What traits make a strong international business manager?

Dr Boojihawon, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Programme Director for the Online MSc International Business, Birmingham Business School, explains the traits which make a strong international business manager. Listen to his podcast and read the transcribed interview below:


1) An international mindset:

My first trait would be around an awareness, an openness for an international experience and mindset. With this comes a realisation that most of international business now is virtual or online, ok?

2) Sensitivity to cultural diversity:

The second trait I think which is important again for a global business manager is sensitivity to cultural diversity. And cultural diversity is not necessarily suited to countries per se, but you could have many cultures in one country, in one context, or in one organisation.

So, the international business manager needs to be aware of how it uses this – I don’t want to use ‘exploit’ – but it uses the differences in cultures to his advantage, or her advantage, but also to the advantage or his or her organisation.

3) Global curiousity:

The third trait I want to emphasise is an ability to be a little curious around what’s going on in the international business arena, ok? Because if we’re moving context, because if we see an uncertain context, the manager has to have a natural curiosity or hunger to know what’s going on – to read from what the source of the matter and act in a way which is relevant for him or her.

But it has to be also about some responsibility and honesty which comes with being a global manager as well these days. Responsibility comes in looking at the manager’s own actions and decisions and how this is affecting that in the context of its’ organisation but also being honest around the kind of realities which are embedded in the different contexts and different markets around the world.

Not every part of the world works in the same way as we would expect. There’s a different set of local rules of the game which the manager has to respect and work within that context.

4) Strategic thinking:

The other trait which is parallel with that is being a global strategic thinker.

The manager has to again therefore learn how to strategize at the level of the global economy:

a) How do they think through a company which could be spread around the world?
b) Where are the different parts of the business going to be?
c) How are the different aspects of the production and manufacturing processes going to be organised?
d) Where are the raw materials going to come from?
e) Then comes the question, is this the most effective way of doing them?

5) Patient agility:

The other trait is around being patiently agile. So, time and pace may not work in the same way in every country.

So, it’s about understanding what those constraints could be in local different markets, but at the same time, having the mindset and the flexibility to adapt to local conditions to play to the strengths of the company’s competitive advantage – or his or her own advantage in that respect.

Interviewer: This sounds like quite an exceptional individual?

He or she has to be. I am just articulating the traits of my ideal global business manager – how I would see it.

My list is not done. I have got three other traits.

6) Communication:

So the other one is to be a communicator. So that’s really a ‘given’ in a lot of ways? The ability to be able to communicate with people across different cultures and have a sensitivity and sensibility to language. You know, it’s an important one.

With that comes the ability to be a good negotiator – or a ‘network architect’ in some ways. The ability to build relationships at a local and global level.

7) Charisma:

And last, but not the least, is the ability to really present oneself as a leader with charisma in a way. The self-confidence, the energy – this should naturally come out from the person as a global business manager.

Now I know you might not find all of these traits in one person – as you rightly mentioned – but I think these are the idealistic traits that we, at a programme level, try to bring awareness to and try to develop in a lot of ways.

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Interviewer: You mentioned different cultures in different contexts within an organisation: can you give me an example of that? Because that’s really interesting.

Okay, different contexts of cultures within an organisation. If we take any multi-national organisation these days or anything like that, you have got a diverse group of employees who are not necessarily of the origin of the country in which the multi-national is based.

So, you can have people from all over the world still working for that multi-national organisation.

Take Jaguar Land Rover, for example. Here, Jaguar Land Rover is based in Birmingham, it’s based in the UK, but it’s managers are people from all over the world and those people might be sourced or might be employed through - inaudible – through relationships, through the value chain of the company from around the world.

So, in that respect it doesn’t mean that international business managers are restricted to boundaries or geographical boundaries, but they could be visible within the context of one organisation itself.

Interviewer: Is there a sense in which as well as somebody’s culture as they would define it – or as we would commonly define a culture – understanding different cultures within different functions? So, if I’m talking to engineering or in marketing and logistics, say, across borders about the same problems, or the same challenges, they might have different cultures as well and as a good manager, I need to understand that both location and also, you know?

Yes, what you are pointing out has been a classic issue in international business. It has been studied in so many ways and also has had so much research on because the differences between management and employees in different contexts really could be a difficult point to reconcile in many organisational contexts.

