A new book entitled “Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals” by Paula Caligiuri, Ph.D. (http://www.culturalagility.com/books/cultural-agility-building-pipeline-successful-global-professionals) identifies many of these same challenges and argues that successful global leaders must possess a healthy dose of cultural agility. In practical terms, cultural agility is the ability to adapt and flex one’s approach as he or she crosses geographic and cultural boundaries. Culturally agile leaders are comfortable in their own skin, humble, naturally curious and interested in meeting others, and a few other characteristics. Drop one of these individuals into an unfamiliar environment, and they are likely to figure out where to go and what to do. They may stumble initially like anyone, but they learn from mistakes, adapt, and actually embrace the challenge.
How do you create culturally agile leaders?
The answer is not so simple, as there is no single recipe for creating culturally agile leaders. Individuals who have traveled extensively, for example, tend to develop the characteristics that enable them to survive in unfamiliar environments but this alone will not guarantee cultural agility. For example, having traveled extensively, I know that there are some people who are just more wiling to step outside of their comfort zone, to stay in off-the-beaten-track locations, to try new foods, or challenge themselves to learn new languages. By contrast, other travelers choose to stay in familiar (major brand) hotels, eat the same food that they would back home, and interact only with those that are similar or with whom they must interact. In short, travel helps - but it is no guarantee.
Culturally agile leaders tend to possess certain personality characteristics – openness, extroversion, agreeableness (from the Big-5 Personality Characteristics) – that are largely hard-wired. But once again, having these traits does not guarantee success in a global environment. There are many extraverts, for example, that would shrink at the thought of travelling abroad to work with people in unfamiliar cultures. And of course, there is the stereotypical loud and pushy “American” that charges forward without first reading the situation and adjusting behavior as needed. While there are times when this behavior may be needed, culturally agile professionals take a read of the situation first and then move forward with the correct approach.
Humility is also a characteristic that is evident in the culturally agile leader and one that I found to be particularly important while living and working in Asia. Leaders who display humility are thoughtful, respectful, and willing to take time to learn. They scan the environment for important cues, learn from their local colleagues, and adopt an approach and attitude that is culturally sensitive and appropriate.
So it is worth it for organizations to develop culturally agile leaders. In subsequent posts, I will talk about some of the ways to assess and develop cultural agility among leaders, employees, and at the enterprise level.