By all accounts, Ilham Kadri should have never even learned to read, let alone lead an international company.
Ilham was raised in Morocco by her illiterate grandmother. Girls in her town were taught from an early age that there were two exits in life: the exit from their parents’ home to their husband’s home and the exit to the grave. But Ilham’s grandmother encouraged her to find a third exit through education. Ilham charted her own course and went to college to major in math and physics before getting her master’s degree and a PhD.
Today, Ilham is CEO of Solvay, a materials and specialty chemical company with 25,000 global employees. Her career has taken her around the world and introduced her to amazing people, causes, and cultures—nearly unthinkable as a young girl in Morocco. Ilham has negotiated large contracts in Japan and Latin America, managed projects in the Middle East and Africa, overseen expansions of projects in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, led marketing projects in Belgium, helped open a new office in North Carolina, studied in Canada and France, and the list goes on. She’s lived in more than 15 locations around the world.
I was able to interview Ilham for my book, The Future Leader. As I talked with more than 140 other top CEOs around the world, the idea of having a global citizen mindset came up frequently. Ilham doesn’t just believe those words - she lives them as a true global citizen. And in order for leaders to succeed in the future of work, they must become global citizens as well.
Ilham learned the importance of patience when working in Japan, that a verbal commitment is just as important as a written one in Saudi Arabia, the importance of going slow to go fast in Africa, that nothing is impossible in China, what entrepreneurship is in the United States, and the importance of balancing a healthy life in Europe.
She told me this: “Being a global citizen is not automatically about living in different countries or traveling all the time. It’s about having a global mindset. You have to be open to other people and ideas and to respect the diversity of cultures, religions, ethnicities, races, thoughts, and orientations. This is essential for the future leader.”
In our modern connected age, every company is a global company. Even if you don’t work in dozens of countries like Ilham, all leaders must be able to lead in different situations and understand and appreciate new cultures.
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Ilham shared a story of when she was leading the water business for Dow in the Middle East. She was faced with the challenge of negotiating a large deal between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to build the region’s first reverse osmosis plant. With her global citizen mindset and knowledge of both cultures, Ilham was able to bridge both worlds and bring both sides together in a successful deal for everyone. That success earned her the nickname “Water Lady” in the region, and it was largely possible due to her understanding of and respect for different cultures.
Global citizen leaders surround themselves with people who are different than them and respect and understand different cultures. They invite other people to challenge their beliefs and learn and grow from each new person and culture they interact with. No matter where you put them in the world, they can lead successfully because they are humble, know how to listen, and respect the diversity of ideas. Instead of looking for differences, they build bridges and find similarities.
“Leaders must be curious connectors and understand the perspectives of those who are not like them, use those perspectives, and adapt to different ways of doing things. Listening to this diversity as well as including it, appreciating the richness of humanity, makes me more balanced, more grounded, and more impactful. People still buy, sell, and work with people, so being a global citizen means you understand people, all people,” Ilham said.
Being a true global citizen requires authenticity. Ilham says it involves embracing the diversity of people, of data, of geographies, and of stakeholders around you in your ecosystem. And being able to mobilize them around your purpose. In an increasingly global world of work, being a global citizen has never been more important.
To become a global citizen, ask questions, sit back and observe other cultures, surround yourself with a diverse group of people, and learn to appreciate and respect the cultures around you.
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