Building a Culturally Intelligent Organization: Starting a Movement

davidlivermore | September 14th, 2017 No Comments

Guest Post By Kristin Ekkens, MA

Developing a diverse, inclusive, and culturally intelligent organization is not easy – and the work is never done. It takes time, tenacity, courageous leadership, risk-taking, positivity, and resilience. It’s a team effort from across the organization involving HR, legal, finance, marketing, communications, and community relations (and more). Every department, as well as each employee, has a stake in the game.

How do you create enough momentum that it becomes a “pull” rather than a “push” system?


In the beginning of August, I had the privilege of facilitating a session with a group of sales executives from a multi-billion dollar furniture company. Together we examined how unconscious bias shows up on the sales floor, in the hiring process, and in everyday decision-making. After recognizing that bias exists everywhere, and that each of us in the room has the ability and responsibility to manage bias, one participant asked: “Kristin, how do we get more people in our organization engaged in this conversation? How do we change behaviors not just in our sales organization but throughout the entire company?” My answer was simple to say, yet complex to carry out. “Start a movement!”

What does it take to start a movement?

  • Determine your and your senior leadership’s motivation. Do you have the drive and confidence to do what needs to be done? Is this an authentic effort or a check-the-box requirement? What will it cost the company if it doesn’t do anything?
  • Understand the culture and climate of the organization. Is now the right timing? Would a pilot with a few target audiences work best to start or do you need to bring everyone together for an “all hands meeting” so everyone can hear the same message? Is there budget for the work this year? If not, is the company committed to providing resources?
  • Identify the key influencers – many times not distinguished by title – to develop a stakeholder map and strategy for engaging
  • Take action by defining and communicating the business case, key drivers, project scope, and projected impact. And lastly, begin to build your network of champions.

Simply put, to start a movement you need to infuse cultural intelligence (CQ Drive, Knowledge, Strategy, and Action) into your process from the start.


When you begin to involve other stakeholders, they will want to know, “What’s in it for me” and, “Why should I care about this movement?”  Whether you are a consultant, a D&I leader, or manager in your organization, the organizational needs stay consistent. This is what I consistently hear:

  • We need to scale these efforts across 4 regions, 3 shifts, and with large numbers of employees
  • We need to be able to measure progress over time and show the impact of our efforts
  • We need a way for leaders to hold people accountable to using CQ in the hiring process, succession planning, performance management, etc.
  • We need to help diverse teams work more effectively together


I recommend a few key steps for starting a movement to develop a culturally intelligent organization:

  • Make the business case. Explain “the why” in various ways to various audiences. Just stating it once or posting it on your intranet is not enough.
  • Obtain executive sponsorship and engagement.
  • Create a systemic approach, rallying the troops and weaving cultural intelligence into the DNA of your organization.
  • Share success stories. Celebrate the wins.
  • Establish accountability.

Again, easier said than done. Let’s break this down and focus on Step #3: Create a systemic approach. In our Building a Culturally Intelligence Organization chart from Level 2 CQ Certificationyou see five phases described:

Each phase builds on the next. It’s critical to help your organization or client move along the maturity model – not skipping over phases. To make efforts scalable, you may be tempted to jump to Phase 4: Training 2.0 – Everyone. However, without leadership commitment and engagement, you soon find yourself back at square one wondering what went wrong. Some clients choose to engage everyone from the beginning to set the tone for the movement through a motivational kick-off keynote.


The first step toward building a culturally intelligent organization is sitting down to develop your own systematic approach. Use the steps recommended above and customize them based on the needs of your organization. Create tangible goals based on your available budget. Set project deadlines and assign the responsible person. That way, the large task at hand becomes manageable.  Connect with a mentor or partner that will hold you accountable, keep you motivated, and will inspire you throughout the journey!

Charlottesville, Google, and why some need CQ more than others

davidlivermore | August 18th, 2017 No Comments

From the Google engineer who attributed inequality in tech to gender differences to the U.S president’s soft response on white supremacy groups, our commitment to the work we’ve been called to do has never been stronger. Cultural intelligence, or CQ, is most often lauded for its academic rigor and the emphasis on developing skills for working effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. But at its core, cultural intelligence is a deeply human pursuit. It’s about how the 7 billion of us get along together.



