All over the world, managers are telling their employees they need to think globally. This makes sense, considering technology effectively has shrunk the world to roughly the size of your average office building. However, simply telling your employees they need to think globally and expecting them to magically do so is unrealistic. It's a little like telling them to think like citizens of Barcelona and expecting them to speak perfect Spanish without any language lessons.
Getting your organization's employees to think globally isn’t as easy as it sounds, and it isn't something they'll be able to do overnight. It requires a new set of skills and a new mindset. It requires business acumen.
Business acumen—or a business mindset—puts aside the technical abilities so many employees rely on and focuses on the other types of skills required to be successful in business—such as communication, leadership, and an ability to think strategically. These skills are becoming increasingly vital to worldwide organizations as the task of operating in the global marketplace creates so many unique challenges.
In a study by the Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, Fortune 500 CEOs from around the world said 75 percent of long-term success in business depends on people skills, and only 25 percent on actual technical ability, according to a 2005 article, "Realizing the Promise of Performance Improvement," in Viewpoint Solutions. Despite such overwhelming acknowledgement of the need for business skills, too many organizations fail to take active steps toward developing these skills in their employees. Here are five key skills and knowledge areas training managers in global organizations should focus on when building training programs for their employees:
1. A Business Mindset
Whenever the word "global" is introduced into a situation, everything tends to get ramped up, most notably budgets and stress levels. Therefore, it is essential your employees not only understand your business' main objectives, but how their individual projects align with those objectives. This may sound obvious, but it's really not.
According to a recent Harvard Business Review article cited by Success Factors, research shows that 37 percent of employee activity is not aligned with overall business strategy. That represents a great deal of time and energy going toward endeavors that don’t contribute to the furthering of your brand or the improvement of your bottom line. With bigger budgets and tighter deadlines than ever, can your business afford such day-to-day inefficiencies?
It's particularly important not to leave your technical employees out of this discussion. Often, organizations are too willing to permit their technical experts to remain firmly encamped in the organization’s technical silo and leave business concerns to others. This is becoming an increasingly flawed practice. According to Gartner's 2005 report on the IT professional outlook, 60 percent of IT employees will assume business-facing roles by 2010.
You should train all of your employees to adopt a business mindset, because, more than likely, they'll all eventually face business-related challenges in their day-to-day work.
2. Communication Skills
In a recent poll by the Computing Technology Industry Association, 28 percent of 1,000 participants identified poor communication as their main reason for project failure, according to "Deliverables—Top 9 Causes for Project Failure," PM Network, July 2007. Too often, essential information regarding messages, goals, and objectives is communicated badly—or sometimes not at all.
As you know, good, effective communication is difficult to accomplish under the best of circumstances. Now, bring global complications into the mix—time zones, language barriers, cultural differences, foreign currency fluctuations. A professional who not only understands his or her organization's business objectives, but also can effectively and persuasively communicate those objectives to colleagues, superiors, and stakeholders around the globe, is far more likely to lead his or her projects through the minefield of potential complications and on to success.
3. Strategic/Critical Thinking Skills
Strategic, critical thinkers can analyze a problem from every angle and develop innovative solutions with an understanding of them from top to bottom. This skill is particularly effective in dealing with issues of change management. Change—which seems to be the only true constant in global business—can wreak havoc on individual projects and entire organizations. With a little training in critical thinking, your employees can adapt to and leverage everything from small changes such as new software, processes, and outsourcing ventures to big changes such as mergers and acquisitions and the continued globalization of your business.
4. Collaboration and Cooperation
In many ways, the three key areas above—a business mindset, communication, and critical thinking skills—all lead perfectly into this fourth skill, the ability to collaborate and cooperate with others. There are few successful lone wolves in today's business world—and virtually none on the global landscape. Whether individuals have a natural proclivity for working in groups or prefer to hide out in their own cubes, formal training in communication and teambuilding skills, conflict resolution, and negotiation will arm them with strategies and techniques for working together and achieving the maximum output from their teams.
One important element of collaboration is the practice of coaching and mentoring. A recent two-year study of more than 750 corporations by Bersin & Associates revealed that coaching and mentoring, which task more experienced employees with helping their less experienced counterparts learn the business, is the most effective process in the entire discipline of talent management, according to "Managers Lose Talent When They Neglect to Coach Their Staff," WSJ.com, March 19, 2007. This is a particularly valuable tool for large, global organizations where employees, due to expansive and often geographically dispersed organizational charts, may have little face time with their supervisors.
5. Individual Expertise
Everything in this article thus far points to a pronounced shift away from strictly technical personnel in global organizations. This may be true in theory, but it doesn't mean there is now less of a need for technology-skilled workers. In fact, organizations are looking for more. The difference is in how they apply those skills. So, although it may go without saying, global organizations must continue to give their employees the opportunity—mainly through training—to become experts at their respective fields, be they computer programmers, project managers, or systems analysts. That training must be conducted in coordination with training in the aforementioned soft skills. To put it simply, your IT project managers still need to understand risk management and cost planning, and they will need to discuss it with their colleagues in the marketing department—colleagues who may happen to live in another country.
Thinking Like Global Professionals
Like any initiative that necessitates a change of behavior and mindset, success requires more than talk. It requires action—in the form of a comprehensive, company-sponsored training initiative. Regardless of its size, your organization probably is looking to extend its reach further around the world. Give your employees the training they need to accomplish this, and more.
Sidebar: What Are Business Skills?
Business skills often are discussed in general terms, and words such as "soft skills" and "people skills" are used liberally. But what exactly are business skills? Below are various tasks related to business acumen that your global-thinking employees must be able to successfully perform. The fate of your organization's biggest projects depends on it.
• Deliver presentations to stakeholders.
• Write clear, informative memos and e-mails.
• Communicate technical information to non-technical professionals.
• Work successfully in a virtual team.
• Understand different communication styles and adjust accordingly.
• Work and communicate directly with customers.
• Develop a comprehensive project budget.
• Read and understand financial statements.
• Track financial success against clearly defined benchmarks.
• Make sound business decisions.
• Lead a team of cross-functional employees.
• Effectively delegate work.
• Provide constructive feedback.
• Coach other employees.
• Facilitate productive meetings.
• Correctly identify the root cause of problems.
• Uncover underlying assumptions.
• Tie individual work to organizational objectives.
• Develop innovative solutions to complex problems.
• Participate proactively in organizational change.
Julie Zinn, executive director of project management and business skills programs at ESI International, has a background in management, human resources development, and corporate training. She holds bachelor’s degrees in music and business from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on human resources development from The George Washington University. She also earned a Master's Certificate in Project Management from The George Washington University and a training specialist certificate from The Georgetown University. For more information, visit www.esi-intl.com.