A Checklist for Global Managers

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande writes about what Wal-Mart did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  As you may recall, this was a major disaster in New Orleans, where 80 percent of the city was flooded and 20,000 refugees were stranded at the New Orleans Superdome.  Another 20,000 were at the Convention Center. There was no power in the city hospitals. Wal-Mart closed its 126 stores, but within 48 hours, more than half of them were up and running again.  Wal-Mart employees and managers somehow mobilized, with the use of simple checklists:

“They set up temporary mobile pharmacies in the city and adopted a plan to provide medications for free at all of their stores … They set up free check cashing for payroll and other checks in disaster-area stores.  They opened temporary clinics to provide emergency personnel with inoculations … within two days of Katrina’s landfall, the company’s logistics teams managed to contrive ways to get tractor trailers with food, water, and emergency equipment past roadblocks and into the dying city.  They were able to supply water and food to refugees and even to the National Guard a day before the government appeared on the scene.” (pp. 77-78)

Gawande’s point is not to praise Wal-Mart, nor to point to the superiority of the private sector over the public sector (i.e., FEMA).  This situation is where he started to understand the power of having a checklist.

As another example, Gawande writes about the Chairman of Surgery at the University of Toronto, who has been using a 21-item surgery checklist to catch potential errors in surgical care.  What is interesting is that the checklist also includes a team briefing. “The team members were supposed to stop and take a moment simply to talk with one another before proceeding – about how long the surgeon expected the operation to take, how much blood loss everyone should be prepared for, whether the patient had any risks or concerns the team should know about.”  (pp. 100-101)

In surgery, according to Gawande, you can have checklists for three of the four big killers:  infection, bleeding, and unsafe anesthesia. The fourth killer in surgery is the unexpected. So how do you prevent this?  The value of having a checklist is that it facilitates a dialogue, and people have to stop and talk through the case together before surgery. Unfortunately, according to Gawande, this kind of teamwork is not common in surgical teams.  Some research that he cites shows that team members that regularly used checklists showed great improvements in their ratings of their own teamwork.

According to Gawande, “ … under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.  There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.” (p. 79)

What kinds of management situations might a checklist be used for?  Actually, Professor Michael Useem has come up with his own checklist for leaders, consisting of 15 principles.  Like Gawande, he argues that “ … when uncertainty becomes the norm and turbulence more commonplace … a Leader’s Checklist becomes more consequential.”  (p. 41)

Many of the items in Useem’s leader checklist can apply to managers leading globally.  They include articulating a vision, communicating persuasively, and building leadership in others.  However, as many of you know, global leaders face different circumstances and need to take into consideration other cultural variables.  

So I have come up a checklist for global managers.  The “targets” referred to in this checklist are those individuals, groups, or organizations from another culture that you will be interacting with.

  1. Understand your cultural assumptions.  
    • Are you aware which of your management style preferences and behaviors are influenced by your culture?
    • Are there aspects of your management style or behavior that works in your culture that might not work in other cultures?
  2. Map your targets’ cultural values.
    • What are the most important cultural values of the people or group you will be dealing with?
    • How do these values show up in how they do business with others?
  3. Establish cultural baseline behaviors with your targets.
    • Are there specific behaviors that you should be avoiding when dealing with them?
    • Are there specific behaviors that you should be sure to demonstrate when dealing with them?
  4. Clarify your managerial goals and your core values.
    • What do you hope to accomplish – not so much in terms of the task or work, but in terms of your management of your targets?
    • What are the most important values you hold, especially around management?
  5. Identify culturally appropriate options to achieving these goals.
    • Are there alternative ways to achieve your goals that might be more culturally appropriate?
    • Which of these may require your getting out of your comfort zone?
  6. Seek feedback and mentoring from others.
    • Are there people from the cultures you are dealing with, that you can approach to ask questions and get feedback?
    • Do you have a plan on building relationships with these individuals so you can gain their trust?
  7. Adjust, experiment and continuously improve.
    • Are you reflecting on what you are learning about others’ reactions to you and the feedback you are getting?
    • How are you applying what you have learned to improve yourself in your cultural interactions?
  8. Preserve your character and integrity.
    • Are people clear – not so much by your words but by your actions – on what you stand for?
    • Are you clear on what you stand for?


Gawande, A.  (2011). The Checklist Manifesto.  New York:  Picador.
Useem, M.  (2011). The Leader’s Checklist.  Philadelphia:  Wharton Digital Press.