Matrix Management

The lessons of Brexit for global leaders

Whatever your views on the UK vote to leave the EU, it’s clear that the majority of UK voters and it appears many European voters are not sold on the idea of further European integration.
I am firmly in the remain camp but I’ve spent some time trying to understand the mind set of those who voted to leave and I think there is some important  learning there for those of us in leadership positions in global organizations. There is also some excellent analysis of the issues, untruths and campaigns on the economist magazine website at www.economist.com/Brexit

In the same way that a large part of the population of the U.K. failed to understand the benefits of membership, of something more than the country, I wonder if we do enough in global organizations to help our local employees to understand and buy in to the aims and share the benefits of a regional or global organization?

Even in the most global organizations the vast majority of people have local jobs; they work in local factories, service centres and offices and most of their daily concerns are national at best. When we introduce global policies or approaches that may take away some of their autonomy or just require change, do we really communicate the rationale and do we share in the global benefits we create by doing so?

Thankfully in the corporate world we are not democracies so we can take supra-national decisions, but establishing buy in to the global vision and strategy is essential to enabling change and delivering the strategy.

We also should not forget that in most companies the vast majority of consumers are also local and if they find a local alternative more flexible to their needs than a global one, they are free to change their allegiance. In our search for scale and leverage we need to retain agility and flexibility to local needs – no matter how compelling a global solution seems to those of us in global roles.

The U.K. electorate was very polarized, if you were a leave voter everyone you knew was probably of the same opinion, as a remain voter all my friends and contacts thought remain was the obvious answer, the 2 camps rarely intersected.

My taxi driver in Prague this week was amazed at the decision, he had been asking British visitors to Prague for months about the issue and he told me not a single one had said that they were voting to leave. But of course he was only talking to people who had travelled there and seen something beyond their own borders.

If as global leaders we only meet with other people in global or regional roles and only discuss the benefits of globalization, then we may miss a large constituency of employees and customers who don’t share our views. It’s incumbent on us both to realize this and to communicate the benefits of what we are trying to do.

Even the remain camp criticized European bureaucrats for being distant, elitist and unapproachable; language I often hear applied to multinational head offices.  UK politicians for decades used “Europe” as a scapegoat for bureaucracy and unpopular decisions, when they came latterly to defend Europe nobody believed them. How do the global and local people in your organization talk about each other? What language do they use?

Instead of bemoaning the stupidity of the people who opted out (tempting though this is) we should reflect on the learning. People vote in what they perceive to be their own interests, however irrational it may seem to others. As leaders we need to consider how we can improve the way we listen to different views and build buy in to our global projects and initiatives.

If we don’t then our employees can’t vote to leave the global organization en masse, but they can choose to leave their jobs and customers can choose another solution to their problems.

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