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Leadership is everything in international business, says Kevin Morris of CEO Global Network, an executive-coaching firm in the Greater Toronto Area that brings chief executives and other senior managers together for mentoring and information sharing. But what is leadership? In part, it is courage, says Mr. Morris. But leadership also requires patience.
Kevin Morris, Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation,
CEO Global Network, Photo: Patricia Recourt
The company was started in 2008 by John Wilson, an entrepreneur and former senior executive at W.R. Grace Inc. and Ultramar Canada Ltd., and hopes to expand across Canada and become global.
Morris, 24, joined the company after working for an international manufacturer in the construction business developing new markets in China and Europe. He is the director of digital strategy and innovation. One of his company’s digital offerings is a private online network akin to LinkedIn for chief executives.
If I’m a CEO, how will belonging to your network benefit me or my company?
The biggest thing is making connections to other CEOs. I’ve sat in on so many group meetings where someone raises their hand and says, “We’re working through this problem in our organization, and I just can’t figure this thing out.” Almost always there’s at least one person around the table who says, “We’ve been there” or “There’s someone else I know who has been there.”
People who are not CEOs might ask why do CEOs need help?
Being a CEO is a lonely job. You can ask your management team or your employees, but when you get to the top all that information starts to become filtered. All your jokes become funny as a CEO. You can go to your board, but there are some vested interests there. Unbiased and candid feedback is extremely valuable for a CEO.
What lessons have you learned about what it takes to succeed internationally?
Patience. We see that no matter what market you’re going into, there’s a learning curve, both for the leader and the organization. One of the biggest lessons is doing your homework to understand what’s involved in that learning curve. And then using the tools at your disposal to accelerate along that learning curve. One of the smartest global leaders or CEOs I’ve worked with wouldn’t let the executives who went over to China go into a meeting or a boardroom for the entire first week. He wanted them immersed in the culture before they did any business. I watched three global executives in wagons in rice fields in rural China, and by the time they got into those meetings the following week there was this real understanding of how to push on negotiations.
How did they get the understanding from being in a rice field?
Whether it’s in a rice field or a business, there’s a history behind that, and there are nuances to how they communicate. So when the Chinese leader across the table from you is saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree but that they understand what you’re saying or where you’re coming from.
What are some of the key tools companies can use to accelerate their learning?
Some of the online communication and collaboration tools are assisting in that. Bill Gates said that “natural talent now trumps geography,” and it’s really cool because whether you’re born in India or New York, the playing field is almost being levelled. The smartest companies are using technology to tap into the talent.
Can you give an example?
LinkedIn is a great example of being able to connect with talent in a country. There are LinkedIn groups, where there are discussions on niche topics, like doing business in Costa Rica. There’s a great group on LinkedIn about that, where people are talking about how they’ve navigated that world.
Are there other lessons in how to succeed internationally?
One of the big things we’ve seen is finding a partner [locally] that can guide you through. We watched a member company do a joint venture with a German company and that really helped them understand the European mindset before they went there.
What kind of advice do CEOs tend to seek in your organization when it comes to international business?
The biggest one is probably on the cultural side – we’re moving into a new market and we’re looking to understand the customs or traditions of doing business in that region. How do leaders make decisions in those companies? The other one is around economic and legal navigation, setting up a financial structure, managing exchange rates.
What are key traits you see in leaders?
Knowing their business, right down to knowing the numbers at any given point. And having real courage or guts. Being able to say “We are going into that new market; we are going to tackle this new product line,” or whatever the initiative is. And a real passion for building great teams.
How good a job are we doing in this country of preparing a new generation of leaders?
From where we’re standing, we think we’re doing a pretty good job across Canada. We see a great demand for learning opportunities for CEOs and executives. Sherry Cooper, chief economist for BMO Capital Markets, talks about “generativity,” the feeling of giving back or contributing … to the next generation. We see that becoming a huge factor in grooming the next generation of leaders.
How prepared are we in Canada to take risks and learn new things in new markets?
I think we’re predisposed to greater success globally, because of the diversity of our country.
How do you plan to grow in Canada and abroad?
We’ll start by doing an assessment of the major Canadian cities that would likely include market size and potential, competitive landscape, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and access to talent. In our case that means former, experienced CEOs looking for an opportunity to contribute to the success of current CEOs.
Beyond Canada there is an added degree of complexity. This comes back to the cultural intelligence issues. It might just mean changes in the model that are required for us to be successful, such as licensing or partnerships for effective expansion. I can’t quite say what that model will look like now. For now, we’re plenty busy in the domestic market and have all our resources deployed here.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.