleep.

Remember, making time for sleep is not a sign of laziness or weakness, but rather, it’s a sign of strong leadership.  If you can’t improve your sleep quality on your own, see your doctor.  There are treatments and therapies for many sleep disorders.

We want to hear from you!

Are you ready to take our sleep challenge? Let us know how your sleep experiments go.  We want to know whether getting more sleep affects your leadership!  Which sleep tips work for you?  Which don’t? Do you have any secret sleep-tips you want to share with other leaders? Share your stories and experiences by leaving a comment on this blog post!

Additional Resources:

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation Infographic from HealthCentral


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Leading a Multicultural Team

Managing a multicultural team can be a rewarding experience, giving leaders the opportunity to work closely with employees from diverse backgrounds and offering the chance for personal and professional growth. However, operating a team with genuinely different people also comes with a number of challenges that must be overcome to create a productive work environment.

Leaders must be knowledgeable and open minded of different cultures to gain a better understanding of employees and find a way to help them work together as a team.

Breaking Down Cultural Barriers

It’s easy for misunderstandings to occur on a diverse team simply due to cultural differences. When people have different values and are accustomed to certain behaviors, it can take some work to get everyone on the same page.

Some cultures have a more direct style of addressing problems, while others prefer to focus on the relationship and take a more subtle approach. For example, the Dutch have a reputation for being very straightforward, while the Japanese are typically more reserved and formal.  Team members from these cultures may have to make an effort to adapt to each other’s style and expectations.

Time is another major issue that often causes rifts in multicultural teams. While Americans plan their day according to the clock, other cultures are often much more relaxed. Employees from such backgrounds may believe it’s perfectly acceptable to let a meeting run over the scheduled time period or show up late if they were in the middle of an important conversation ─ which is bound to upset those who prefer to stick to a strict timetable.

The phrase “time is money” translates well for most cultures, since money is a universal priority in the business world. If everyone on the team respects each other’s time as they would respect each other’s money, that can go a long way.

Forming a United Workplace Culture

Multicultural teams are often composed of employees who would rarely interact with one another otherwise. While their individual cultures should be celebrated, it’s important to shape a cohesive and constructive atmosphere for everyone involved.

Management should talk to employees ─ creating focus groups if necessary ─ to learn more about similar problems faced by workers. If there isn’t one obvious solution to these issues, it’s a great idea to ask for input on the best way to manage them, so everyone feels like they’re being heard.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Business practices, customs, and acceptable topics of conversation vary greatly from one country to the next. So while the behavior of an employee may appear inappropriate in America, it could very well be the conventional way of doing business in their native country.

Gaining a solid understanding of the key issues associated with a multicultural team will allow management to be much more effective. While certain employees may initially be viewed as difficult, lazy, or rude, digging deeper to explore their cultural norms can offer valuable insights that help all members of the team understand each other better.

Have you had an experience as an employee or employer – or even as a customer – where cultural differences affected a situation negatively?  Consider how making a careful and informed effort to overcome them might have mitigated the problem.

Posted in Culture & Diversity, Globalization, Leading Globally | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Talent doesn’t always win the game

What an exciting few months sports fans have had!

The Soccer World Cup, Rugby Internationals and The Commonwealth and European Games, all performed to world class standards. And it has got me thinking; it wasn’t always the ‘highly talented’ players who made the difference.

The German national soccer team won a fourth World Cup. The all-time leading goal scorer, Miroslav Klose, was an ‘older’ German player who most defenders decided was not ‘highly talented’ enough to worry about. Ten years ago this team could not qualify at European level.

The USA soccer team performed beyond their ranking and are now soccer opponents to be taken seriously. The USA team performed exceptionally well, with arguably few ‘world class’ players in the squad.

The Rugby Internationals have seen New Zealand’s All Blacks hold an unbeaten record of 17 games in succession. Yet reporters and pundits rarely talk about a group of ‘highly talented’ players.

The Scottish athletes and swimmers performed so well at The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A small nation against world class competition. We saw Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch beat leading world swimmers, and Eilidh Childs and Lynsey Sharp handle huge pressures to gain medals. Yet few of the Scottish team would be at the top of your list of world names.

So how do these teams win?

What many fans refer to is actually rather simple:

The German and USA soccer teams work on core skills to a high standard; they didn’t lose the ball very often. They were highly organised and had a clear and clever game plan.

The All Blacks show a superior level of core skills that they can execute at a high level of intensity which opponents cannot keep up.

The Scottish athletes work rate was huge in every event, and their training schedules were followed to the letter and for a number of athletes, in the face of adversity.

Of course, there are talented players in all these teams, but the message that seems to come across is this:

If you ensure everyone has a superior level of core skills that they can deploy with intensity, and maintain under pressure, then results will follow.

