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Personal agility in a global context

Have you ever in a moment of quiet reflection looked back at your life and asked yourself ‘how did I get here?’ I did this recently when I reflected on how a young boy – who had grown up in a small town in the UK with a local sales rep as a father and legal secretary as a mother – had ended up with a Chinese wife and Chinese-speaking kids, running workshops linked to the theme of global agility around the world.

It struck me how ‘global’ I and others like me have become in just one generation. It also struck me that the story behind this global development in my personal and professional life is not so much the end result of carefully followed personal career planning and ambition; nor even a deep-seated curiosity about the world from my childhood. It came about more through a readiness to ‘go with the flow’ and embrace the unknown in a fast-changing and rapidly globalising world.

I remember a moment in the early 90s when I accepted an unexpected offer to lecture in a Chinese business school. It meant designing and teaching an introduction to management that I had never done before, in a cultural context that I had no experience of.  For the growing numbers of others like me, it is often not so much a case of ‘shaping your life’ but rather remaining agile in those moments when ‘life reaches out to shape you’. Looking back, I realised that I had been ready to take an opportunity to accept the unknown, to participate in the opening up of China, in ways that would have long-terms implications for my life. Looking back, our life seems to be made up of neatly converging paths which meet in the present; looking forward our future path can seem hidden in a confusing, intimidating and impenetrable jungle.

What helps us to embrace these kinds of opportunities and then thrive, rather than just survive, in everything that evolves out of them? Undoubtedly, in my case, what helped me to start off was a bungee jumping sense of adventure, a flexibility in behaviour and a growing awareness of the different cultural values of those growing up in different parts of the world.  As time has gone by, these personal resources have developed. I have a growing self-confidence in my ability to manage whatever challenges life throws my way, an ability to choose when to adapt and when not to, and finally an ability to respond to whatever behaviours are displayed in front of me by international partners despite what it says is ‘normal’ in the cross-cultural literature. It always helps to remind myself that, while we constantly yearn for an oasis of calm when the testing time is over and things calm down, life will always throw something else at you.

There has never been a time when the global context we live in presents so many opportunities to shape us in new and unexpected ways. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we inhabit means that as professionals we no longer have to take expatriate assignments in places like China to experience being taken out of our comfort zone. My colleagues in TCO International and I have realised that what we offer to our clients is no longer the ability to ‘go global’ but ‘grow globally’. When we first started 25 years ago, the primary challenge was to help people cross borders, linguistically and culturally. Now globalisation has sparked a new generation of organisations. These are either ‘born global’ or after a period of rapid expansion into new markets, and the acceleration of virtual working, are consolidating the relationships they had developed in a period of expansion. The number of expatriates may be going down but the expatriate challenge – needing to achieve high performance when engaging with global partners while managing personal change – is growing exponentially. After all, VUCA comes to us; we don’t need to seek it out.

In TCO International we believe that the key ability required by all of us to thrive rather than just survive is global agility ‘How can I think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA environment’.

By ‘thinking’ we mean understanding without stereotyping others; being self-aware while understanding that there is no limit to how we will be seen by others across geographic and organisational boundaries. Even the most positive cultural ‘generalizations’ about others may need to be put aside in a world where the behaviours of so many local professionals are already partially adapted to the styles of their international partners. I am constantly meeting Chinese professionals who have never lived abroad but whose experience of working for Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIEs) in China gives them an ability to switch from a face-saving style with their local Chinese colleagues to a straight-talking, task-oriented approach to giving feedback with Europeans and North Americans.

By ‘acting’ we mean making decisions and initiating contact with others without ever knowing exactly how they will respond. This requires us to draw on a combination of making our own intentions clear, while exploring the needs of others, so that we negotiate ‘what we mean’ in the present moment. Too much reliance on goals and plans and we can lose the opportunities provided by the present. Too much adaptability and we can lose track of our goals. By ‘creating value’ we mean ensuring that we have the ability to build trust, relationships and ‘comfortable levels of clarity’ in every interaction without always having the opportunity for longer-term relationship-building that existed among colleagues rubbing shoulders together in the traditional workplace.

In supporting personal agility in a VUCA global context we help individuals manage the dilemma they face between focusing on ‘My Way’ (getting things done and remaining authentic to yourself) and ‘Your way’ (knowing how and when to adapt to others).  Our belief is that we can build trust and credibility with new global partners through either approach. You can ‘frame’ the benefits of your preferred style of communication to your global partner but knowing how and when to ‘adapt’ to their local way of doing things is likely to help you succeed when visiting their country or supporting one of their clients.

