Ongolo Proud African

Developing a global mindset is now a necessity

27 August 2020

I delivered a keynote speech on Friday 12 June 2020 to the participants of The Global Leaders Programme called January. January is an experiential leadership programme for senior leaders from business, government and social sectors across the world as they transition to become global leaders – at work and in society.

January is managed by Common Purpose, a not-for-profit organization devoted to developing leaders who can cross boundaries. I was invited to present on the Transition to Global and focused on how to cultivate a global mindset.

We live in a global village
I find that because of modern technological evolution and our global economy... our world... has become much smaller ~ Dalai Lama

What is a global mindset?

We are living in interesting times! The spread of COVID-19 to nearly every corner of the world in less than six months is a great example of how interconnected the world has become. This new global reality requires a different leadership mindset regardless of whether one works in the public, not-for-profit or private sector.

“A global mindset can be defined as the ability to perceive and decode behaviours in multiple cultural contexts. It is an ability to connect with people from other cultures on an intellectual as well as emotional level” - Forbes

There are two ways to develop a global mindset:

  • Develop a lifelong commitment to learning
  • Build global relationships
Develop a life long commitment to learning
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Develop a lifelong commitment to learning

Learning has two components:

  • building knowledge
  • engaging with others

Building knowledge

Global leaders are not only expected to know what is happening around the world but should be able to understand what that event means for them. Every global event should trigger the question: so what? What does that mean for me (as a leader) and for those that I am responsible for?

The US-China trade war hurts everyone
When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers - African proverb that means the weak suffer in conflicts between the powerful

The US-China trade war is a good example. When the US imposed tariffs on $360bn of Chinese goods such as electrical and optical equipment, machinery and chemicals, this action indirectly impacted Japan, Brazil, Australia and ironically the US itself, which supplies raw materials used in textile manufacturing in China. China retaliated by slapping tariffs on $110bn of American goods, indirectly impacting Canada, Mexico, Ireland, Taiwan and South Korea who supply components that go into making those goods manufactured in the US.

Countries that mistakenly thought they were innocent bystanders in a fight between two elephants were unprepared for the slowdown in the global economy and demand for their own products. The realisation eventually sunk in that countries are individual parts connected to form one entity, the world. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, captured the essence of globalization when he said: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

How does one develop that ‘so what’ perspective?

In this era of information overload and misinformation, it is important to use quality sources of news and analysis. I now subscribe to various reputable sources to get my news: Financial Times, The Economist, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, New African, Africa Business, The Africa Report, and Forbes Africa. I usually have Bloomberg TV on in the background and derive value from some of the most technical discussions.

Engaging with others

 Engagement, on the other hand, is about the types of conversations leaders are having to build and share knowledge. Global leaders can no longer afford to sit in their ivory tower surrounded by a moat or the modern-day equivalent, a scary Executive Assistant. Leaders need to be more plugged in than ever and there are two new ways to get this done more efficiently: reverse mentoring and social media.

Reverse mentoring put a new directional spin
Reverse mentoring ensures that the benefits flow both ways as different generations have a lot to learn from each other

Jack Welch pioneered the concept of reverse mentoring back in 1999 because he recognised that senior executives were unaware of emerging trends such as the internet and could benefit from regular engagement with junior members of staff.

The concept of reverse mentoring has now gained traction with leading companies around the world who view this as a way to retain Millennial employees. It creates a platform for young talent to provide input to decision-makers and to drive change. The reason reverse mentoring works is that it taps into core millennial values which I discuss in my book, The Millennials’ Gaido to Work. Millennials want to be heard and have an impact today, not when they eventually rise up the ranks.

The Millennials' Gaido to Work
The Millennials' Gaido to Work is a mentoring guide for young professionals navigating the workplace

Social media is something that many CEOs have been slow to embrace and yet this has become one of the quickest ways to demonstrate thought leadership and represent their organisations in this increasingly digital world. For example, the current CEO of BNY Mellon’s Pershing (then COO) used his reverse mentor to help him with social media, which he had never before integrated into his working life.

