Building better leaders in a multinational future

Posted 18 April 2011 by

Can we make people better leaders if we measure their personalities and then try to shape their behaviour? If we can, does this hold true when we work internationally to build the talent pool of multinational organisations?

I am currently in Chicago and last Friday I presented a paper here to the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). I was one of a panel of experts addressing delegates on the subject of international leadership development through the use of personality questionnaires.

Nowhere is the need to understand the role of personality more pressing than in the area of leadership: good leaders at all levels of an organisation can keep it vigorous and competitive. As I and my fellow panelists confirmed to SIOP delegates, personality questionnaires are widely used by multinational organisations within their leadership development programmes.

At OPP, we have delivered such programmes on four continents. Recently, we tracked the locations of participants in these programmes who use our online platform to take personality questionnaires like the 16PF and MBTI beforehand. We found that these participants come from over 100 countries throughout the world and many of them take the questionnaires in their own language (we have around 25 languages available for both questionnaires).

Do these programmes live up to their promise to identify the best potential leaders in an organisation? I think they do. There are many studies demonstrating that the use of personality questionnaires can add significantly to the identification of leadership potential over and above the predictions that are made through aptitude tests and performance appraisal ratings. This aspect does not worry me. What worries me is the conclusions we draw from the results in an international setting. For some cultures, we may be encouraging or even prescribing ways of leading that are Western and not appropriate to influencing and inspiring colleagues in their organisation in their particular country of work.

It emerged from our panel discussion last Friday that approaches to the identification of leaders in multinational organisations are becoming standardised. This is understandable. We can all agree that MNCs seek leaders who will elevate profitability, spearhead change, increase market share and change the rules of the game. The competencies they need to display in order to deliver these outputs are now widely accepted. However, the ways in which these competencies should be weighted and prioritised for different cultures are less well understood. The optimum methods for communicating, building trust and managing conflict are bound to vary between cultures and we do not always take this into account when we apply personality measures and make judgements of leadership potential based on the scores.

The problem is exacerbated because all the measures we use have been developed in Western cultures. This means that we can easily end up comparing everyone with an ideal Western leadership benchmark. Thus, our methods encourage us to believe that there is such a thing as a global leader profile when almost certainly there is not. In non-Western cultures, the methods by which a leader optimally delivers creativity, builds capability through people, achieves a high output, etc are most likely to be different from Western ones.

I believe that in the next ten years, we can expect a transition from leadership 'skillset' to 'mindset'. MNCs will no longer be asking us to use our personality questionnaires to assess leaders against a single benchmark. They'll be looking to us to identify transformational leaders rather than transactional ones; leaders who are able to interpret their own and others' behaviour appropriately in different cultural contexts.

Here at OPP, we're looking forward to meeting this challenge.

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