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Personality Counts when Developing Global Leaders

Jun 1, 2011

Personality Counts

Many chief executive officers and chief human resource officers lament the dearth of effective global leaders. They routinely send their senior people on international assignments to increase their intercultural competence and assume that everyone benefits equally from those overseas assignments.

A recent study found that isn’t the case. Not everyone will “get it,” regardless of how long they live in another country.

“People with certain personality characteristics will gain more,” says Paula Caligiuri, a professor of human resource management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

She says, for example:

  •; ">Extroverts will use their social skills to learn more about the culture from the people they are interacting with. 
  • Introverts open to new experiences might be willing to try new activities and foods.
  • Intellectually curious individuals tend to read and know about the politics and history of the country they are working and living in.
  • Those with greater emotional stability will be more accepting of other cultures.

The quality of the experience matters more than the length of the international assignment, Caligiuri says. When isolated in American enclaves, employees don’t gain knowledge of the people and culture of other countries. She urges HR professionals in multinational organizations to develop “high-contact” cross-cultural experiences, such as assigning individuals to global teams to provide “significant meaningful peer-to-peer interactions and opportunities to work toward a common goal.” She suggests providing opportunities for those employees to “test their own assumptions and understand the limits of their own knowledge.”

Effective global leaders need greater cultural flexibility and a higher tolerance of the many unknowns they will face in working in another country. “Some of the most stunning, costly and embarrassing mistakes in international business were made because business leaders opted for solutions they knew from their home country over solutions that were generated outside their home countries,” Caligiuri says. “Those with greater cultural flexibility can substitute the things they know and appreciate from their country or culture with things from a different country or culture. Their receptivity gives them a distinct competitive advantage.”

Caligiuri and Ibraiz Tarique, an associate professor of human resource management at Pace University-New York City, conducted the two-survey study of 420 global leaders and 221 supervisors with funding from the SHRM Foundation. The participants were from 41 countries.

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