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Building global leaders

Snack food manufacturer Mars, Inc.’s stiffest competition isn’t another chocolate giant like Hershey’s, but rather iTunes, says Allan Bird.

“The primary consumers of Mars products are teenagers up to 26- or 27-year-olds, who are increasingly spending more of their discretionary income not on candy, but on music,” says Bird, the newly appointed Darla and Frederick Brodsky Trustee Professor in Global Business in the College of Business Administration. “It makes it more complex to be a leader of a company if it’s hard to identify competitors or even anticipate where the competition comes from.”

Bird, who will help provide leadership for the college’s international business and strategy group, has spent the last nine years researching the challenges facing today’s global leaders as director of both the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Business Administration’s International Business Institute and its international MBA program.

Four key elements contribute to the complexity of the global business environment, he says. They are: high levels of global interdependence; diversity, such as candy-maker Mars competing for the same demographic as Apple’s iTunes; ambiguous consumer behavior; and the rapid pace of technological change.

“It took 50 years for the TV to reach market saturation,” Bird explains. “How long did it take with cell phones and iPods?”

At Northeastern, Bird hopes to position students to become future presidents and CEOs. For starters, he plans to help expand the university’s network of co-op employers by building relationships with businesses and nongovernmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders.

Bird likens the impact of the international business program on its students to that of a high-intensity baseball camp for some of the future’s brightest stars. If a budding ball player wants to understand how to become a Hall of Fame hitter, for example, he needs to pick up on the techniques used by a Ted Williams, Wade Boggs or Albert Pujols—some of the all-time greats. It’s the same with understanding what makes a top-of-the-line global leader.

“We know that if we can get at the behaviors and the processes that expert leaders use,” Bird says, “then we can learn to teach that to other people. Let’s find out how global leaders think and behave and then develop a program that can move others to that level.”

Over the past nine years, Bird has studied thousands of employees who work for the world’s highest-performing companies, in search of the business elite. Only a select few, he says, are top leadership material.

The best global leaders, he explains, are expert problem solvers, who constantly question and objectively analyze data; develop an intuitive sense of how to manage a business, tailoring their approach to the specifics of their field; hire the best employees for the job; and build and maintain relationships with stakeholders, all the while using diplomatic skills.

It takes at least 10 years for a leader to develop these skills, Bird says. “Mozart was writing symphonies at 6 years old,” he explains, “but, in reality, they weren’t very good. The point is that it takes time for anybody to become great.”

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