CULTURE MATTERS: WHY YOU NEED CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE
Leadership today is a multicultural challenge. Few of us need to be convinced of that. We're competing in a global marketplace, managing a diverse workforce, and trying to keep up with rapidly shifting trends. But many approaches to this leadership challenge either seem way too simplistic (e.g., "Smile, avoid these three taboos, and you'll be fine") or way too extreme (e.g., "Don't go anywhere until you're a cross-cultural guru"). Cultural intelligence (CQ) offers a better way. The four capabilities presented in this book can help you navigate any intercultural situation.
What are the biggest hindrances to reaching your goals personally and professionally? How do you effectively lead a culturally diverse team? What kinds of cultural situations bring you the greatest level of fatigue? How do you give instructions for an assignment to a Norwegian team member versus one from China? What kind of training should you design for an implementation team coming from multiple cultural backgrounds? How do you get feedback from a colleague who comes from a culture that values saving face above direct, straightforward feedback? And how can you possibly keep up with all the different cultural scenarios that surface in our rapidly globalizing world? These are the kinds of questions that will be answered by developing your cultural intelligence.
All my life I've been fascinated by cultures. From as far back as when I was a Canadian American kid growing up in New York, I was intrigued by the differences my family would encounter on our trips across the border to visit our relatives in Canada. The multicolored money, the different ways of saying things, and the varied cuisine we found after passing through customs drew me in. I've learned far more about leadership, global issues, and my faith from cross-cultural experiences and work than from any graduate course I've ever taken or taught. I've made people laugh when I've stumbled through a different language or inadvertently eaten something the "wrong" way. I've winced upon later discovering I offended a group of ethnically different colleagues because I spent too much time complimenting them. I'm a better leader, teacher, father, friend, and citizen because of the intercultural friendships I've forged through my work. And through the fascinating domain of cultural intelligence, I've discovered an enriched way to understand and prepare for my work across borders.
Cultural intelligence is the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures. It can be learned by most anyone. Cultural intelligence offers leaders an overall repertoire and perspective that can be applied to myriad cultural situations. It's an approach that includes four different capabilities, enabling us to meet the fast-paced demands of leadership in the global age. This book describes how to gain the competitive edge and finesse that comes from using these four capabilities to lead with cultural intelligence. Think about a cross-cultural project or situation facing you. Take a minute and walk through the four capabilities of CQ right now:
1. CQ Drive: What's your motivation for engaging with the cultural dimensions of this project?
2. CQ Knowledge: What cultural differences will most influence this project?
4. CQ Action: How do you need to adapt your behavior to function effectively on this project?
If you don't have a clue how to answer some of these questions, I'll get to all that. But before more fully describing cultural intelligence and how to develop it, we need to spend a few minutes understanding its relevance to leadership.
From West Michigan to West Africa
It's the day before I fly to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Liberia, a small country on the coast of West Africa, isn't a place I ever planned to visit. But given that the university where I was working had formed a partnership there, it became a regular destination for me. I've spent far more time working in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, much more familiar destinations to me than West Africa, which still feels very foreign. Yet the flattened world of globalization makes even the most foreign places seem oddly familiar in some strange way. Wireless access in the hotel where I stay, Diet Coke, and the use of U.S. dollars remove some of the faraway feeling of a place like Monrovia. Even so, I still have to make a lot of adaptations to do my job in a place like Liberia.
It's amazing how life and work in our rapidly globalizing world brings us an unprecedented number of encounters with people, places, and issues from around the world. I guess the world is flat—isn't it? Journalist Thomas Friedman popularized the term flat world to suggest that the competitive playing fields between industrialized and emerging markets are leveling.
The day before I leave for West Africa is spent tying up loose ends prior to my weeklong absence. I respond to emails from colleagues in Dubai, Shanghai, Frankfurt, and Johannesburg and I talk on the phone with clients in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. My wife and I grab a quick lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant, and we talk with the Sudanese refugee who bags the groceries we pick up on the way home. Before my kids return from their Cinco de Mayo celebration at school, I call my credit card company and I reach a customer service representative in Delhi. Even in the small city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live, intercultural encounters abound.
One would think travel across the flattened world would be easier than it is. Getting from Grand Rapids to Monrovia takes some very deliberate planning and it wreaks havoc on the body. The travel and work have to be planned around the three days a week when Brussels Air, the only Western airline that flies into Monrovia, goes there. But still, the fact that I can have breakfast with my family one morning and go for a run along the Atlantic Coast in West Africa less than twenty-four hours later is pretty amazing. So maybe the world is becoming flat.
