How To Be A Globally Connected Leader

Forbes | 19 April 2016
By Dan Schawbel

I spoke to Parag Khann, a CNN Global Contributor, bestselling author and global strategist, about the unique differences between business leaders around the world, why management structures in all industries are becoming flatter, his prediction for what the world will look like when Millennials are in charge, why you need both hard and soft skills to be successful and his best advice. Khann’s latest book is called Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization

He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. His previous books include Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance and The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. He has been a fellow at the New America Foundation and Brookings Institution, advised the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and worked in Iraq and Afghanistan as a senior geopolitical adviser to U.S. Special Operations Forces. He serves on numerous governmental and corporate advisory boards and is a councilor of the American Geographical Society, a trustee of the New Cities Foundation, and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

Dan Schawbel: What are some unique differences between the business leaders of America compared to other countries?

Parag Khanna: We all read studies telling us about the stereotypes of business leaders from different cultures: Americans are supposedly direct and pushy, Chinese focus on the big picture, Germans find it impolite to get into specific numbers at the first meeting, and so forth. But from my point of view, we’re experiencing a lot of convergence in management styles. Across the board I see leaders being more pragmatic, not over-reaching, focusing on results, wanting to learn about local market conditions and shared value.

What has happened is that most leading American companies now depend as much or more on revenues from abroad as from home, so they have to go global and be global. At the same time, local companies in emerging markets that want to expand internationally see how tough the competition is and have to professionalize and “walk the walk” to be taken seriously by investors. So there is a convergence towards some semblance of global norms of management and leadership.

Schawbel: Do you find that leadership and management is becoming flatter because of how connected we are as a society? Why or why not?

Khanna: Absolutely. The great business guru CK Prahalad said it best: “20 Hubs and No HQ.” Companies are learning to empower their regional and local management to assess how to best tackle a local market, what price point to sell at, how to market to specific demographics, and so forth. I’ve been writing about the “stateless superpowers” or metanational companies that best devolve their governance and distribute their operations, taking advantage of the 3 Ts of taxes, technology and talent to reap the rewards of globalization. We used to have just a few such companies but now they span every sector from energy and commodities to finance and consulting and of course, tech. This also means a new wave of leaders will emerge from high-growth markets and that’s exciting in terms of the ideas they bring to the global conversation.

Schawbel: What is your prediction for what the world will look like when Millennials are in charge? What type of leaders will they be?

Khanna: In many ways millennials are in charge! After all, the customer is always right, and they are the customers. Millennials decide which brands live or die. Surveys indicate a clear millennial preference for social value, sustainability, connectivity and tolerance inside and outside the workplace. Scale is a priority; local relevance is a necessity. This reflects a mix of being creative and ambitious but also no-nonsense.

There is a lot on the line with this generation in an age where entitlements are disappearing and self-reliance is a premium. Millennials know that failure can be a mark of courage, but in their minds they are thinking “fast failure” because they have to quickly get back on their feet. The financial crisis may have contributed to this sense of urgency, especially given the rising percentage of the youth workforce that is officially freelancers.

Schawbel: Do you believe that communication skills or technical skills will become more important as we become more connected and why?

Khanna: Both! My wife famously says that the two global languages aren’t English and Mandarin but rather English and code. In other words, we definitely need to be good interpersonal communicators and be able to converse in teams revolving around English. At the same time, technology is a also cultural milieu, a language of sorts that we also need to be fluent in for a connected world. Wherever you go in the world, there are rapidly evolving digital habits. These are like the dialects of the technological language. Already when we think of Japan one of the first things that comes to our minds is their peculiar relationship to technology. Soon every society will have certain ways and manners of interacting with technology that will be palpable and interesting, and which outsiders should learn to appreciate and adapt to.

Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?

Khanna: 

  1. Travel. We drown in second-hand information. There’s no substitute for the confidence firsthand experience gives you. Reality can’t be Googled. I’ve been traveling since the day I was born and am always mobile. Make sure you are capable of going anywhere the action is.
  2. Be clear about the mega-trends. What are the irrevocable shifts that will define the decade starting right now? How might they intersect with each other? Think hard and research, and align yourself with the inevitable.
  3. Write everything down. There’s no better way to de-clutter the mind and make sense of the whirlwind of life than to write down your spontaneous thoughts and insights. But make sure to type them up every day and organize them. I do this religiously and it forces me to constantly modify existing ideas and dig deeper into things I’m thinking about.

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