This seems to remove the reliance on one or two highly talented people who can turn the game or save the match. Look at England, Brazil, Spain and Italy’s soccer teams who had very expensive and highly talented individuals, yet failed to progress to the final stages. Of course, a few gifted individuals may have an impact, but a substantial number of very skilled people with a good plan will make the percentages work every time.

So where does this leave us? It leaves me questioning whether we spend too much time seeking to recruit and develop a few highly talented people, and not enough time and effort ensuring that the majority have superior core skills and the ability to use these under pressure and at pace?

Are we spending a disproportionate amount of money and time on a relatively few people? Would higher levels of core skills possessed by a larger number of people produce better results?

I suppose the easy answer is that you need both. But resources do not always allow for that and so compromise or prioritisation takes place.

Therefore, I am starting to wonder if we spend too much time focused on highly talented people when the evidence from recent sporting events suggests we would do better to develop excellent core skills amongst all employees, whatever their level.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Posted in Talent Management & Development | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Feelings of First-Timers at Fantasy Football Same as Leading Others #1stTimeMgr

Fantasy football isn’t going away, it’s not a fad, and it impacts work. A recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., said that 31 million working-age Americans are playing fantasy football, and it could cost more than $13 billion in lost productivity over the NFL season. But this blog isn’t about the lost productivity, or what you can learn about organizational politics or strategy from a fantasy football draft like in years past.

This year, what I learned from my fantasy football draft is the importance of recognizing the feelings people have when they are doing something for the first time, ever. Our league had a new person join us, a first-time fantasy football participant, Samir Mehta. He serves as the Digital Learning Products Manager at CCL (you can read some great CCL blogs from Samir here).

I asked Samir what it felt like to participate in a fantasy football draft for the first time, ever. Here are some highlights from the video:

  • He was glad he was invited to be part of our league and was really excited to participate.
  • Not being from the United States, football was new to him, so he didn’t quite know the rules or what was going to happen.
  • He was nervous, and didn’t know what it would really feel like.
  • He did a lot of reading and tried to prepare as much as he could beforehand, but about 1/3 of the way through the draft, he had such a great insight: “I definitely see many things that the experience taught me that I didn’t think about before.”

And guess what – for people who are managing for the first time (#1stTimeMgr), they feel the same way. They are excited to be “invited” into a leadership position. But it is new to them. They are nervous. They feel lost. They might read some things, look up some things online, but they really have no clue what they are getting themselves into until they are actually in the experience of leading others for the first time, ever. [tweet this].

An obvious response? Help first-time managers (#1stTimeMgr). Sounds great. But when a survey by said that almost 60% of first-time managers never received any training when they transitioned into their first leadership role, there’s a problem. [tweet this] So what can be done?

  • Actually give #1stTimeMgr help through training and development. If you are a first-time manager, ask for training, like CCL’s Maximizing your Leadership Potential program. If you are in a position to offer training and development to your first-time managers, give it to them.
  • Actually give #1stTimeMgr help with tips and tools. My CCL vlog on what it means to lead others for the first time and the white paper “It’s Not About Me. It’s Me & You.” How Being Dumped Can Help First-Time Managers give not just the research, but practical and applicable advice that will help first-time managers be effective. It’s free, so there’s no excuse – give it away to your first-time managers, or use it if you are a #1stTimeMgr.
  • Pay attention to #1stTimeMgr. Look after your first-time managers. Talk with them. Prepare them. Mentor them. Coach them. Develop them.

Together, we have a chance to help this population of leaders who deserves a lot more attention and development than they are currently getting. So let’s do that. Let’s stay connected and continue the conversation online through the blog or on Twitter. Write a comment below about what it means to be a #1stTimeMgr or what you are doing to help #1stTimeMgr. Follow me (@Lead_Better) and CCL (@CCLdotORG) on Twitter and tweet using #1stTimeMgr. Also, if you are interested in how our fantasy football teams are doing, or just want to know our thoughts on leadership and other things, follow me and Samir (@TheSamirMehta) on Twitter and watch for our upcoming CCL blogs.

Wish me luck this year in fantasy football (my picks are in the picture below). As a first-timer at fantasy football, wish Samir luck too. But more importantly, wish all the first-time managers luck at being the best they can be. Better yet, give them the help, development, and support they need #1stTimeMgr. [tweet this].

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Becoming Globally Competitive Leaders: What can China learn from India?

We need more globally competitive Chinese leaders who are able to lead not only in China but also outside China. With many MNCs’ localization strategies, we are now seeing more Chinese leaders leading in China. However we rarely see successful global leaders who are originally from China. In contrast, our neighbor, India, has produced a number of global leaders. Among them are: Pepsi CEO, Indra Nooyi; Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella; Adobe CEO, Shantanu Narayen; and many other mid-level managers.

