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Cultural Intelligence: A better way to fly!

davidlivermore | December 23rd, 2010 1 Comment

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The winter weather across Europe is wreaking havoc on the plans of many holiday travelers this week. It’s a poignant reminder of how dependent we are upon air travel in today’s globalized world. It fact, it could easily be argued that no industry has as much influence upon the global economy than the airlines. But that’s a reality not missed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

My colleagues and I have been spending a lot of time with IATA leaders in recent months because of their priority to become a more culturally intelligent organization. IATA leads the air transport industry, representing 230 airlines or 93% of commercial air transportation. They’re the largest CitiBank customer in the world and behind the scenes, they coordinate the movement of 2 billion passengers annually and 35.2 million tons of goods. IATA’s staff are spread across 90 countries around the world.

Despite the international breadth of IATA’s staff and work, the corporate ethos of the organization has traditionally been biased toward Western ideas and practices, with limited appreciation of important fast growing markets in other parts of the world. IATA faces the same problems many other organizations around the world have faced:
• How do we operate in markets we don’t fully understand?
• Where do we find leaders able to grow local business, communicate with headquarters and manage local teams effectively while implementing global processes, initiatives and strategies?

The traditional solution to these problems has been to send out experts from the corporate headquarters (Western ex-pats) to set up and manage branch offices around the world. In more recent years, companies are sending Singaporean born Chinese or British born Indians to work in places like China and India because of a belief that managers with this kind of bi-cultural background can uniquely bridge both worlds.

IATA has taken a different approach by developing what they call the I-Lead Program—Intercultural Leadership Engagement and Development. Each year, IATA’s top management team select twenty high-potential individuals from their workforce to be in I-Lead. Half the group are from traditional markets like Western Europe and North America with individualistic and low power distance national cultures. The other half are from emerging markets which feature collectivist and high power-distance cultures such as China and India.

Each of the twenty I-Lead participants are paired up with one other person in the group to co-lead a team of junior, high-potential employees in different locations and work on a real-life business project that is relevant to IATA. Essentially, ten IATA teams around the world are being co-led by one Western and one non-Western leader and work extensively on a set of deliverables in addition to their regular job responsibilities. Each pair of participants is assigned one senior executive as Sponsor and one as Coach to support and guide them along this program. At the end of the six-month period, the teams present their project results and cross-cultural lessons learned to IATA’s top executive team.

All the I-Lead participants meet together from around the world for one week at the beginning of the program and again at the end. The launch workshop is held in an important emerging market and attended by the CEO. Everyone participates in a CQ Multi-Rater Assessment, which includes both a self-assessment of their CQ capabilities and assessment by a select number of co-workers and a supervisor. When they come together, they receive their feedback report and talk about how to interpret the findings. And they experience a week of experiential learning about culture and it’s impact upon how they lead on behalf of IATA around the world. In addition to pairing up with another I-Lead participant to manage a team together, each participant will be teaching cultural intelligence to their project team back at their home office which in turn enhances the degree to which they internalize the material.

Guido Gianasso, IATA ‘s VP Human Capital, reports that this program has been one of their most profitable leadership development initiatives. A recently completed empirical study on the more than 200 past I-LEAD participants supports the conclusion that the program has significantly improved the cultural intelligence of those involved. The program has helped IATA build bridges across different cultures and has played a direct role in the growth of their business in emerging markets.

IATA recognizes that the “business-as-usual” approach won’t cut it in an industry faced with a never-ending onslaught of economic and political challenges. The delays and turbulence from this week’s storm will pass but the financial and cultural landmines of globalized business are here to stay. IATA offers a promising case study of how building cultural intelligence not only makes for a more respectful, humane organization but is also directly tied to efficiency and overall success.

**Portions excerpted from the upcoming book, The Cultural Intelligence Difference: Master the One Skill You Can’t Do Without in Today’s Global Economy (May 2011 release).

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