So what does it mean to be culturally agile? In a nutshell, cultural agility is a leader’s capacity to work quickly, comfortably, and effectively in different cultures and with people from different cultures. In unfamiliar situations, these individuals are able to scan the environment, pick up important cues, and then act in a manner that is appropriate for that environment. And, in general, “appropriate” will be one of three possible behavioral responses - Cultural Adaptation (the leader adapts his/her behavior to local culture), Cultural Minimization (leader does not adapt to local culture), or Cultural Integration (a little of both). What is important about the culturally agile leader is that he or she not only senses which behavioral approach is appropriate, but can easily toggle between the three. For example, a culturally agile executive visiting work colleagues in Hong Kong may use an integrated behavioral approach during a strategy session with peers, then adapt to local cultural norms over a dim-sum lunch, but adopt more of a minimization approach when lecturing to an MBA audience at Hong Kong University in the evening.
However, cultural agility is not just about knowing which behavioral response suits the situation. Culturally agile leaders also possess a set of characteristics – some innate (i.e., personality) and some acquired through experience – that comfort and help them perform effectively in global situations. For example, tolerance of ambiguity, adaptability, appropriate self-efficacy, and global experience/knowledge (e.g., a history of global travel, learning multiple languages) are all important components that mix and match and blend together in different quantities to create the culturally agile leader.
So if culturally agile leaders are what global organizations want, how do they find them? Caligiuri argues that there are three ways that organizations should go about building that pipeline of culturally agile talent:
- Recruitment – Organizations routinely use brand positioning as a way to attract individuals whose personal values align with the organization’s value proposition. Global organizations should review their recruitment strategy and communications, with an eye toward maximizing the messages that will attract culturally agile or those who are predisposed to seek global positions. HSBC, the global financial services giant, does an excellent job of communicating its global brand to customers and potential job applicants. Open just about any tab on HSBC’s website and you will find references to being a global provider and the value that its multicultural workforce brings to HSBC.
- Selection – Organizations can select individuals who are more likely to be culturally agile by screening for personality characteristics (as measured by the Big-5, for example) and by looking at work and personal history. My spouse, for example, epitomizes culture agility, having been wired for it from birth onward. Born in South Africa to a Scottish mother and South African father, she soon moved along with her family to Australia, then on the United States. Eventually she made her way to Mexico, New Zealand, back to Australia, and then Asia. For her, global travel is as natural as breathing. Global organizations can also look for individuals that have studied or been exposed to multiple languages, particularly at a young age. Research, for example, shows that those individuals tend to be more flexible, more creative in their thinking, and therefore more likely to be culturally agile as leaders.
- Development – Finally, global organizations can promote agility by providing individuals with developmental activities (international travel, managing diverse teams, etc.) that are designed to promote awareness and build a repertoire of meaningful multicultural/global experience. Mentors and coaches (particularly when equipped with 360-degree feedback data) can also play a critical role in helping leaders hone their cultural agility. The development of cultural agility does not happen over night. For example, a friend of mine with a US consumer packaged goods company recently completed a five-year rotation in which she headed up operations on four different continents. In her opinion, developing culturally agile global leaders requires more than just learning new languages. It requires sustained time on the ground, frequent interaction with locals, and a deep dive into the culture and customs.
As I am nearing my destination and must power down, it is time for you, the reader, to reflect on your own experience and your organization. Do you have the characteristics that predispose you to be an effective and culturally agile leader? Is your organization doing what it can to attract, select and develop its future global leaders?