On the flight from Brussels to Monrovia, I sit next to Tim, a twenty-two-year-old Liberian guy currently living in Atlanta. We chat briefly. He describes his enthusiasm about going "home" to Liberia for his first visit since his parents helped plan his escape to the States during the civil war ten years ago.
As we land, I see the U.N. planes parked across the tarmac. Eight hours earlier I was walking the streets of Brussels and grabbing an early morning waffle. And now I am making my way toward passport control in Monrovia. Maybe travel across multiple time zones isn't so bad after all.
Eventually I end up at baggage claim next to Tim, my new acquaintance. A porter who looks so old he could pass for a hundred is there to help Tim with his luggage. The porter asks Tim, "How long are you staying here, man?" Tim responds, "Only two weeks. I wish it was longer." The porter bursts out with a piercing laugh. "Why, my man? You're from America!" Tim responds, "I know, but life is hard there. I wish I could stay here longer. Life is better here." The porter laughs even harder, slaps Tim on the back, and says, "You're talking crazy, man. Look at you. You have an American passport! You don't know what a hard life is. I've been working the last thirty-seven hours straight and they haven't paid me for six weeks. But I can't give up this job. Most people don't have jobs. But look at you. You've been eating well. You look so fat and healthy. And you live in the USA!" Tim just shakes his head and says, "You don't know. You have no idea, no idea. It's hard. Never mind. Just get my bag." I see the fatigue penetrating Tim's broad shoulders.
I can understand why the porter found it absolutely laughable that a twenty-two-year-old bloke who can afford a two-week vacation across the ocean could consider life "hard," yet I imagine there are some significant hardships for Tim as a young Liberian guy living in Atlanta. The statistics are stacked against him. How many people lock their car doors when he walks by? What extra hoops did he have to go through to get hired at the fitness center where he works? And Tim told me the enormous expectations put upon him by his family and friends who stayed in Liberia. After all, they didn't get to escape the war, so the least he can do is send regular amounts of money to support them. Observing these kinds of interactions as we travel provides insights into how to negotiate and fulfill our strategic outcomes.
As I walk out of the Monrovia airport, a brightly smiling woman adorned in glowing orange from head to toe sells me a SIM card for my phone for USD $5. I hand her 5 U.S. dollars. I send a text message to my family to let them know I arrived safely. While walking, texting, and looking for my driver, I nearly trip over a woman relieving herself, I see kids selling drinking water, and I pass men my age who by Liberian standards are statistically in their final years. Using my smartphone to send a text message home makes the foreign seem familiar. But watching my kids' peers sell water makes the same place seem foreign.
After a decent night of sleep, I go for a morning run along the muddy streets by my hotel. I keep passing children carrying buckets of water on their heads from the nearby well. Breakfast at the hotel where I stay occurs at a large dining room table where guests are served two runny eggs, a hot dog, one piece of plain white bread, and a cup of instant coffee. On this particular morning, the breakfast table includes U.N. consultants from India and Sweden, an economist from the United States, some North American business professionals, and a British physician.
I begin talking with the U.S. businesswoman seated next to me. She works for a U.S. company that sells baby food. She tells me this is her fifth trip to Monrovia in the last two years. After her first trip, she convinced her company there was a growing market for baby food in Liberia, particularly among the many Liberians who were coming back after living abroad during the fifteen-year war. While overseas, these Liberians had seen the nutritional benefits and convenience of baby food and they were sure they could convince their fellow Liberians to buy it as well. The company shipped several containers of baby food. They selected the kinds of food to send based upon market research of the Liberian diet; but the company used the same packaging used in the United States: a label with a picture of a baby on it. The company launched its product with many promotions including free samples for parents to try with their kids, but very few people picked up the samples, and even fewer purchased the baby food, despite it being introduced at a very low price. Sales of the baby food flopped until the company suddenly realized that African grocery distributors usually place pictures of the contents on their labels. Therefore, marketing a jar with a baby on the front didn't sell. Oops!
Hearing the businesswoman's story, the white-haired British doctor sitting across from us chimes in with a story of his own. He tells us how he shipped several crates of medicine from London six months ago but it still hasn't arrived in Liberia. He had called and emailed the Monrovian shipyard from London every couple of days for the last few months and was continually told the shipment hadn't arrived yet. Once he reached Monrovia, he went to the dock almost daily to inquire whether his shipment had arrived. Each time he was told, "Come back tomorrow. It will definitely be on the next ship." But it never was. He is beginning to think he'll never see the medical supplies, and the value of his brief sojourn in Liberia is becoming seriously undermined by not having them. He muses that it now seems a waste of time for him to have come.
I go on to share a couple of my own cultural mishaps and we talk about how easy it is to laugh at these things in retrospect, but at the time, the frustration and financial cost involved is anything but a laughing matter. Our breakfast conversation is a reminder of the many challenges that come with leading cross-culturally. And in a few minutes, I am about to discover that reality again myself.
