It makes sense, too. When my father and his father were still in the labor force, it was a rare occasion when they would come in contact with a foreign national, let alone communicate real-time with clients, colleagues or customers in other parts of the world. Today the workplace is very different. Technology and globalization have brought many more employees together with colleagues and customers in other corners of the world. And given the greater proportion of individual contributors, versus the number of organizational leaders, it is important for global organizations to ensure that all of their employees (or at least the increasing number who interact with diverse constituents) to possess the ability to do so effectively.
So assuming that organizations are not prepared to send every employee abroad for an expatriate assignment, what can they do to prepare their workforce? While every situation is different, I believe there are several options:
- Select and develop culturally agile and globally-minded talent – Paula Caligiuri, Ph.D., and others have demonstrated that it is possible to select individuals who possess certain attributes – a mix of immutable traits and personal experience (e.g., international travel) - that predispose them to be more culturally agile and globally minded. Thus, organizations should seek out individuals who have these traits and life experiences (as well as the critical KSAs). Once hired, organizations can also develop these skills through formal training, mentoring opportunities, and provide on-the-job and off-the-job experience.
- Provide the right tools and create the right environment – In order to communicate and collaborate across cultures, time zones and geographic regions, leaders must also provide employees with the tools and technology to do that effectively. For example, Skype (with or without video) is a cost-effective and simple way to stay connected when face-to-face interaction is not possible. However, in addition to tools and technology that facilitate communication, employees who must interact with colleagues and customers in very different time-zones (e.g., the United States and China) should also be given the flexibility to adapt their approach as needed to get the job done in a respectful manner. For example, when I lived in Hong Kong, I frequently participated in evening conference calls with colleagues and customers back in the US and in Europe. I understood that this was a necessary part of working globally and my job provided the flexibility to accomplish my tasks on a schedule that deviated from the traditional 9-5. Similarly, my colleagues back in the U.S. could adjust their hours so that the inconvenience of late-night conference calls was not my burden 100% of the time.
- Demonstrate commitment at the top – Senior leaders must also emphasize the importance of working effectively across geographic regions and cultures. If employees do not feel that leaders are walking the talk with regard to cultural agility and cross-cultural competence, they are less likely to view it as a real priority. Worse still, talented employees who value it personally but do not see it as a priority for leaders or their section of the organization may disengage and depart.
- Leverage local managers to promote a climate of agility – Beginning with Ben Schneider and the work of his colleagues in the 1980s, research on work-group climate has consistently shown that managers play a critical role in setting the tone for what is valued at the work-group level. Research on service climate, for example, taught us that managers in retail organizations who emphasize the importance of service in their daily communication, who reward employees who deliver high quality care, and who support their employees with the tools and training to deliver high quality service, report significantly stronger outcomes (customer loyalty and satisfaction, financial success) than those who do not. In the same way, managers can promote a climate of cultural agility by engaging in such behavior as emphasizing the benefits of a multicultural work environment, by demonstrating agility and curiosity in their own interaction with multicultural and global constituents, by rewarding employees for exhibiting the same behavior, and by empowering employees to adapt within reason (e.g., flexible schedules, alternative methods of working) to carry out their global responsibilities.
While an organization of culturally agile and globally minded leaders and employees will not guarantee success (it cannot compensate for poorly designed or unwanted products, for example), they are a critical component in the increasingly global and interconnected economy.
In subsequent posts, I will be sharing highlights from a global benchmarking study of employee opinions. Among other things, the Cultural Agility Climate SurveyTM asks employees to evaluate organizational leaders on their cultural agility and global competence, as well as the tools and training that employees have received to operate in a multicultural and global environment. Results will also be segmented by region, generation (X, Y, etc.), industry and other key demographics.