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Eleven key characteristics of a global business leader

How do you learn to conduct international business effectively?

Published: Jan 16, 2019 12:37:04 PM IST
Updated: Jan 16, 2019 12:39:23 PM IST

Eleven key characteristics of a global business leaderImage: Shutterstock

If you want to succeed in today’s volatile global economy, you must be prepared to do business all around the world. International businesses have operations, partners, alliances and senior managers representing virtually every global region. Many have more than one “headquarters,” signaling the diversity of their thinking and perspective.

So, how do you learn to conduct international business effectively?

You acquire a set of skills that help you work across regional, national and subnational boundaries to propel your business forward. Those skills include the following:

  • Overseas experience
  • Deep self-awareness
  • Sensitivity to cultural diversity
  • Humility
  • Lifelong curiosity
  • Cautious honesty
  • Global strategic thinking
  • Patiently impatient
  • Well-spoken
  • Good negotiator
  • Presence

Many global executives understand what doing business in a flat world is like because they’ve lived overseas, sometimes for decades at a time. If you want to become a successful international business leader, transcending your own cultural perspective and learning how business is done in different contexts is essential.


Understanding your beliefs and knowing where they might differ from others’ is critical to global executive success. Without this key characteristic, you will not be able to adapt to and tolerate the deep-seated beliefs of others — and business opportunities will evaporate. Beware of the “I’m right; you’re wrong” assumption.


Are you willing to eat raw fish? Snake? Raw monkey brains? Can you adjust your eating and sleeping habits to match the local executives’ routines and patterns? In other countries, seemingly minor things can be off-putting, such as sticking your chopsticks in your rice or touching someone with your left hand.

Much of this insight comes from experience. You must have an intense interest in the lives and cultures of others, recognizing that your culture and background are not inherently superior, to master the global business arena.


Being interested in other cultures and how people in those cultures do things, especially with regard to business, implies a certain humility. Humility here means a belief that other lands and cultures have figured out very interesting answers to life’s problems. As a good international business person, you must be open to and fascinated by those answers. This trait requires a willingness and ability to listen well and with real intention.

The world is constantly evolving. Without an intense curiosity and a desire to learn, you will be left behind and increasingly unable to converse, much less keep up, with your peers. Staying abreast of new learning opportunities requires a humble awareness that what you know is not enough and that you always have more to learn.

Surprisingly, the definitions of “honesty” and “truth” vary widely in the business arena. People sometimes omit information or only tell the truth they think other people need to know. However you design your ethics and morality in your personal life, in global business settings, executives need to know they can count on you. If you don’t deliver on your business promises, your reputation will suffer. Effective global leaders can balance the need to be cautious in different contexts while demonstrating they can follow through.

When you have a global perspective, you think strategically about managing business using the best people from around the planet. Much of your ability to do this comes from a lifetime of networking at the highest levels in global boardrooms and your aptitude for seeing how various pieces of global industries play out internationally. To make strategic decisions for your company, you need to understand how the business world works on a global scale.


How do you become patiently impatient? You must be in a hurry and yet be patient enough to allow the local and regional processes to unfold as they are meant to. Time and pace are not the same in every country. Balancing the demands of hot competitive and technological trends with the pace of local cultures can be frustrating to the uninitiated.

Given the challenges of working via interpreters or fumbling through conversations in more than one language, the ability to say clearly what you mean is a key global business skill. If you converse with others in their native language, you usually earn brownie points — however, if what you have to say is obscure or unintelligible, you’ll quickly be in a deficit balance. Clear communication is a powerful leadership trait to have on the global stage.

Doing business across ethnic, national and regional boundaries requires strong negotiating skills. If you can add these skills to an innate enjoyment of the gamesmanship involved in negotiating, you will become a highly effective negotiator.


A certain charisma surrounds you if you are an influential global leader. Part of it — but only part — is position or title. The bigger portion is dress, self-confidence, energy level, interest in other people and comfort with the challenges at hand. You may not want to believe these things matter, but they do.

As a global business leader, you must respect the identities and affiliations of others. Some people can do that; many or most cannot. Do you have what it takes to become a global business leader?

This piece is adapted from Level Three Leadership: Getting Below the Surface, by Professor James G. Clawson.


[This article has been reproduced with permission from University Of Virginia's Darden School Of Business. This piece originally appeared on Darden Ideas to Action.]

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