One of the key objectives for my trip to Liberia is to decide whether we should include a Liberian school, Madison College (pseudonym), in the multi-tiered partnership we were developing throughout the country. Our primary organizational contact in Liberia is Moses, a catalytic Liberian who is leading an effort to rebuild the Liberian educational system after the war. Moses is the eldest of his father's eighty-five children and the son of his father's first wife. That makes him the highest-ranking member of his family now that his father is dead. Moses is short and stocky, and he carries himself like a tribal chief. He consistently cautioned our team against working with Madison College. He was concerned about the integrity and ethics of the president of Madison, Dr. Jones. This morning, Moses and I are visiting another key leader in Monrovia, Dr. Harris. Dr. Harris has done a lot of work with Dr. Jones and Madison College. Dr. Harris is a tall, stately looking man who remains behind his desk while we talk, sitting rigid and straight in a navy blue suit.
Drawing upon my value for direct communication, soon after we get through the perfunctory introductions, Dr. Harris mentions that he sometimes teaches at Madison. I take that as my cue. Notice our dialogue:
Dave: How do you like teaching at Madison, Dr. Harris? Is it a good school?
Dr. Harris: Oh, it's a great joy for me to teach there. The students are so eager to learn....
Dave: And how about Dr. Jones? What's he like as a leader?
Notice that while being direct, I am trying to ask open-ended questions, an approach that usually works well for me at home.
Dr. Harris: Madison is a very good school. Dr. Jones has been there for a long time, since before the war.
I can see my open-ended questions aren't getting me very far. My time with Dr. Harris is limited. I need his honest assessment of Dr. Jones, so I decide to go for it:
Dave: I'm sorry if what I'm about to ask is a bit uncomfortable, Dr. Harris. But I've heard some concerns about Dr. Jones and his leadership. I'm not looking for unnecessary details. But we're considering a partnership with Dr. Jones and Madison College. This partnership would result in a high level of investment from our university. Might you be able to offer me any perspective on these criticisms I keep hearing?
Dr. Harris: It would be very good for the students if you partner with Madison College. Our schools have nothing here. The war destroyed everything. It would be very, very good. Please come.
I'm not entirely clueless. I can see what is going on, but I don't have time for what feels like game playing to me. I come at it again.
Dave: Yes, that's why I'm here. But I wonder what you can tell me about Dr. Jones specifically. Would you feel good about endorsing him to us as a significant partner?
Dr. Harris: It's really quite amazing the school survived the war. I mean, of course they had to shut down for a while. The rebel soldiers overtook all of Monrovia. But they were one of the first places to reopen. They have very good people there.
Dave: And you feel good about the way Dr. Jones is leading there?
Dr. Harris: Dr. Jones has done many good things. We've been friends for many years. Actually, we were classmates together in primary school. It would be very good for you to help Madison. I can introduce him to you if you like.
As we walk away from the meeting, I turn quickly to Moses to assure him: "Moses, I don't want you to think I don't trust the validity of your concerns about Dr. Jones. It was just important for me to try to get his input. But that doesn't mean I'm discounting your reservations."
Fortunately, Moses has learned to talk to a bottom-line North American like me in a way that I get it. He replies:
Don't you get it, Dave?! Don't you see?! Of course he wasn't going to tell you his concerns about Dr. Jones. You should never have asked him that, especially not with me there. He would never speak disparagingly about him in front of another Liberian brother to a complete stranger from the States. They grew up together! What did you expect him to say?
I shoot back:
The truth! That's what. He doesn't need to give me gory details. But if he is aware of these improprieties Dr. Jones keeps being accused of, I expect him to at least encourage me to explore my concerns further. If someone asked me about a childhood friend I knew was embezzling money, I'd tell the truth!
Moses explains that Dr. Harris might have delved into this with me a bit if we had been alone. He says, "But it would be shameful to him and me both if Dr. Harris had criticized his childhood friend in front of me to you! And he's teaching there. Talking about this would bring shame to him. You never should have asked him that—not with me there! Never!"
I wasn't totally blind to the cultural and interpersonal dynamics involved here. But I was at an impasse in getting some key information I needed to move forward. Usually I can make my way through these kinds of conflicts when interacting with individuals from cultural contexts similar to mine. But the interpersonal skills and persuasive strategies I use intuitively at home weren't working for me here. This is where cultural intelligence comes in. It helps us effectively adapt our leadership strategies when working with individuals from different cultural backgrounds while still accomplishing what we need to get done. Later, I'll come back to this story to show you how cultural intelligence eventually helped me resolve this dilemma.