For professionals, I would recommend LinkedIn and Twitter as the best forums to engage with your network.

Build global relationships

The second way to build a global mindset is to build global relationships. I use the word relationship deliberately rather than networking.

Networking is … where you shake someone’s hand and give them a business card. Where does that leave you? With a stack of business cards on your desk. A relationship, on the other hand, touches your heart and creates an everlasting partnership.

Exchanging business cards at a networking event
Exchanging business cards at a networking event

Networking is transactional and best pursued with a specific and immediate objective in mind. Relationship building is about having more meaningful and sustainable interactions, which may or may not have an immediate need.

I have a preference for relationship building over networking which stems from my background as an African and as an Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK). At the heart of African culture is a strong sense of family and community. We connect with people on a personal level first before we would consider doing business with them. The second reason is that I have spent more than half my life abroad and building relationships comes as second nature. I lived in Belgium, the UK, Italy, Japan and Mozambique by the age of 18 and added South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Singapore as an adult to the list of countries where I have resided for an extended period of time. A three months stint work on a project in Malaysia doesn’t count.

Building global relationships does two things. First, it helps to build local context when you live abroad and settles you down quickly. I build my local network by getting involved in business and economic forums and attending all events I am invited to by locals. I once attended a private dinner at The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore where I was the only non-Chinese, non-Singaporean in the room and was treated like the guest of honour. One of my best and most successful evenings in Singapore! I recruited a ‘bail-me-out-of-jail-before-I-get-to-jail’ friend, which is a must when you no longer have the luxury of diplomatic immunity.

Secondly, global relationships are helpful for building information channels especially in the Global South or controlled countries where information is not always openly available. A quick phone call to one of your contacts would help you understand what is really happening in their country. Tension between North and South Korea? I’ll reach out to my former Shell colleague who is based in Seoul for the back story. Why is the legacy of colonialism key to understanding the Galwan River Valley dispute between India and China? Why is the US meddling in African Development Bank affairs?

Who needs Google when you can phone a friend?

So how do you go about building these global relationships?

Even though I’ve had the benefit of living in nine countries and travelling to nearly 50, I still reference Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map which gives readers practical tips on how to navigate different cultures. It is a book I highly recommend.

The framework has eight different components:


  • Low context: communication is precise, simple and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value
  • High context: communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and between the lines


  • Direct negative feedback: frank, blunt, honest. Not softened by positive response. Criticism may be given to an individual in front of a group
  • Indirect negative feedback: provided softly, subtly, diplomatically. Positive messages are used to wrap negative ones. Criticism is only given in private


  • Applications first: individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement or opinion and later add concepts to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary
  • Principles first: individuals have been trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement or opinion


  • Egalitarian: low power distance, flat structure, boss is among equals
  • Hierarchical: high power distance, boss leads from the front, status important, communication follows hierarchy


  • Consensual: decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement
  • Top-down: decisions are made by individuals (usually the boss)


  • Task-based: trust is built through business-related activities. Deliver and I trust you
  • Relationship-based: trust built by sharing meals, evening drinks and visits at the coffee machine. I know others well who trust you, I trust you


  • Confrontational: disagreement and debate are positive for the team or organisation. Open confrontation is appropriate
  • Avoids confrontational: disagreement and debate are negative for the team or organisation. Open confrontation is inappropriate


  • Linear-time: the focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule
  • Flexible-time: the focus is on adaptability and flexibility

I have mapped out the following countries as captured in the book: United Kingdom (GB), United States (US), Brazil (BR), The Netherlands (NL), Italy (IT), India (IN), China (CN), Japan (JP), Kenya (KE), Nigeria (NG), Ghana (GH), Saudi Arabia (SA), Australia (AU) and Indonesia (ID). Note that some countries, especially in the Global South, were not captured for every element.

How well does this capture the reality on the ground? You be the judge.

© 2020 Muloongo Muchelemba. All Rights Reserved



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