The New C-Suite Requirement: Cultural Agility

If you’ve got your eyes set on the C-suite, you should ask yourself the following question: What are you doing to make sure you go from being a good leader to a truly advanced leader and an agile executive?

Becoming an advanced leader requires figuring out how to ask the right questions, keeping in mind your own biases as you interact with people in various cultural contexts. Your teams and your customers are distributed around the globe, so in order to get the results you’re looking for, you have to be able to motivate, encourage followership, and serve people from all different cultures.

I was recently speaking with Marshall Goldsmith, one of world’s top leadership experts, about the nature of cultural ceilings. Is there a cultural ceiling that executives hit that limits their career? We concluded that there is a cultural ceiling, but not necessarily in terms of a national culture. Rather, it’s the ability to function in every culture worldwide, regardless of the corporation or individual’s home country, that determines one’s ability to have a successful career as a business executive.

When executives develop cultural agility–the capacity to recognize, understand, and respond appropriately to various cultures, and to work within those cultures to achieve business results–they massively expand their ability to advance their career. They can get results from teams around the world, and from multicultural teams within their local organizations.

History is littered with the broken careers of leaders who lacked cultural agility. Consider Carly Fiorina. Carly really didn’t understand the Hewlett-Packard way. She set out to change the culture, and wasn’t received well at all. She could have had very different results if she had developed some cultural agility.

But she’s is just one famous example. There are many people out there like her who don’t understand why they can’t break through to the next level of management. Often, the reason they’re not advancing in their career is their inability to be culturally agile.

Let me give you an example. There was once a man from the Northeast U.S. who was transferred to the deep South. I first encountered him when he was speaking to a group of people, and I happened to be in the back. I understood what he was saying, but he dressed differently, and he used different words than the rest of the people in the room. The woman next to me noticed that I was nodding along, and, at the end, she turned to me and asked, “What did he just say?” The problem was that he wasn’t speaking or delivering his message in a way that was relevant to the people he was trying to motivate to work together.

I was engaged to coach this individual, and we really worked on developing his cultural agility. He became more self-aware, and conscious of the impact that he was having. He became more attuned to understanding the environment around him. He adapted some of his word choices, the way he dressed, and the way he interacted with people, while ensuring that he did all this in a way that was also authentic to him. The results were impressive: His team pulled together, followed his leadership loyally, and was able to increase its sales and profitability eightfold.

That man has now moved on to other senior positions because he’s able to replicate his success with this group. He would not have achieved this success with his team, or in his career, without becoming culturally agile–and this is only a domestic example, it isn’t even international.

Keeping this example in mind, what are you doing to make sure that you, your executives, and your team are culturally agile?