Leadership: Global help wanted

Canadian executives could learn a thing from Australia.

The list of qualities that make up a great CEO is no doubt a long one, but an increasingly important attribute is international work experience. The reality is that large corporations rarely operate exclusively within a domestic market. Unfortunately, such global experience is something many Canadian company CEOs lack.

Only 37% of CEOs at Canada’s largest 100 corporations have spent at least one year working in another country, according to a survey by global headhunting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. Shawn Cooper, the company’s country manager for Canada, says he was concerned by the result, even though it’s nearly 50% higher than in 1987. “That’s a significant improvement, but is it enough?” he says. “Before we pat ourselves on the back too much, we have to make sure we haven’t been complacent.”

The study didn’t compare Canada to other regions, but, based on anecdotal evidence, Russell Reynolds believes the percentage of American CEOs with international work experience is roughly the same as their Canadian counterparts. But U.S. companies can grow quite large just by servicing the domestic market, something Canadian companies can’t do. Instead, Canada should compare itself to Australia. Many of that country’s largest corporations reached a saturation point domestically about 15 years ago and had to look abroad to continue growing, but many of their executives lacked the necessary experience. Some companies sought out local talent with international experience, while others, such as the country’s four largest banks, recruited foreigners. Today, Russell Reynolds estimates roughly 50% of Australian CEOs have global experience.

The challenge Australian corporations faced to grow a decade ago is very similar to the one facing Canadians now. That means anyone angling for an executive position in the future will probably need to have worked in a foreign country. “It will be the price of entry for advancement at many organizations, certainly for this generation,” Cooper says.

Companies that currently have international operations should start grooming future leaders by posting them to foreign positions. “This isn’t just about recruiting someone,” Cooper says. “Ideally, you want to take people who are well infused with your corporate culture and send them abroad.”

The good news is that Canadian corporations appear to be getting the message. The level of international work experience among CEOs has increased during the past 20 years, and execs are spending longer periods of time abroad and venturing to more places than just the U.S. But while the level of global trekking is still increasing, the Russell Reynolds study found the rate has actually slowed over the past 10 years — not exactly a positive trend. “If Australia is any guide,” Cooper says, “we have to move now so we don’t have to risk playing catch-up later.”