I can’t help asking, why do MNCs favor Indian leaders (but not Chinese)? As two Asian countries neighboring each other, India and China have a lot in common: both are developing countries, each contributes 1/5 of world’s population, and the history and culture of both have profound influence in Asia. Plus, according to social psychology research, both countries are rated high in collectivism and power distance.

Moreover, in both countries, youth need to pass tough exams to enter universities, which often become their first step to entering either MNCs or graduate schools in the US. This is also the journey that the above mentioned Indian CEOs have gone through. China and India are the two biggest suppliers of foreign graduate students for American universities. While the Indian employees are climbing up corporate ladders in MNCs, where have the Chinese gone?

I shared some initial thoughts via WeChat, the biggest social media network in China, and soon the article got 20,000 hits. I found myself overwhelmed by comments from a variety of sources: consultants or ex-consultants, business school professors, leaders currently working in global companies, and scholars in other fields such as political science and history. Almost all of them echoed my observation that there are more Indian leaders in global MNCs than Chinese.  Many of them shared their hypotheses.

The majority agreed that to be more globally competitive Chinese leaders can learn at least two lessons from their southern neighbor.

  • Better manage diversity. Managing diversity is critical for leaders to be successful in the global context. In her book, Smoke and Mirrors, the Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar shared her experience in China. One thing she sharply noticed was how homogenous Chinese are. In contrast, she wrote, “We were a country of 22 official languages,… of lily-white Kashmiris and coffee-hued Malyalis, of fish-eating Bengalis and herbivorous Gujaratis. In our ‘Hindu’ country, there were almost as many Muslims as in all of Pakistan…” Indians are comfortable with diversity and naturally equipped with the skills to tolerate and adjust to differences. However, Chinese may find it difficult to blend into a diversified team.
  • Speak up more. In global organizations, the capability to communicate effectively is important for building relationships and getting tasks done. Sharing ideas not only maximizes team performance but also builds trust and credibility. In China, arguing is seen as disrespectful, and confrontation is often avoided. Hence, Chinese employees have a tendency to suppress their ideas, especially those that express disagreement, in order to avoid conflict. But being silent is dangerous because you may be perceived as incompetent, or even worse, having a hidden agenda. In contrast, in India, open debate is commonly seen in school and media. In the workplace, Indian employees seem to be more confident and comfortable in expressing their opinions.

Of course, some readers also pointed out that we should not ignore the “advantages” of Indians. The biggest advantage is their language capability, or rather, English mastery. In Chinese schools, Mandarin is the main communication channel. English, although a compulsory course, is not used in everyday conversation. Being unable to communicate effectively in English becomes a big barrier (at least a perceived one) that hinders Chinese employees from influencing others, building relationships and extending networks, which are crucial for success in global organizations. In addition, some researcher friends also argued that India’s colonial history, despite its negative impact, connected Indians–especially the elite class–with the Western world, and therefore Indians are more familiar with the Western way of thinking and doing things. In contrast, China had been closed off,  with rare communication with the Western world, until the 1980s.

Here are some suggestions for those who aspire to be the change:

  • Look at the long-term and help each other. Some Chinese choose to stay in or go back to China because they perceive a glass ceiling in global MNCs. I’m not against talented Chinese going back to the motherland, but we need leaders who will begin breaking the glass ceiling (if there is one) to be role models. In addition, the world continues to become more connected and globally competitive. Even local companies are in need of globally competitive leaders when expanding abroad. The future requires all leaders to be globally competitive wherever they are located and whoever they work for.
  • Develop a global mindset. Chinese leaders do not have to abandon who they are to be accepted by another culture. Having a global mindset means being aware of, understanding and respecting differences. It is an attitude or value that impacts behaviors towards others and ultimately, impacts leadership effectiveness. In the workplace, team members do not have to be homogenous to work together. Actually, managed well, diversity brings more creative and fresh ideas.
  • Be transparent and build trust. When language is a barrier, it takes more effort to communicate effectively. Hence, the fundamental trust beneath the language skills becomes more important. Be honest, even about the fact that what you say does not mean what you think; and use other approaches to build up trust and credibility.

I do not mean that China and India should “compete” in the number of global leaders. As Pallavi Aiyar said, these two countries at two sides of the Himalayas are like mirror opposites of each other. One can always look into the mirror and spot the beauty or ugliness on her own face. That’s why she asked, “Why are there not as many roads in India as in China?” And that’s also why I ask, “Why are there not as many global leaders from China as there are from India?”  Some readers told me to be patient, because it takes time to see the emergence of a generation of globally competitive Chinese leaders. Looking into the future, I certainly hope that my comments will be proven to be overly critical.

Please share your thoughts on this issue in the comments section below.

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