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What Will 21st Century Managers Need to Succeed?

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By Kathleen Brush

Are the young, multiplying countries of Africa the next frontier? Which countries will be members of the EU in five years? Where is the ground safe in the Middle East? What will happen if things go awry in the South or East China Sea? Is Mexico going to replace Brazil as Latin America’s superpower? Is the debt-soaked, trade-o-phobic United States destined to be a country with meager growth, sidelined from the global growth party?

These questions and others like them will keep many managers awake at night as they contemplate how their businesses will survive and succeed in the 21st century. Those managers will sleep much better if they start now to build the global skills needed in the 21st century. Here are seven skills that I believe will be essential.

1. Create strategies with a global context. These are the strategies that can’t lose. In the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threat (SWOT) analysis, managers will have to discern between the threats and the opportunities. For example, Africa is the last continental frontier, but which of its countries will offer the best opportunities? Answering that question will go beyond assessing populations and demographics and into an analysis of workforce skills, labor regulations, availability of credit and health care, and the quality of the transportation infrastructure.

2. Know when affordability trumps innovation. The cardinal rule has been to always focus on products with superior innovation versus lowest price, because the former fetch a premium. That will no longer be a slam dunk. In many countries, successful products will deliver country-specific basic functions that are priced for the market. These consumers don’t care about innovation; they care about basic, affordable functionality.

3. Be more adept at building relationships than filing lawsuits. Businesses need to lose the crutch of legal systems to ensure contractual commitments are met.

Cross border litigation is always expensive and time consuming. Worse, justice does not always prevail. Exchange the art of suing with the art of building relationships because that’s how most of the world outside the United States makes sure commitments are met.

4. Become fascinated with world events. The illusion that the world rotates around the United States is just that – an illusion. What happens in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Australia affects America.

5. Learn what motivates employees in different cultures. Motivating employees will be key to the productivity gains necessary to compete with rivals operating with lower costs. Managers will have to understand how cultural programming affects employee motivation in the nations where they’re operating, and how employees of modest means are motivated differently from most Americans.

6. Embrace new bottom lines. Maximizing shareholder value has been an American mantra. In other countries, businesses are expected to have multiple bottom lines that take into consideration shareholders, employees, the environment and the community. Managers in the 21st century will need to become super motivators who drive productivity and innovation, create competitive products, and generate more sales and increased profits. These will support higher wages, increased hiring, and investments in clean technologies – in addition to shareholder value.

7. Maintain a strong moral compass. In many countries, the norm is bribery, unsafe work practices, discrimination, and cutting corners on quality. Managers must have – and be guided by — a strong moral compass, understanding that integrity is never locally defined. This will be essential to building trust and relationships, the business “currency” in many countries.

These are exciting times. The most attractive opportunities for growth are in the 162 countries of the world that are developing, or will be soon. These countries are/will be building costly infrastructures and institutions such as schools and banks, engaging in trade, creating competitive businesses, and watching their middle classes—with all their attendant purchasing needs—grow.

Who will be the winners in the competition for the best opportunities? That’s easy. The companies who have managers skilled for the 21st century.

Kathleen Brush is the author of the new book, “The Power of One: You’re the Boss.” She has more than two decades of experience as a senior executive with global business responsibilities.

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