Things can go wrong very easily because, not because people are consciously doing it, but because they are just reading the signals wrong and a lot of them could be cultural signals.

So, for example, a global IT company based in the UK might be sourcing 90% of it’s work from somewhere in India and if there is not only an unawareness, but an understanding that those sources, those coders, who are based in India may be working with a completely different mindset and attitude that might not be relevant to the British context, in that respect. That means, that the international business manager needs to be aware of those, but also take them into account of how the operations and the processes are organised and how the communication has been taking place in order to coordinate all of this.

That awareness itself breaks new ground in terms of understanding how you are going to get the most out of people, your partnership, your employees – or your workers in that region.

Interviewer: Would you say that most of these skills we are talking about are teachable? I’m hoping that the answer is going to be yes, but you know…

Yes, yes they are to some extent. Most of this is skills that – what we do in our programme is that we bring an awareness of these issues first.

The second aspect is around emphasising the kinds of skills that you need in order to develop with on a personal level and on a professional level. But also, what you need to think of at an organisational level, in terms of what the organisation can enable (the development of these skills).

But a lot of this is also dependent on the sort of natural, instinctive charisma that a manager can have, or not have in that respect – but yes, that will impact the pace of development. All of these skills are teachable; you can develop them.

Interviewer: Would you say that there is a skills shortage – particularly looking at maybe the next generation of managers? Not the people who are at the very top now, but the people companies need to be moving up the chain to cope with the challenges of tomorrow and to support their top tier leaders today? Is it right that there is a skills shortage?

I think there is. I think increasingly when we are look at our students and we look at their backgrounds, where they come from, its not that they are lacking motivation and enthusiasm, it’s that they lack the knowledge and the awareness to direct their motivation and enthusiasm to develop the right sorts of skills.

So the types of skills or the types of traits that I’ve talked to you about in these questions, you will find different proportions of these probably in a given business manager and developed to different extents, in that respect.

One has got to be – that’s why I said to think about ‘awareness’ as one of the first traits. That awareness is an important skill as a business manager: you need to understand where your own strengths and weaknesses are around those traits and skills.

Are you a good communicator or are you not? Can work on that? Can you develop those? Are you a good negotiator? Are you not?

So these kinds of skills, they do exist out there, but they do exist in different proportions and you might not have them when you need them because that indeed your manager might not have the right training or the right knowledge or the right level of guidance to bring that awareness into him or her to develop those skills.

The shortage is there, it’s not that there are less people or less managers, but there are less skilled international business thinkers.

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Interviewer: That’s really good, thank you. So which companies, or geographic regions do think have the strongest need for international business managers with the kind of skills you teach?

I struggled with that when I was trying to think in my own way because I think that there is a demand for IB-managers, everywhere. Again, so with the right mindset, knowledge and skills.

I think that with international business managers, it’s important to recognise that once they are trained, they bring a unique sort of perspective to looking at common business problems – they just don’t look at it from the narrow, local perspective that could be relevant to the business in the short term, but not in the long term.

It might not be sustainable in that way. I think that, equipped with the right knowledge and skills, an international business manager is able to travel between the local and the global implications of given decisions or given strategies – almost in a seamless way.

That’s ideal if we’re thinking around that. It is this ability to be able to see the local implications and the global implications at the same time, which actually changes a lot of ways of thinking and doing and strategizing around business contexts and conditions.

So, ‘yes’, from that perspective we need international business managers everywhere, I think.

Interviewer: Would it be fair to say that the exact mix of skills may differ from region to region or market to market so not the individual skills – but yes? Cool. So, good people everywhere but you might use it differently?

Yes, so this could vary. So international businesses have operations, partners, alliances and managers everywhere – but, the conditions are very different in each context. So, many companies, for example, have got different headquarters or regional headquarters in different parts of the world.

It’s the same global company but wisely doesn’t need to have different headquarters. That is a strong signal that there is a diversity – that they recognise a diversity – in thinking and perspective that they need to tackle in those markets.

So therefore, it means that international business managers, in those different countries and different regions, they work with broadly the same skills but with different emphasis and implications in that respect.

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