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Cultural Intelligence: Unlocking the Potential of a Global Workforce

February 21, 2022

As businesses connect with wider audiences and attract global talent, how might we foster healthy multiculturalism in our organisations?

Andrew Scott was raised by language teachers. Growing up in that environment, he was always meeting new people, hearing foreign languages, and observing different cultures. These experiences influenced his professional life, prompting him to explore opportunities in China, Southeast Asia and Australia. Taking full advantage of his location, he travelled extensively throughout the region, feeding his marketing career and developing his perspective along the way. At present, Andy sits as the Director for Digital Marketing of Rizing, a SAP consulting firm with a global footprint. He shares his thoughts on the significance of cultural intelligence in modern business and management.

Seeing with Fresh Eyes 

Cultural immersion fosters understanding. “Seeing how other people live and interact, what other cultures have and what's important to them, what interests them from a buying perspective, from a job perspective, from a sports perspective - I think all of that affects you as a person.” Andy is quick to point out that visiting a couple of times doesn’t make you a country expert, but it creates touchpoints that help one interface with local counterparts. Exposure to different perspectives makes it easier to see where others are coming from and appreciate strategies or suggestions one might normally consider out of the box. 

A Culture of Courageous Curiosity 

Travel is a privilege and perhaps even a luxury in a post-COVID19 world. How can leaders give their people global exposure in this context?

As a first step, Andy says “look at what's on Netflix or share books that you've read that really kind of opened your mind”. Digging deeper, he emphasises the value of having a culturally broad team. He’s observed how windows have opened through interactions between his has in North America and the Philippines. “Barriers are breaking down because we're forced to communicate across time zones, across cultures”. One of Andy’s Filipino associates came to mind. Catching up with her Canadian colleagues cultivated empathy as they spoke of Montreal’s harsh winters, “we're complaining about 25°C or 20°C, and they've got -20°C.”

There are instances when individuals are in very localised teams where engagement with overseas colleagues or headquarters is rare. Andy believes that creating a culture of courageous curiosity bridges gaps. People can go on chat groups or Twitter. “You're sort of forcing yourself to get out there… finding what's interesting to you and asking someone who has travelled”. Encouraging individuals to form these human connections across the business creates space for cultural intelligence to grow organically. When those who are younger or haven’t had travel opportunities can be inquisitive, they can move past the fear of causing offence. 

The Business Sense in Multiculturalism

Embracing multiculturalism isn’t simply a function of political correctness to keep the wheels turning in a global machine. It flows from a good business sense. “It doesn't take 30 emails going back and forth between somebody in North America and somebody in Asia to get a deliverable done because they're communicating across each other.” Andy encourages teams to pick up a phone, go on Teams or jump on Zoom to smooth out communication across multicultural teams. 

At Rizing, much of Andy’s work involves internal stakeholders. Sales and business development teams around the world depend on his ability to balance a unified global brand identity while addressing hyperlocal nuances. “One day we might be talking to somebody in Australia. The next day, we're talking to somebody in Austria. They have different needs because they're marketing to different parts of the globe.” Despite bespoke treatment, anything Andy’s team delivers still needs to convey a theme and feel consistent with the global brand. In an international marketplace, managers may have to handle stakeholders in similar situations. Beyond marketing, Rizing deploys SAP Solutions that address many facets of localisation across many business processes. The need for cultural intelligence takes many shapes in the modern economy, and its value is indisputable.

Out with Salary Arbitrage, In with Growth Plans

“You can't just say… ‘You're just not worth as much as somebody in North America or Australia because of the cost of living’, because there's a company that's going to pay that and they'll poach you.”

Andy believes that salary arbitrage is fading away as workforces become more globalised. Rising costs of living in hypergrowth markets, as well as increased competition, are resulting in better compensation packages across the board. In some cases, companies are offering to double or triple salaries. 

Looking at the younger generation of millennials and then downstream to Gen Z, attracting talent goes beyond dollar signs. It’s the learning, culture, vision and mission. “So you've got to do a holistic package.” It’s about addressing why they would want to work for the organisation. Andy’s pitch is impressive, including a good salary package, a culture conducive to growth, development that involves succession planning and a commitment to upskilling. 

Creating Space to Fail and Flourish

Andy recounts placing one of his direct reports in a programme to sharpen their hard skills in the creative space. It had all the potential to be a win-win situation. From his staff’s perspective, they’d lean into something of personal interest and improve their employability. Meanwhile, the company would have access skillset they could use on a daily basis. 

Investing in development plans is betting on people. The process is about leveraging interests, not creating superstars. Heightened performance is often a by-product of personal and professional growth but this can’t be guaranteed. The caveat that comes with growth plans is that they require space for genuine exploration. “It’s like when you're a freshman or a sophomore in college and you go in and you take a bunch of different classes, cause you don't know what you want to do”. Keeping development untethered to job security or bonus structures enables individuals to try new and challenging things, pushing them past any real or perceived limits. 

Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Speaking of the characteristics of ideal team members, Andy notes that strong writing skills are particularly helpful. Emails, proposals, website copy and press releases are standard fare in this line of work. Apart from that, he explains that he looks for people with a very wide foundation, a bit of social, design, website and event exposure. Expertise in each of these areas isn’t a pre-requisite, especially for those starting out. Marketing is evolving rapidly so the team needs to be on their feet, and leaders need to stay on the pulse. Andy is focused on taking the knowledge and experience from his direct reports and colleagues and translating them into actionable recommendations for the C-Suite to consider for cultural change at the highest levels. 

Reflection questions

As businesses connect with wider audiences and attract global talent, celebrating multiculturalism is essential to the health of organisations. What steps can you take to foster this in your workplace?

  • How can you encourage individuals from different backgrounds to connect on a person to person level?
  • In what ways can you give your direct reports the confidence to challenge themselves by pursuing their areas of interest?
  • How are you leveraging your own experiences to shape the culture you are immersed in?

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