Cultural agility is the ability to respond quickly, comfortably, and effectively in a different culture and with people from other cultures. Cultural agility is not cultural adaptability. In fact, there are times when cultural adaptation is counter-productive, when maintaining the organization's standard or creating a new approach is critical. My research has found that the most effective culturally agile professionals toggle across these approaches, knowing when to adapt, when to override, and when to integrate diverse norms, practices, or perspectives.
Below are eight suggestions for business leaders who seek to build a more culturally agile workforce:
Leaders who observe many overt similarities with colleagues from different cultures often erroneously believe cultural differences do not exist. Having the same watch, golf handicap, or favorite sushi restaurant in Paris does not mean cultural differences have vanished. It is difficult for you to credibly lead the charge for enhancing cultural agility if you do not understand the need for the ability. Leaders with significant international experience, especially in implementing a strategic initiative in another culture, have a deep appreciation for the criticality of cultural agility. If you do not see it for yourself, speak with them.
Do not assume that having an international assignment means a manager is culturally agile. Succession plans are littered with examples of this erroneous assumption where employees are "anointed" as global talent after completing an international assignment. Change the assumption by measuring the acquisition of cultural agility (rather than time in a host country).
Business trips, global project teams, international assignments, and the like can be developmental when structured with certain development qualities in mind; unfortunately, very often they are not. My research found that for cross-cultural experiences to be developmental, they should possess certain features, including: meaningful collaborations with peer-level colleagues from different cultures, opportunities to use knowledge, skills, and abilities in different cultural contexts, and opportunities to receive feedback on one's performance in different cultural contexts. Within development plans, assess employees' cross-cultural experiences for the developmental qualities of the experience. This type of an assessment will start a conversation and begin to change employees' assumptions about how cultural agility is gained (beyond just "doing time in another country").
When GlaxoSmithKline's CEO Andrew Witty championed the PULSE Volunteer Partnership, his support underscored his and the company's values for developing a global perspective and making a difference around the world. Run similar to a paid sabbatical, the PULSE program enables selected employees to volunteer with targeted non-governmental organizations for three to six months, often in emerging markets. Leaders building culturally agile organizations will encourage and continue to fund opportunities such as global rotational programs and international volunteerism, even during periods of cost containment, sending a message on the importance of cultural agility.
While many firms have increased their investment in technology to facilitate collaboration and the exchange of information globally, firms attempting to increase the culturally agility in the workforce have gone further. They have invested in cross-cultural training programs for global team collaboration and have allocated travel budgets for their geographically distributed team members to meet face-to-face, especially at the onset of cross-border collaborations. My research has underscored the criticality of meaningful cross-cultural collaborations for increasing cultural agility.
An American international assignee in Singapore once boasted to me that he was able to go for weeks at a time without really interacting with any Singaporeans. His housing, job, friends and recreational activities were all within literal and figurative compatriot community walls. Global mobility practices, such as offering access to international clubs and expatriate housing (originally designed to manage the risk of an international assignment failure), actually serve to squeeze out the developmental properties of the assignment. While organizations must ensure safety and security and enhance the psychological adjustment of the international assignee's family members, they can also encourage greater interactions within the host national community (when safe and practical).
These three HR functions need to be strategically integrated to develop a pipeline of culturally agile professionals. Recruiting professionals need to attract, assess, and select those who are (or are likely to become) culturally agile. Once in the organization, the talent management needs to create the progressive cross-cultural experiences to build cultural agility--including developmental international assignments. In this more integrated approach, talent management and global mobility professionals should work together closely to determine when talent is ready for international assignments. They can also tailor support practices to increase the probability that cultural agility will increase.
Leaders can directly shape the culture of their organizations to foster cultural agility. At minimum, they can seek the advice from diverse leaders to plan and implement the organization's global initiatives. In doing so, they are modeling cultural agility by relying on those from different cultural lenses with firsthand knowledge of their countries--not those who have logged the most frequent flyer miles or the greatest number of years in expatriate housing.
A workforce with cultural agility is becoming a competitive necessity for many organizations today. I would encourage you to lead the charge and get ahead of the curve to build a pipeline of culturally agile talent by finding the right people who will develop the most from well-crafted developmental opportunities. These practices cannot happen in isolation, but they can be successfully integrated into your organizations' broader strategic and global growth initiatives.
Paula Caligiuri, PhD is the author of Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals and a Professor of Human Resource Management at Rutgers University. For more from Paula, visit www.culturalagility.com.