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Leadership qualities for going global

Insight from around the world on the essential qualities required of leaders to manage growth in new markets.

When businesses make the shift from domestic to international to multinational organisations, it’s not just the structure of the business that comes under pressure.

Those in leadership positions must adapt and bolster their competencies to meet new challenges. Whether it’s dealing with teams in multiple locations, managing cross-cultural issues or sustaining growth in new territories, leaders face more significant pressure when they go global.

57% of business leaders believe that the mindset they bring to this challenge will determine their success, according to our own IBR research. Here, Grant Thornton advisers give their views on the critical qualities required of leaders to manage growth in new markets.

1. Strong communication skills

Before expanding internationally, leaders need to clearly communicate their vision and strategy for growth to employees and investors to get their buy in. Once established in a new territory, winning over new teams, local partners and clients is also critical.

Stephen Murray.PNGStephen Murray, head of audit and assurance, Grant Thornton Ireland
“Strong communication skills are imperative as global leaders. At Grant Thornton, we ask key representatives for all local member firms to clearly articulate the capabilities and service lines of each firm.

Strong communication greatly assists local member firms to advocate for existing and prospective clients to utilise the services of other global firms.

“The key to global communications is gaining an understanding of the language and cultural differences in other countries, as this can assist in bridging communication gaps.

As leaders, it is important to familiarise ourselves with the business customs of other countries and know our audience. We should flex our communication style when corresponding with other countries to facilitate communication at a global level.”

Pallavi Talavlikar.pngPallavi Talavlikar, IBC director, Grant Thornton India
“I believe the most critical quality for taking a business global is communication. If I have to go global as a leader, I need to understand the vision of the firm and be able to communicate that well to the firm I’m going to be in contact with, while understanding their requirements so that it is a win-win for both of us.”

2. Be willing to take risks

Very often the fear of missing out on an untapped market or a potential new revenue stream is enough to prompt leaders to leave their comfort zone and seek out international expansion. Successful leaders take risks to capitalise on unrealised potential.

Sridhar R Chennai.pngSridhar Ramachandran, tax partner, Grant Thornton India
“Everything is a risk. Even what you are currently doing is a risk. I’m sure there are hundreds of people trying to disrupt or do the same thing differently, so if you are not ahead of the curve, and if you are not differentiated, you will become obsolete at some point.

The appetite to take that risk is essential and if you don’t take it, you probably wouldn’t be in business in the first place. It is also a risk not to start trading or doing business internationally.”

Luciano Centanni.PNGLuciano Centanni, IBC director, Grant Thornton US
“One of the leadership qualities I think is most important is the willingness and confidence to take calculated risks. Often businesses are limited and nervous when it comes to expanding their operations. I think it’s really important that management teams assess their knowledge of operating in a particular country and surround themselves with trusted business advisers.”

3. Maintain a global outlook

As well as a general willingness to explore beyond existing markets, an understanding of the broader global context is invaluable to scanning potential risks and opportunities that may come from elsewhere.

Panagiotis Christopoulos.PNGPanagiotis Christopoulos, IBC director, Grant Thornton Greece
“Developing a global perspective into leadership can be a definitive competitive advantage in the future of business. A mindset open to developments on a global level can expose leaders to new ideas and broaden their horizons.

“This can raise leaders’ awareness of personal blind spots, global developments and opportunities, and make them work hard to ensure meritocracy, diversity and inclusion.”

Stephen Murray.PNGStephen Murray, head of audit and assurance, Grant Thornton Ireland
“Within our own global network, there are many mechanisms to build a comprehensive understanding and develop strong, personal international contacts, which greatly facilitates global discussions.

“Being an active participator in our International Business Centre (IBC) network is a fundamental aspect of obtaining a global outlook – providing insights into other global markets and practical business advice for exporting. Attendance at global conferences, monthly collaboration meetings and participation on global steering committees are powerful forums to enhance your knowledge.

“Strong knowledge of the global network capabilities certainly makes it easier to identify international opportunities within our existing local client base and also with prospective clients. GTi Connect is also a useful tool to gain an understanding of all member firms in the global network and provides comprehensive information that can assist meaningful discussions with clients about global matters.”

4. Know your leadership team

Where individual leaders lack international experience, a key priority is to find individuals with the knowledge and insight of previous global growth. Meanwhile, leaders themselves must commit to the territories they are going to and get familiar with them quickly.

Panagiotis Christopoulos.PNGPanagiotis Christopoulos, partner public sector, Grant Thornton Greece
“Companies in rapid-growth markets are well aware that their international expansion depends on global experience. Fill leadership positions with candidates who have experience outside their home markets.

“The participation of leaders in international projects is indispensable in acquiring global expertise. This, in turn, suggests that the processes by which high potential local leaders are developed, and international assignments are distributed should be integrated. Other practices include aligning individuals’ career goals with overall business strategies and investing in international learning platforms.”

5. Be willing to learn about the local market

An interest and respect for other cultures and behaviours will help leaders build relationships with key stakeholders and ultimately the market.

Sridhar R Chennai.pngSridhar Ramachandran, tax partner, Grant Thornton India
“You should be open to understanding what the other person needs. That humble approach is an essential element, to at least comprehend what is and is not possible.

“When you decide whether to pursue a particular opportunity or not, you need to be able to speak the language of that customer and be as approachable as possible. If you were to look at it culturally, the ability to speak those languages as well as the ability to connect with that person is critical.”

Melanie Frean1.pngMelanie Frean, IBC director, Grant Thornton UK
“Something that is really important is having cultural awareness. When you’re leading teams and working with colleagues overseas, it’s understanding not just what’s important in your market and your firm but also how people do business overseas, because it’s going to be different all over the world.

“If you can recognise that, learn about that and share that with your colleagues, I think that will be really key to building those relationships, leading teams and doing more business overseas.”

