Here are examples of companies who are really culturally agile and doing very well.
One is the bank HSBC. For example, when they go into a country first of all they get as much local staff as possible and as much local talent. They develop it very well. But when they send their managers there, their managers stay for decades. Most other companies have a two to three year rotational cycle. For example, German companies. They move into a new country, they are trained by the local staff in local culture and how to do things and then about two to three years into it right when they are really understanding it they get sent back so all of that investment into them understanding it is then taken out and the local staff just gets drained and demotivated by having to do it all over again.
Another example of a company who is very culturally agile in doing things very well is IBM. When IBM, for example, entered China they went over with Singaporeans and American-born Chinese as much as possible. Then they invested very heavily in developing their local talent and they have quite a string of mainline Chinese who are in charge of things. It is actually fairly rare to see someone who is not Chinese in IBM. The other thing where they have gone further beyond their leadership in management is they are localizing their value chains. They are localizing all of their operations to be relevant to the country that they are in. Everyone in the organization has a high level of individual cultural agility. The organization as a whole communicates so one thing doesn’t happen in one country that other people don’t understand. Then finally they localize. IBM is localizing their value chain, meaning that they have specialized logistics, procurement, manufacturing, sales, distribution, service, and support, which are all relevant to the country that they are active in. They are not just taking one global system and imposing it everywhere because quite honestly that is not effective.
The first question is, are they customer facing? Are they sales, marketing, executives, customer service, customer support? The other thing too is any vendor who provides services that are customer facing can be as simple as the people who are providing marketing materials, who are providing collateral materials or art so you don’t have to go out and educate every single time. You have a team that is across the board that has these skills of cultural agility.
The second question to ask about who needs to be most culturally agile is, are they working with cross-border teams? Obviously these people really, really need to be culturally agile. You find these people a lot in operations. They are managing virtual teams at every aspect of the organization and this can even be in retail.
The third question to ask when you are determining who needs to be most culturally agile is, are they regulated formally? If they are a group, say finance, who has a legal regulations on top of them they probably don’t need a ton of cultural agility. They need to be aware of the law and so that group you might be able to say not as important as the other ones.
I am often asked how organizations can strengthen their culture in terms of cultural agility and that is a bit of putting the cart before the horse. The key element is to strengthen the skill of cultural agility.
There are six skills for cultural agility: Awareness, attuned, adapting, authentic, acquiring knowledge, and assessing.
Awareness: The first question there is, “Are you aware of your own cultural biases?
Attuned: Are you able to hear and acknowledge the cultural nuances that are going on around you?
Adapting: That is adapting your communication and behavior in subtle and even overt ways in order to be better received and to create a better relationship with the people who you want to be working with.
Authentic: While you are making these adaptations, while you are listening and everything like that it is important to be true to yourself. Be who you are as a person in order to be able to invite the other person to be who they are as a person. We are not talking about putting something onto ourselves when we are talking about adapting.
Assessing: Assessing how we are doing now, what is our next way to grow as far as cultural agility is concerned, how can we better do this?
I was having trouble finding what I was looking for on recent visit to a Target store, so I asked a woman stocking the shelves for help. She also couldn’t find the elusive item, then asked a number of her colleagues for their assistance.
It’s a normal scene in customer service, except there was one difference. She was only speaking English with me—all conversations with her fellow Target employees were in Spanish.
When the topic of cultural agility comes up, most people assume it is only needed to work across national borders. “Intranational” cultural differences are seen as the domain of “diversity,” where managers are trained to include everyone’s different viewpoints to make a stronger team.
This experience at my local hometown Target highlights the significant cultural borders that managers and business leaders must skillfully navigate in order to lead high performing teams. These are the same cultural agility skills whether the team is spread around the world or around the store.
Ever wonder what it takes to truly become the best of the best? For 100 years? If you’re going to be the best, commit to it–not once a year during strategy formulation or an annual event, but everyday in your culture, hiring and financial decisions.
IBM is a global leader that has soared to great heights and grappled with doomed prospects. As the company celebrated the rare feat of 100 years in business, it may be the strongest it has ever been. The following are three things that every company can learn from IBM to contribute to their own success.
Create a Freak Show – In this case freaks are those rare individuals whose unique insights and approaches create an extraordinary impact and singular working environment.
Cultivate Frustration – Frustration is passion combined with impatience. For a company to grow and evolve at a healthy pace, both elements are paramount.
There are six key skills that will help you master cultural agility.
Being attuned to your environment and to cultural nuances
Adapting to cultural differences and ambiguities
Acquiring knowledge about other cultures
Continually assessing how you are developing in each of these areas and are looking for opportunities to grow.
These skills come more naturally to some people than others. It would make sense that those who are more culturally agile are those who have traveled more, or have had more exposure to foreign countries, but that’s not always the case.
When an executive becomes culturally agile they massively expand their ability to advance their career. They can get results from teams around the world, they can get results from multicultural teams within their current organizations, and they also increase their ability to be successful moving cultures from their current organization to their next company.
History is littered with the broken careers of leaders who lacked cultural agility. One example of this that is very famous is Carly Fiorina. She really did not understand the Hewlett-Packard way. She set out to change the culture and was not received at all and blew it entirely. She could have had very different results if she would have built some cultural agility. But she is just a famous example. The thing is that there are so many people who don’t understand why they can’t break through to the next level of management. They can’t understand why they are not getting advanced and it often lays on their inability to be culturally agile.
So I would ask what are you doing to make sure that your executives, your team, and you yourself are culturally agile?