Do international assignments help shape leadership style?

Embracing the lessons learned from international assignments can make leaders more adaptable, inclusive and effective when it comes to leading teams in our interconnected world.

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In today’s globalised world, international assignments have become increasingly common for professionals seeking to broaden their horizons and advance their careers. These assignments involve working in a different cultural and business environment, which can significantly influence an individual’s leadership style.

According to Sunil Ranjhan, senior VP and director, HR & MS, LG Electronics, international assignments present specific challenges and opportunities that influence leadership styles. Cultural flexibility, learnability, humility, quality of work, and management of diversity are critical factors for success. Leaders must respect cultural sensitivities, adapt to new environments, be humble yet assertive, deliver high-quality work and embrace diversity. 

Ranjith Menon, SVP and global HR executive, Hinduja Global Solutions, says, “International assignments present both challenges and opportunities for developing leadership skills. The specific challenges include adapting to new environments, cultural differences and unfamiliar business practices. On the other hand, international assignments offer opportunities to gain diverse perspectives, enhance cross-cultural communication skills and develop a global mindset.”

“The specific challenges include adapting to new environments, cultural differences and unfamiliar business practices. On the other hand, international assignments offer opportunities to gain diverse perspectives, enhance cross-cultural communication skills and develop a global mindset.”

Ranjith Menon, SVP and global HR executive, Hinduja Global Solutions

Cultural adaptation and flexibility

International assignments expose leaders to diverse cultural norms, values and practices. To succeed in these unfamiliar settings, leaders must develop a heightened sense of cultural awareness and adaptability. This experience fosters a more flexible leadership style, allowing leaders to navigate and embrace diverse perspectives. They become adept at tailoring their leadership approaches to accommodate different cultural expectations and effectively lead multicultural teams.

Menon shares that exposure to different cultures and perspectives through international assignments can significantly influence an individual’s approach to leadership. It broadens their understanding of diverse work styles, values and communication norms. This exposure fosters greater empathy, adaptability and inclusivity in their leadership approach.

Communication and language skills

Effective communication is essential for leadership success, and international assignments provide invaluable opportunities for leaders to enhance their communication and language skills. Working in a foreign environment compels leaders to communicate across language barriers, promoting active listening, empathy and the ability to convey ideas clearly. Leaders learn to adapt their communication style to be more inclusive, concise and sensitive to cultural nuances, fostering stronger connections with their teams.

Global mindset and strategic thinking

International assignments broaden leaders’ horizons and expose them to different business practices, markets and perspectives. This exposure cultivates a global mindset, enabling leaders to think strategically on a global scale. They become more adept at identifying new opportunities, anticipating challenges, and developing innovative solutions that transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. This expanded perspective enhances their ability to lead organisations through complex and diverse global landscapes.

“It is crucial to possess several qualities as a leader. First and foremost, humility is essential. That is, being efficient yet not overly assertive or aggressive.”

Sunil Ranjhan, senior VP and director, HR & MS, LG Electronics

Resilience and adaptability

International assignments often present leaders with unfamiliar and challenging situations. Successfully navigating these experiences cultivates resilience and adaptability, which are vital qualities for effective leadership. Leaders learn to embrace ambiguity, manage uncertainty and make decisions in dynamic and rapidly-changing environments. These experiences develop their ability to remain composed under pressure, handle unexpected setbacks and lead with confidence in times of adversity.

Cross-cultural collaboration and team building

Leading international teams requires leaders to foster collaboration and build strong relationships across cultural boundaries. International assignments provide firsthand experience in building diverse and inclusive teams, nurturing cross-cultural understanding and fostering cohesive teamwork. Leaders develop the ability to leverage the strengths of individuals from different cultural backgrounds, effectively manage conflicts and create a unified team culture.

When taking on international assignments, Ranjhan points out, “It is crucial to possess several qualities as a leader. First and foremost, humility is essential. That is, being efficient yet not overly assertive or aggressive. Additionally, delivering high-quality work within specified deadlines is important. This requires meticulous attention to detail. Managing diversity is another key aspect, as leaders must be sensitive and inclusive in their approach.”

Ranjhan also feels that respecting the boundaries between personal and work-related matters is vital, as is adhering to different cultural norms and professional decorum. Moreover, being open to differing views and willing to engage in fact-based discussions is crucial, particularly in Western cultures where hierarchical structures are less prominent.

To develop leadership skills through international assignments, it is important to match individuals with assignments that align with their strengths, personality traits and the specific requirements of the project. Assignments that involve opening new offices or managing complex projects in foreign locations often require individuals with an entrepreneurial mindset, strong initiative and the ability to build relationships with local stakeholders.

A Thiru, C-suite HR professional, believes that international assignments are transformative experiences that propel employees from good to great, and leaders from great to greatest.

“Embracing the new environment and organisational climate is crucial for effectively shaping the culture in collaboration with the team.”

A Thiru, C-suite HR professional

According to him, “The main challenge individuals must overcome during international assignments is their resistance to change. Embracing the new environment and organisational climate is crucial for effectively shaping the culture in collaboration with the team.”

Exposure to different international contexts undoubtedly enhances one’s flexibility and unbiased approach towards achieving common goals. Leaders with international exposure consistently deliver superior results and establish lasting values. Thiru served as President of Group HR at Vedanta, his previous organization, where he says, “We prioritised providing international exposure alongside functional job rotations in the career development plans of our future COOs and CEOs.”

“This concept, initially implemented at Sterlite Copper nearly two decades ago, has become an integral part of the Vedanta Group companies globally as the Talent Factory, akin to Hindustan Unilever Ltd. By establishing lasting values and leaving an unparalleled legacy, this approach ensures that leaders continually develop and contribute to the organisation’s success,” explains Thiru.

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