Cultural Intelligence In The Real World: How Organizations Bring CQ To Life

davidlivermore | May 20th, 2021 No Comments

We recently crossed a ten-year milestone at the Cultural Intelligence Center. In some ways, it feels like we’re working in an entirely different universe than the one in which we started. Yet, there are some consistent themes I’ve repeatedly heard from our partners around the world, all of which play a strategic role in how we think about our next ten years together.

Here’s a snapshot of some of those themes:

“You had me at ‘Knowledge isn’t enough.’”

An executive at Herbalife said this to me several years ago. She told me she’s always supported the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness, but she was concerned that a lot of the money spent on teaching people about cultural differences had little impact on whether teams actually collaborate more effectively. When I mentioned that “cultural knowledge” is only one of the four capabilities of cultural intelligence, she was intrigued. She had been looking for an approach to global engagement and diversity that focused on skill development. We worked together to make that a reality.

Cultural intelligence is a learned skill. It’s not innate. Our research shows, again and again, that knowledge about racism, cultural differences, and unconscious bias does not translate into behavior change. Yet even for us, there are many times in the last ten years when we’ve over-emphasized teaching more information at the expense of developing the motivation, meta-cognition, and behavioral flexibility that comprise cultural intelligence. It’s tempting to default to just a few more PowerPoint slides and videos at the expense of hands-on learning. In today’s information age, there’s little need to bring people together for long lectures. Our learning and development team are working hard to enhance our skill-based learning by flipping the classroom and ensuring that live sessions prioritize interaction, practice, and reflection.

“We need a diversity approach that isn’t so US-centric.”

Starbucks has been working on diversity, unconscious bias, and global collaboration for over twenty years. But one of the things they found in cultural intelligence was a coherent model that could be used across the company without forcing everyone to apply it the same way. Many of Starbucks’ global offices had resisted their previous diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs because they were too US-focused. The topics weren’t relevant to being a barista or store manager in Hong Kong or Dubai. With cultural intelligence, everyone had a consistent language and model with the freedom to apply it to the realities in the local context.

Starbucks initially adopted CQ as part of their diversity work, but they soon saw the connections of CQ with talent management, supply chain, and organizational culture. Fiat Chrysler initially adopted cultural intelligence as a way to help their global IT teams develop a shared set of operating guidelines while acknowledging the regional differences between the teams in Italy, China, and the Americas. But they soon saw that all their frontline employees needed some measure of CQ to work together and support their diverse customer base. At Ohio State University, CQ began as a tool to support study abroad programs, but it eventually expanded into their diversity initiatives and as a way to measure student outcomes. The application of CQ continues to grow because the research continues to expand. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been particularly focused on what CQ looks like at the organizational level (e.g., Can you be a culturally intelligent organization?”). We’re on the cusp of rolling out some tools that apply CQ to cultural transformation initiatives and developing culturally intelligent systems and practices. 

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“How can we measure impact?”

One of the most surprising things to me over the past ten years has been the enthusiasm for CQ in places like tech, finance, and big pharma. Everyone told me that “numbers people” have little tolerance for soft skills like cultural competence. But the fact that our research allows us to quantitatively predict one’s effectiveness working in a complex, global environment piques the interest of the hard skills people. Whether it’s engineering students at University of Michigan and Seoul National University, scientists at Roche and Novartis, or financial analysts at Goldman Sachs and Bank of American/Merrill Lynch, we’ve seen some of the greatest enthusiasm for cultural intelligence come from people I was told would never jump on the bandwagon.

From the very beginning, the CQ assessment has been used as a pre/post measurement to assess the effectiveness of things like study abroad programs or diversity initiatives. But throughout the years, we’ve gotten better at working with our partners to develop metrics that are more meaningful and relevant to them. IBM wanted to know how the change in their CQ scores correlated with customer satisfaction ratings. The US Special Forces asked for help in mapping CQ scores to commander’s strategic decision-making abilities. And many leading health care organizations, airlines, and government agencies have asked us to help them analyze CQ scores alongside metrics like employee engagement, retention, and team performance.

“I had to learn this through the school of hard knocks.”

It’s been humbling to facilitate seminars on cultural intelligence with executives who have lived and traveled all over the world. The reality is, people have been working with different cultures long before any of our research began. I was worried seasoned executives would shrug off learning about CQ, but in reality, I’ve consistently encountered leaders who are voraciously curious and intrigued to find out what more they can learn about the topic. While I occasionally have the privilege of giving them insight on something they haven’t considered before, more often, what these individuals find in CQ is a model and language to help them transfer their learning to others they lead.

There’s no substitute for the school of hard knocks. But preparation can mitigate some of the mistakes and provide a way to more effectively learn from them. Cultural intelligence gives leaders and mentors a scientifically-based model for sharing their insights with mentees rather than just downloading endless stories and expecting them to apply them. 

“We need a personalized approach.”

The first context where Coke implemented CQ was in their high potential program. As an assessment-driven, coaching-focused program, CQ fit with their priority to have their up-and-coming executives focus on the areas of cultural intelligence where they had the most opportunity for growth. Like many leadership development programs, they wanted to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and prioritize individualized development. Cultural intelligence allows for personalized development by allowing each person to assess their skills against the benchmark of the worldwide norms. They can then create an action plan that is customized to their skill set and goals.

One time I spoke at a conference immediately after Marcus Buckingham made a compelling case for a strength-based approach to professional development: Leverage your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. In my session, I talked about finding out where your cultural intelligence skills are weakest. In the Q&A that followed, someone asked me to reconcile my presentation with Marcus’ admonition to focus on strengths. Marcus was referring to hard-wired traits like the ones measured in the StrengthsFinder InventoryBut cultural intelligence isn’t hard-wired. It’s a skill anyone can develop. So it makes no sense to ignore your CQ weaknesses. Anyone can get better at CQ.

These are the kinds of themes that are critical to our ongoing research and development at the CQ Center. I’m enormously grateful for more than a decade of supporting a diversity of organizations and executives all over the world in applying this work. But we want to get so much better at this. We have so much more to do. We’re not interested in coming to you with pre-packaged answers to the complex issues of working and leading in our multicultural, globalized world. Instead, we want to work with you to design solutions that address your challenges and opportunities. Let us know how we can help. And together—we can build a more culturally intelligent world

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