For Women Executives, Projecting Credibility Globally Means Learning How to Shift Leadership Styles

Call Susan* a corporate chameleon. As VP of Sales and Marketing for a large tech firm, the Japanese native enjoys working for a multinational company that respects her leadership skills and imbues her with authority -- something that would never happen in the male-dominated Japanese managerial hierarchy. Traveling between her office in Tokyo and her company's operations in Asia and Silicon Valley, Susan reflexively shifts her leadership style to project credibility in each environment.

During her quarterly visits to her company's headquarters, Susan "puts on her cowboy hat" and dives into the rough-and-tumble debate that epitomizes her company's culture of "constructive confrontation." Once back in Tokyo, however, she drops the combative style and resumes her respectful stance. With her sales team and clients in Korea and Taiwan, she works to coax out the unspoken in one-on-one conversations, as they rarely express their thoughts unbidden, and certainly won't share them on a big teleconference call. In India, however, where there's a culture of open debate, Susan asks clarifying questions. "Coming from Japan, from headquarters, I knew there would be a battle for authority. So I have adopted an approach of total humility. 'Teach me, tell me why you do things that way' is how I win their trust. It isn't my instinct but if I were them, that's what I would like to hear from my management."

As the saying goes, "Different horses for different courses." Like Susan, global executives today operate in different worlds, each with its own culture, challenges, and expectations. They need a full stable of behaviors -- and the ability to pivot between them -- to win credibility and be effective with colleagues, managers, and clients in each market.

According to Growing Global Executives: The New Competencies, a just-released book based on findings from a Center for Talent Innovation survey of full-time employees in 11 global markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, the US, and the UK), there are six gravitas behaviors that help rising leaders project credibility across all markets. Yet the data reveals that each market weighs these behaviors differently. Sixty-two percent of senior leaders in the US and the UK say that demonstrating authority projects credibility. However, in Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, and Turkey, fifty-seven percent of global stakeholders say that demonstrating emotional intelligence wins the trust and respect of teams in local markets.

Women leaders in these markets face an especially complicated set of challenges since, in many regions, expectations of what projects integrity skews by gender.

Take the issue of authority. Cultural norms dictate that in many markets -- Brazil, China, India, Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan -- female leaders demonstrate authority in a reserved way, whereas men are expected to flex it more assertively. In India, for example, a whopping 82 percent of respondents thought it appropriate for men to be assertive in demonstrating their authority, whereas only 44 percent thought it appropriate for women to do the same. In Brazil, 79 percent agree that men should assert their authority, while only 46 percent believed women should do the same.

On how to conduct business -- a particularly sensitive subject in China and Hong Kong -- 60 percent of respondents in China and 54 percent in Hong Kong feel that women should allow societal values to guide their business dealings. That compares to 69 percent of respondents in China and 72 percent in Hong Kong who feel that men should be guided by their own core values in any transaction.

For both men and women, emotional intelligence (EQ) is vital to projecting credibility in emerging markets, but EQ for women means being attuned outwardly while for men, it's being attuned inwardly. In China, for example, 67 percent of survey respondents thought women should be sensitive to other people's feelings in conducting business, whereas only 36 percent believed that men should. Men are expected, rather, to act in accordance with their own emotions (as 64 percent of respondents in China agree).

All in all, what is clear is that women who aspire to become global leaders must incorporate critical dimensions in their professional development in order to build trust across local markets and buy-in from senior leaders at headquarters. As Susan is frequently reminded, they must be constantly alert to the cultural sensitivities in each arena in which they operate, so that they know when and how to shift their leadership style as circumstances demand.

*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the subject