In our global agility framework there are 4 areas of ability which act as compass points in helping us to navigate the My Way and Your Way dilemma in an interconnected VUCA environment.

  1. Self-awareness (my way)
  2. Intentionality (my way)
  3. Other awareness (your way)
  4. Connectivity (your way)

These abilities relate to 4 questions which connect to the ‘inner world’ of feeling and thinking, as well as to the outer world of doing and saying. We draw on a combination of experiential activities, personal reflection, and coaching to help individuals engage with these questions, as well as find their own answers.

Self-awareness and Intentionality. In terms of the ‘My way’ of approaching global agility you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on me? What do I need?’. In terms of the ‘inner world’ are you, for example, someone who quickly requires closure and certainty when faced with the unexpected or are you happy to ride the waves of uncertainty? But such ‘self-awareness’ is not enough, and needs to be turned into action. You need to answer the question ‘How can I take responsibility for my behaviour when faced with VUCA? What can I say and do?’. This requires a focus on expressing your own intentions, needs and non-negotiable values (we call it Intentionality). It may need to include clarification of the benefits these needs and values bring to others. Such ‘intentionality’ is even more convincing if it includes an awareness of how you may be perceived by others from different organisational or cultural backgrounds. Recognising how our own behaviour may be seen as challenging reflected in the eyes of others can be important for trust-building – a critical upfront investment in creating value in a VUCA context.

Other-awareness and Connectivity. In terms of the ‘Your way’, you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on those who I interact with? What do they need?’. How does, for example, the spirit of adventure and resilience of your international partner compare with yours? How do they respond in a crisis? What aspects of VUCA are going on in their local context? To what degree are they primed by culturally-motivated instincts that drive them to avoid uncertainty and dislike learning by mistakes? In terms of the ‘outer world’, such ‘other-awareness’ is again not enough.  You need to respond to others and answer the following question ‘How can I create value with others when we face with VUCA? What can we build together?’ In certain cultural contexts, despite one’s natural impatience to get down to the task in hand, a willingness to work on the personal relationship-building through an informal chat over a meal, at the start of a call or around the coffee machine might provoke the right climate for progress.

In TCO International our approach to Global Agility has been shaped by examining ourselves and those effective leaders and professionals that we have met and worked with, by answering the question that I asked myself at the beginning of this blog: how did I get here? The answer lies neither in the opposite poles of a planned strategy, on the one hand, nor a bungee-jumping spirit of adventure, on the other. It lies in a structured framework of choices that an individual can implement as they are challenged in the moment with the new people and unknown paths that this global context increasingly presents us with.

Are you curious about the choices you can make when you need to influence people in an unknown environment? Start by testing your Influencing Agility. It takes just a few minutes and it shows you both your default influencing style, and the related opposite that would allow you to become a much stronger influencer.

Change, Tips

BREAKING NEWS: certain types are more successful in navigating today’s global workplace – and organisations are failing to promote them!

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a multidisciplinary team of neuro-scientists and decision theory specialists at Cambridge University have just unveiled astonishing preliminary results on human genetic analysis based on sophisticated neuroimaging research. The data clearly suggest that people with certain genetic makeups are significantly more successful in working internationally and in handling the complexity, ambiguity, unpredictability and volatility of today’s business world.

Are you one of the people researchers are calling ‘global surfers’?

Surprisingly, what the researchers are also discovering is that rather than valuing these neurologically and genetically ‘advanced’ types, organisations are actually systematically filtering them out as they move further up in the management ranks, they are also being sent on international assignments in only 20% of cases and, perhaps worse of all, they are even paying them less. As you can guess many of these ‘global surfers’ are leaving the organisation disillusioned and unfulfilled. Sounds crazy, right? Why would organisations choose to actually reduce their international competitive advantage by dissuading these innately global types from taking on key roles in the company? Because these neurologically and genetically ‘advanced’ types are…women.

And the above ‘research’ is just a provocative piece of playful fake news to get you to consider some hard facts.