  • Families need CQ
    Anthropologist Oscar Lewis says children form their basic values by the time they’re six or seven. CQ begins at home. Conversations about people who look, think, and behave differently begin on the playground and over the dinner table.
  • Peers need CQ
    Our friends are the ones with whom we’re most unfiltered. And for many of us, the opinions of our friends matter more to us than anyone else. Most of us don’t know a single person who would be caught anywhere near a KKK rally. But comments about “those people” or the questions about “safety” when seeing certain groups need to be addressed. Don’t be a bystander. Speak up when discrimination and bias rears its ugly head.
  • Schools need CQ
    School is one of the first places many individuals enter a more diverse world. Some of our partnering universities in the U.S. tell us they have incoming students who never had a conversation with a person of color before they arrived on campus. Yet as students begin to be bombarded with messages about privilege and bias, these programs can further marginalize underrepresented students and embolden white students to feel like they’re the ones experiencing discrimination. A strategic approach for building a culturally intelligent campus is essential.
  • Workplaces need CQ
    Companies have cultures of their own that dictate what kind of behaviors are deemed appropriate and acceptable in the workplace. Many of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Effective training programs are an important part of this but the bigger need is creating an overall environment where meaningful conversations can take place about how to understand and effectively use differences in the workplace. Don’t roll out an unconscious bias program or diversity initiative too quickly. If not done well, these programs backfire and perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce biases.


  • Leaders
    The words, actions, and decisions of leaders carry more weight than others’. What Trump, Netanyahu, and Larry Page say in these moments of truth matters more than what the average person says. Leaders play a critical role in responding with clarity, vision, and compassion for all. These aren’t the times to defend yourself or protect your personal image. It’s about owning the weight of leadership and calling people to something more transcendent than nationalism or the bottom line. The CQ needed in how you use 140 characters is directly tied to the scope of influence you have.
  • Dominant Group
    Language is never neutral. Two people saying the exact same thing carries very different meaning. A Muslim comedian making fun of white guys or an African American mocking the way white people dance is not the same as me making jokes about Arabs or people of color. What’s up with that? Our words happen within a long history of inequality and oppression. Therefore, the dominant group needs to weigh the impact of our actions and words more carefully. In reality, most underrepresented groups feel like the greatest onus of responsibility for CQ is on them. Everyone needs CQ but dominant groups need it more.


Despite the heartache that can come from watching the news, I’m incredibly hopeful. The most “loved” tweet of ALL times was the Mandala quote posted by Barack Obama last week. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”

Hate crimes and racism live on all across the planet, but that’s not the trajectory of the people I encounter across the globe. The incoming MBA students I met at University of Michigan last week voiced their desire to be culturally intelligent leaders of the future. The executives I was with at Goldman Sachs earlier this summer talked at length with me about how they can promote cultural intelligence across all levels of the firm. The special forces officers I talked with a few weeks ago owned the very real struggles they have to view certain groups with dignity and respect.

Who needs CQ? I do. And so do you. So let’s get to work.

My Top 10 Experiences in Cuba

davidlivermore | July 14th, 2017 No Comments

Guest Post By Giuliana Petrocelli

Last March, I left the country for the first time to travel to Cuba. Since I’m the kind of person who loves history and reading up on travel destinations, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the trip would be like. But, as I learned, there is nothing like the real experience to gain new viewpoints.

Here were my top ten experiences:

1. Staying in a local home

We booked housing with a local resident in Centro Havana, which helped in our quest to live like the Cuban people. Our house “mom”, Maria, showed us our apartment and gave us directions to the local bank, currency exchange, restaurants, and stores.

Many Cuban locals choose to make their homes available for travelers to rent. Often, these “casa particulares” are much more affordable than hotels, and the fee directly supports the livelihood of the local population.

2. Eating at a casa particular

Some of the best food in Cuba can come from eating at casa particulares. Cubans open their homes to visitors and offer food for sale like a restaurant.

In one that we visited, we asked whether the family had ever traveled to the United States. A man spoke up and said that he had lived in the U.S. for three years. He said, “It was nearly impossible to get started in the country, with high rent and such a competitive work environment.” So, he moved back to Cuba, where he does not have to worry about being homeless and has more of a chance to enjoy himself in the culture that he loves.

We understood the friendly culture that he was referring to. When we asked where we could get some ice cream, he laughed at us and told us ice cream is for children, and that we should be going out to a bar. But then, he personally walked us to the door of a neighbor who sold scoops of ice cream from her home. Imagine opening your home to serve food to a foreign visitor! This was a welcoming way to experience the culture and community firsthand.

3. Talking to a local teacher

On one of our first days of travel, I must admit, we were cheated. We didn’t quite understand the exchange rate yet, so when a local schoolteacher invited us to his house for coffee, we didn’t understand that our “small donation” of 265 CUP (10 USD) that he requested was almost equivalent to the amount of money he made in a month. But still, talking to a local about his experience living in Cuba was worth the price. It was a small price to pay for his interesting insights.