6. Cultivate curiosity and humility

Effective leaders exercise humility and are open to advice. They should be open to the fact they may not yet know enough and need to seek out further insight, advice and experience.

Héctor Bautista.PNGHéctor Bautista, IBC director, Grant Thornton Mexico
“The best leaders are those that recognise they do not know everything; they need to be surrounded by the most talented people in different areas to make the best decisions possible. In other words, be a good listener.

“Another characteristic they need to show is humility. How a leader acts is fundamental. Be ready to do the hard work whenever it is required and give the proper recognition to the whole team.”

7. Anticipate problems in advance

Realistically, leaders cannot be expected to the know every minute detail of all aspects of their international expansion. But they do need to ensure their managers are up-to-date on the specifics of their area, share concerns and can anticipate future challenges.

, IBC director, Kevane Grant Thornton, Puerto Rico
“More often than not, we encounter situations where leaders are frustrated by the many ‘obstacles’ they have to conquer to be able to start their operations in our jurisdiction.

“Usually the research into the new market has been done internally by the sales or marketing departments who are eager to close the business, without much involvement of other key players in the organisation.

“Often, it is only when the business is already transacting that they realise the steps they missed and the subsequent consequences, which tend to involve additional costs to those initially considered.

“When considering entering new markets, it is of utmost importance to contact local experts to obtain a complete picture of what it entails starting. This will always be money well invested.”

8. Balance tenacity with adaptability

Leaders should be prepared to work through the challenges involved in successfully reaching new markets and not fall at the first set back. At the same time, leaders need to know when to adapt their approach in order to achieve their goals.

Gabriele Labombarda.PNGGabriele Labombarda, partner and IBC director, Bernoni Grant Thornton, Italy
“Expanding a business across borders requires accurate planning and a clear understanding of the peculiarities of the target market. In an everchanging world, things often go off plan.

“When you demonstrate that you are not attached to one way of doing things, you free people to call on your strengths to find solutions.

“An open-minded approach, paired with a solid technical background, a wide network of relationships and a true passion for problem-solving, supports flexibility and speed in doing what needs to be done to accomplish effective results and deliver quality to our clients.”

Héctor Bautista.PNGHéctor Bautista, IBC director, Grant Thornton Mexico
“Having the right balance of determination and creativity is very important in international growth.

“You may find sometimes there are setbacks when working on international engagements. You need to find ways to solve problems creatively.

“Understand the culture and customs of the people involved in the project and encourage them to persevere to reach the goal. You also need to show determination, support the team in many different ways, make the right moves and be accountable in every way.”

Linda Karlsson.PNGLinda Karlsson, partner assurance and IBC director, Grant Thornton Sweden
“In my experience, one of the most important qualities to succeed in international businesses is to balance your initial business idea and goals while adapting to different situations, markets, business cultures, behaviours, challenges and opportunities.

“One thing is quite certain when you go beyond your local market; things will not work the same way and your business will need to adapt to new circumstances to succeed."

9. Stay focused on the long term

Successful businesses know that it takes some time to reap rewards when expanding into international markets. Leaders require discipline to stay the course and not be distracted by projects that do not support the business strategy.

T_Braun.pngTimothy Braun, partner audit and assurance, Grant Thornton Singapore
“Having an appropriate vision of where to take the business is important. In Singapore, and South East Asia in general, there are so many opportunities that you need to be very focused on the company’s vision to make sure you are making the right decisions.

“When you look at other more saturated markets where the opportunities are more limited, it's often more about doing things a little differently or being in the right place at the right time.

“Here things are changing at such a rapid pace that you need a very long-term focus and vision to make sure you are taking advantage of those opportunities but also being very strategic.

“We see some businesses that come in and try to go for those short-term, overnight gains: but those are organisations that rarely succeed.”

Carl Williams.pngCarl Williams, North West managing partner, Grant Thornton UK
“It’s about authenticity, passion and relentless focus on execution: the top businesspeople I have spoken to have absolute focus and great deal of passion for what they do.”


Sonia Lenzi.PNGSonia Lenzi, IBC director, Ria Grant Thornton, Italy
“The most critical attitude for leaders to work globally is to have energy, vision, ambition, be bold and dream big.”

10. Treat your people well

The ability to reach out to new customers and build reputations in new destinations is often preceded by engaging the people you bring into your business. Treating staff with respect and equality is reflected in the way external stakeholders perceive your business.

Hisham Farouk.PNGHisham Farouk, Chief Executive Officer of Grant Thornton United Arab Emirates
“From a personal perspective, and I think the best leaders have this view as well, that people drive businesses: they should always come first. It is not just about building your business around people, it’s also important that your inclusive and treat everyone equally.

"This is one of the fascinating lessons you learn when living in Dubai: when you are dealing with so many nationalities and diverse cultures, you can get lost in the nuances, but broadly speaking everyone is generally understanding and happy to explain the nuances when required, so you actually end up better informed and have a greater appreciation and respect for other cultures.

"If you treat everyone with that sense sincerity and equality, regardless of gender, regardless of ethnicity, you realise that everybody rises above their cultural differences and everyone operates at that level. And that is why Dubai works so well and is one of the most popular destinations”

11. Listen to your customers

Ultimately, leaders need to listen to their clients, both domestically and internationally. It is only through speaking to clients at the outset, gaining their insight, their wants and their fears, that you can determine a product or service that fits them. Only by continuing to listen to them can you adapt your proposition and sustain your business over time.

, IBC director, Grant Thornton UK
“For me the most critical quality that a leader needs to have in terms of going global and helping clients go global is listening to clients.

“It’s as simple as that because if we understand what our clients' priorities are and make that our priority, we can help our clients achieve what they want to achieve.”

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