Here they are. Research in Italy shows that less than one in two women work, even though 59.7% of graduates are women. These women graduate earlier and with higher grades than men. The pay gap for women is on average 17% less than men. Only one woman in ten in Italy is in a middle management position. Yet the International Monetary Fund study of 2016 has shown significant increases in profitability for every woman who enters the top leadership team or Board.  The Boston Consulting Group Innovation through Diversity Report in February 2017 shows that there is a high correlation between more balanced gender diversity in management teams and innovation revenues – especially in large and complex companies. The Bank of Italy has shown that if female employment rises to just 60% the GDP in Italy would rise by 7%. The graph from a McKinsey report in 2015 below charts European women’s reduction in presence at each successive career step. 


TCO International has recently started partnering with Valore D to develop the ‘Global Agility & International Mindset’ of women in its membership of 156 companies which employ over one million people in Italy. Valore D is Italy’s leading association to promote diversity and female talent and leadership for organisational and national growth. At the kick-off event for an ‘accelerating path’  for 39 women middle managers I was struck by the precision with which organisations are shooting themselves in the foot by not having more women in senior management. Our own focus in TCO International on creating value out of diversity is often impeded by finding ourselves in front of leadership teams with ties on.

Valore D initiated its ‘Accelerating Path’ for women talents to help close the gap in women’s strategic positioning in organisations. Women managers tend to be more present in Shared Services, Admin and HR roles (24%) but less so in strategic roles such as CFO and Strategy (16.5%), Operations (9.9%) and CEO (3.9%).  The focus of the development path is therefore on preparing women for these underrepresented roles. The aim is to close the competence deficit. This is one way to gain parity of presence at the top.

Our own program with Valore D takes an opposite approach. It is about valuing a competence gap which already exists between men and women – and where women are intrinsically more able – and which we believe is central to meeting the key leadership challenge for today’s organisations: Global Agility – the ability to think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world.


Here is why. Back in 2009, with our partners in WorldWork Ltd we published (Cultus, 2009) an analysis of the database of respondents to The International Profiler questionnaire focusing on 22 factors which contribute to success in an international context. We found significant differences between the emphasis men and women gave to the international competency set. Women gave remarkably similar emphasis in areas of international competency to those, irrespective of gender, who had lived abroad for at least 18 months abroad as an adult (expats). Women tended to show an intrinsic expatriate mindset and skillset even if they had never had such an experience. Compared to men, women have a significantly higher focus on spirit of adventure, valuing differences, relationship building skills in unfamiliar contexts, adaptive languages skills and acceptance of local approaches. In higher growth Asian and South American markets they are more able to match the implicit local communication styles and read between the lines. Men, on the other hand, seem to take a stronger ‘push’ orientation, focus on longer-term goals without being distracted along the way, communicating their intention clearly and showing sensitivity to the formal and informal power structures which influence decision-making.

It seems that in navigating as a ‘minority in a foreign land’ woman had tended to build up the experience and skills needed by expats, but in their own companies in their own country.  The irony is that recent relocation reports show that less than 20% of women are selected for expat assignments.

Not only do women tend to have a higher natural state of readiness for international assignments but the very competencies which expats develop as a result of their adaptation to the unfamiliar, unpredictable and ambiguous nature of their new environment are precisely those which organisations need even in domestic contexts. Today’s managers are expected to be adaptive to complex, changing and unpredictable scenarios impacting on the business. Top teams exhort their middle management to take more risks, think bigger and be more intrapreneurial – networking with less predictable partners in the pursuit of innovation opportunities. Women’s significantly higher focus on seeking out bungie jumping variety (high Spirit of Adventure scores) suggests that they are more adept at operating in a world with lower levels of personal control.  This requirement to make things happen, less by a push focused, directive style and more by horizontal influence across the role and task ambiguity in today’s matrix structures is playing to women’s strengths. Women are simply more able to draw on pull influencing styles – as our own work on exploring TCO’s Influencing Agility questionnaire database shows.

There is a double irony in all this. Many women have developed home-based expatriate experience like a phoenix from the ashes of their career paths in their local country organisations. At the same time, these extended ‘foreign assignments in my local neighbourhood’, have now prepared women for greater readiness for the new VUCA world which is no longer just the territory of pioneering expats.

Can this neurologically and genetically advanced group of ‘global surfers’ finally get the recognition that they have core competencies basic for today’s organisational survival and growth? The madness is to go on as before.

We look forward to having an equal balance of gender in our Global Agility open programs so that we can also accelerate women’s innate and acquired skills, boosting their real competitive advantage in todays’ promotion stakes.

PS With a coherent belief in the power of diversity and inclusion, Valore D’s catalogue programs are open to both men and women 😉

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