Arriving at his home, we walked up an outdoor staircase and found a small group of rooms that his extended family shared. He showed us how to prepare authentic Cuban coffee, played us songs by Bob Marley, and turned on their box television to show us the limited channels they received. He explained that sometimes Cubans find a way to get channels like National Geographic, but that such piracy was illegal because it showed the outside world without the lens of the Cuban government.

Finally, he told us was hopeful that the relations between the United States and Cuba would improve to boost the local economy.

4. Learning about farming in Viñales

A popular destination for travel groups is the countryside, where you can visit tobacco farms. Cuba places a large emphasis on agriculture, since the island nation needs to support itself off the land as much as possible.

We toured beautiful acres of farmland on horseback, where the surrounding mountains of varied emerald hues were blanketed in a haze throughout the day. All the farmwork appeared to be done by hand with very little machinery, driving home the effects of Cuba’s limited modernization. The farmers showed us how to roll a cigar, and explained that they were able to keep 10% of their yearly tobacco harvest, while 90% was required to go to the government.

5. Seeing propaganda posters

As soon as we arrived, we were confronted with a large billboard right outside the airport that had a noose and the phrase “Bloque: El Genocido Más Largo de la Historia.” The message was clear.  The U.S. blockade on Cuba was believed to be equivalent to the suffering from a genocide. This was the most aggressive anti-American propaganda we observed. Many other posters had a positive message and were supportive of Cuban society, agriculture, and their political system. I remember looking out of the taxi and being shocked to see “Socialismo o Muerte!” (Socialism or Death!) painted across a wall.

6. Museo de la Revolución and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

These are two of Havana’s best-known museums, where we learned about the Cuban perspective of their nation’s history. It was interesting that at the Museo de la Revolución, Fidel Castro was painted as a liberator of Cuba, not the cruel dictator I grew up learning about.

At the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, I was surprised at the freedom of expression, as many of the artistic themes critiqued Cuban culture, political tensions, and liberation.

7. Watching a Cuban Movie

In order to understand the media environment, we watched a Cuban movie at a popularheater called Cine Yara. As expected, nothing playing in theaters was American content.

The film’s quality was similar to independent films in the U.S.. As a cinema major, I was intrigued by the fact that it centered around two older characters, since it is rare for Hollywood to give older actors starring roles.

Additionally, I was surprised at how often Cuban-American relations were addressed in the movie. Even in a film meant for entertainment, the characters joked about the differences between the two countries. Again, it drove home how intertwined our two countries are.

8. Old cars and American flags

A lasting effect of the Cuban blockade is a lack of imports, leading to many old U.S. cars being driven across the island. People say traveling to Cuba is like going back in time, but a better comparison might be that going to Cuba is like being in multiple time periods all at once. The streets were filled with everything from horse-drawn carriages to modern, shiny cars. This is paired with colorful street fashion, including Adidas and American flag apparel. To our shock, we saw more American flag clothing in Cuba than I ever have during a normal day in the U.S.

9. Wifi parks

One major concern for tourists traveling to Cuba is the limited internet access. It was interesting to observe the impact that this had on the culture. For one, when people used their phones without the internet, it was mostly for listening to music or taking pictures. This seemed to lead to more human interaction on the streets.

There were parks throughout the city where wifi could be purchased from “wifi dealers.” Many Cubans used the park to place FaceTime calls, although the hourly rate was expensive. We were also told that some people had internet access at their jobs, although little to no one had it in their homes.

10. Culture, period.

It’s hard to summarize exactly what makes up Cuban culture, but I was struck by the friendliness and happiness shown to us despite political differences. We feared that as Americans, we might not be well received in Cuba. But by the end of our stay, families that we had talked to greeted us on the street, locals offered to help us find food or salsa dancing lessons, and strangers even gave us a last-minute hitchhiking ride to the airport when we went to the wrong terminal.

Final Thoughts

Now, when I read about the new policy changes in relation to Cuba, I feel that I have a more educated understanding of the potential consequences because of my first-hand experiences. International travel has helped me understand both the commonalities and differences in the human experience, which I think is crucial to understand as an aspiring filmmaker. We observed the tensions between the local opinions of the U.S. and those of the Cuban government. We also came to understand the immense pride Cubans take in their country, despite its problems. From this first trip out of the U.S., I not only learned more about Cuba but also gained a new perspective of my own country. Seeing the impact the U.S.  has had on Cuba helps me understand our foreign policies as tangible realities rather than laws on paper.

As announced in June, U.S. travel restrictions are changing regarding Cuba. Despite requiring some research, you should make an effort to visit the island to learn about the culture and politics of this nation.

Giuliana is a 3rd year film student at University of Southern California.