Faced with the task of leading across organizational boundaries and cultures, many leaders are in over their heads.

Leading scientists, strategists, economists and so forth have proven their excellence in their home country and honed their expertise in familiar territories.

But thrown into the global arena and confronted by the challenges of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) the tricks of the leadership trade applied at home do not seem to produce the desired results.

“In Over our Heads” by Harvard Professor Robert Kegan, is a powerful and insightful book which maps out the complexities of contemporary society and our mental capacity to reconcile the dilemmas we face.

Kegan encourages us to develop AGILITY, to stretch our mental capacity to rise to the growing challenges of today´s environment. He questions

“If contemporary culture were a school, with all the tasks and expectations meted out by modern life as its curriculum, would anyone graduate?”
To give contemporary leaders credit – the curriculum is tough and there is as yet no prescribed course book to provide orientation.

Orit Gadiesh, Chairman at Bain & Company, refers to the challenge facing business leaders in the global economy who attempt to reconcile and manage diversity and at times conflicting expectations.

“What makes today’s business choices especially challenging are the innumerable variables and uncertainties, the speed at which executives must deal with them, and the breadth of associated risks and opportunities.”

Andres Tapia’s outlined five megatrends in today´s global economy in The Inclusion Paradox. Leaders are challenged to deal with:

  1. Political and economic volatility
  2. A multi-layered globalization
  3. Rapidly evolving game-changing technology
  4. Fewer government and corporate guarantees
  5. A multifaceted unprecedented diversity

The emerging workforce, according to Tapia is, “diverse, smaller and less skilled, autonomous and empowered, both global and virtual, with multi-layered responsibilities. More than ever leaders require the following competencies:

  • problem-solving
  • adaptability
  • learning agility
  • innovation

Unfortunately, this skill set is a rare commodity and organizations are only slowly rising to the challenge of developing these competencies within their leadership ranks.

Intercultural Competence – towards Building an Inclusive Environment
Cultural diversity is given in multinational corporations.

The presence of cultural diversity does not equip organizations to service regional markets or meet global business objectives. Organizations need to build an inclusive culture and leverage diversity to truly drive value.

Intercultural Competence is crucial to leadership in the global economy.

Tapia provocatively illustrates how not being able to manage cultural difference leads us to a state of denial or polarization. He says, we find ourselves wondering about others who hold different beliefs or have an unfamiliar modus operandi:

” We question, are you evil, a moron, or just plain incompetent?”

The key to building an inclusive culture is to develop intercultural skills to leverage our differences and nurture our commonalities, so we can lead others not as we would like to lead, but as they would like to be led.

Leaders’ frustration in trying to manage complex and often conflicting expectations and goals partly results from a mismatch between the way they ordinarily view the world through (their cultural lens) and the way they need to understand it (myriad cultural lenses). A further source of frustration is that interculturally competent leaders are thwarted in their efforts to display agility, empathy and adaptability by universal policies and procedures which are meaningless or counter-productive in world regions.

“When you have taken the time to understand that people don’t think or act the same way and when you are really motivated or mobilized by a very strong objective, then the cultural differences can become seeds for innovation as opposed to seeds for dissention”

Definitions of Intercultural Competence

“An orientation that is capable of shifting cultural perspective and changing behavior in culturally appropriate and authentic ways”
(Mitch Hammer & Janet Bennett)

Intercultural competence is the body of knowledge and skills to successfully interact with people from other ethnic, religious, cultural, national, and geographic groups.

Intercultural competence comprises a set of COGNITIVE, ATTITUDINAL, and BEHAVIORAL skills and characteristics.

The process of developing intercultural competence involves having the right mindset, acquiring requisite knowledge and adapting your behaviors in a culturally appropriate manner.




STEP 1 MINDSET – The Cognitive Side of IC

  • Curiosity
  • Flexibility
  • Open-mindedness / Empathy

The right MINDSET is currency of the realm in global leadership. Leaders need to be interested in learning about other cultures and seeing things from another perspective. They need to be empathic and embrace difference.

Individuals and teams are more committed if their leaders value and engage their expertise and regional knowledge.

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” (Alan Greenspan)

Listen and Lean In

True understanding of values, motivators and intent is crucial to successful cross-cultural interactions. Understanding intent is frequently distorted by cultural conditioning.

World regions and remote teams are disillusioned by an all too common ETHNOCENTRIC (one size fits all) approach to business.

Organizations that demonstrate intercultural sensitivity and adopt an ETHNORELATIVE approach (adapt to the local context) to their business models and leadership profiles genuinely understand the benefit of diversity and are open and responsive to other cultures, people and markets.

“HSBC showed immense strength when other brands in the banking arena, across the globe, faced a real hard time to keep up their image during the global meltdown in 2008. And we believe our slogan, ‘The world’s local bank,’ played a very critical role in the same. HSBC’s global expertise coupled with local relevance finds expression in that tagline.”
(Maitri Kumar, HSBC India)

STEP 2 KNOWLEDGE – The Information Side of IC

  • Cultural self-awareness
  • Culture-general knowledge
  • Culture-specific knowledge

Cultural knowledge enables leaders to understand and interpret cues, communication modes, culturally conditioned behaviors and actions correctly and tailor their own actions and behaviors in a culturally appropriate manner.

STEP 3 ADAPTATION – The Behavioral Side of IC

  • Adapting
  • Behavioral skills: listening, problem solving etc.
  • Information gathering skills

Adaptation is not about giving up a part of ourselves or our own cultural values to accommodate those of others. Adaptation means that we define ourselves more broadly and incorporate other worldviews.

In adaptation, our sense of identity broadens in scope.

Our responses, judgments and interpretations become more multi-faceted. Our thought processes and behaviors are more nuanced and less colored by a single cultural set of values and routinized approach.

The KSAs of Intercultural Competence have been defined as:


  • Knowledge and understanding of culture (one’s own and other’s)
  • Experiential learning


  • Understanding others world views
  • Skills to listen and observe
  • Ability to adapt to varying intercultural communication and learning styles
  • Skills to analyze, interpret & relate
  • Understanding the value of cultural diversity
  • Understanding of role and impact of culture and the impact of situational, social, and historical contexts involved
  • Sociolinguistic competence


  • Cultural self-awareness and capacity for self-regulation
  • Adaptability / adjustment to new cultural environments
  • Openness to intercultural learning and to people from other cultures
  • Flexibility
  • Tolerating and engaging ambiguity
  • Respect for other cultures
  • Cross-cultural empathy
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Withholding judgment
  • Curiosity and discovery

(Bertelsmann, Deardorff)

Intercultural competence equates in essence to social competence in the international arena.

Intercultural skills are not intuitive for global leaders; on the contrary, there is a crucial need to develop intercultural competence both formally and informally through education and international experience.

“The landscape of global operations is littered with the bodies of brilliant technical experts who lacked adequate interpersonal skills across cultures” BCG Consultant

Fortunately in the past two decades, the assessment and development of intercultural competence has received increasing attention in academic and business research and practice.

If you would like to have your Intercultural Competence Skills assessed or to participate in an Intercultural Development Program, we would be happy to hear from you.

Thanks for your interest!

Next in Series: Building a high performance culture in a global environment

Look forward to seeing you back
Yours Christine
Dr. Christine McCarthy, Coach, Speaker & Consultant