CEMS on the importance of creating a global employee

By Sarah Unkelbach

I have heard it said that face-to-face meetings and physical mobility could soon be a thing of the past, as many companies have teams scattered worldwide, meeting physically just three days once a quarter. At Henkel we have just finished our first virtual CEMS Business project, where our team in Dubai only communicated with students in India through digital channels.

Whilst I still believe that effective collaboration is always improved through face-to-face interaction (nothing can beat laughing together when it comes to relationship building), close international cooperation is far easier nowadays through a whole range of these diverse communications networks.

As a result, being ‘global’ is no longer just an option for ambitious companies but a must. As industries and corporations become increasingly interconnected, very few midsize and large companies, or even start-ups in certain areas, can survive with a solely ‘national’ outlook.

Firms look globally for the best suppliers and supply chain hubs, the most promising customers and consumers, the most talented employees or their next acquisitions or partners. Higher transparency through the internet also leads to a quicker flow and dispersion of new business ideas, which means that companies have to mobilise globally more quickly, to avoid having their concepts copied before they are ready to expand or launch.

Globalisation is not only one of the most important issues facing companies today, it is also a topic which comes more and more significant in our private lives. Society expects people to be more aware of global developments and trends, otherwise they are easily categorized as backward or ignorant.

So, while local specialist skills will always be needed - from lawyers to teachers – it is hard for companies to become truly global without employees who share an international vision.

Successful companies of the future will be the ones who employ globally-connected digital natives, for whom the nation-state concept is outdated, but who are still caring for the differences in cultures and preferences across the world. For them, worldwide collaboration is the only answer to many societal and economic challenges, including global warming, poverty, migration and unemployment.

What does a ‘global’ employee look like?

For me, a global employee is a versatile person, at ease working in a diverse, ever-changing environment.

By far the two most important attributes of a global employee (which require one another) are openness and empathy: the ability to adapt quickly to new environments, topics and people, whilst relating to people from different backgrounds quickly, on a deeper level, and adopt good ideas wherever they come from.

Global employees go out into the world with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart. They also understand and relate to people from different cultures, seeing difference as an advantage rather than something negative. They know whatever solution they come up with together with their joint knowledge, backgrounds and experiences, will be better than anything they could imagine themselves.

Successful global leaders, or those aspiring to leadership, must additionally be able to respond to a multiplicity of management styles simultaneously, manage stability and flexibility at the same time, as well as engage a dispersed workforce and build relationships through virtual means of communication.  

Can an employee learn how to be ‘global’?

Whilst employees clearly have to embrace and buy-in into a global mind-set (which may come more naturally to some than others),  I do firmly believe that ‘global-ness’ is something that can also be taught and nurtured.

Even though I was always interested in seeing the world, I only felt truly global thanks to my CEMS experience which started at the beginning of my master and still continues now many years after graduation. Through the CEMS Master in International Management, I learned about the concept of global citizenship, as the program is a living example that collaboration beats competition.

CEMS exposed me to several international exchanges of different lengths, regional and global events, collaboration with fellow students from different cultures on a daily basis and helped me to become more fluent in languages. It facilitated a global network of personal as well as professional connections across the globe and brought me in contact with many innovative multinational companies, such as my former employer P&G and my current one, Henkel.

Here are a few pieces of advice on how an employer/leader can foster this international mind-set among employees:

  • Throw employees in at the deep end – exposing your workforce to gritty international assignments is the best way to expose them to other cultures. This can be in the short (few weeks) or longer term (several years).
  • Be open to exchange within and between business areas and opening up new networks with other global companies, providers, suppliers, customers, in order to help employees to see the bigger (global) picture.
  • Expose employees to global networks to build their contact books – the chance to build international networks and get that face-to-face experience through conferences and events is invaluable.
  • Involve your employees in global/cross-country teams to benefit both in form of better results as well as a holistic understanding of problems and more suitable solutions. Give these teams the time to develop empathy, trust and a team spirit next to their business outcomes.
  • Encourage proficient use of English as a common global language and nurture language education wherever possible. If you can properly understand one other, regardless of location, you can use synergies and avoid misunderstandings. A common language is a necessity for a fruitful exchange between people.
  • Foster sabbaticals and unpaid leave, to give employees the time to explore the world or work on social projects e.g. in the Emerging Markets. This not only boosts your retention but also brings you re-charged employees with valuable new ideas, contacts and experiences.

Investing in employees in this way will pay off. 

Globally-minded employees will generate business growth, innovate through diversity of ideas and work more efficiently through adopting global best practice and approaches.

Moreover, employees will recognise that their company is investing in them for future global success and will (hopefully) invest more of themselves into the company as well.

About CEMS

CEMS is a global alliance of academic and corporate institutions dedicated to educating and preparing future generations of international business leaders.

The CEMS academic and corporate members work collectively to develop knowledge and provide education that is essential in the multilingual, multicultural and interconnected business world.

The joint CEMS Master’s in International Management is the main vehicle for achieving this goal.

Common to all activities is the aim of promoting global citizenship, with particular emphasis placed upon the following values:

  • The pursuit of excellence with high standards of performance and ethical conduct;
  • Understanding and drawing upon cultural diversity with respect and empathy;
  • Professional responsibility and accountability in relation to society as a whole.

Sarah Unkelbach is a graduate of CEMS (The Global Alliance in Management Education) and now works as Corporate Manager CoE Recruiting & Employer Branding at Henkel


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