Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes about leadership, equality, management and other strategic issues faced by executives. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – More U.S. businesses than ever before are looking abroad to recruit top talent or tap into a larger global market. In planning for their global expansion, here’s one element many leaders aren’t giving enough attention to: the cultural competence of their teams. Yes, you need to understand legal and regulatory requirements, but cultural competence is equally important. Without it, you’re going to have a very hard time both internally, establishing a culture of productivity, inclusion, and collaboration, and externally, generating brand awareness and loyalty.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

What is cultural competence? It’s the ability to understand and interact effectively with people from other cultures. Organizations and individuals who are culturally competent show a positive attitude toward cultural variation and a readiness to accept and respect those differences. In other words, they don’t just tolerate diversity for the sake of a polite work environment. They thrive on understanding and embracing cultural differences to create the strongest possible workplace culture.

October is Global Diversity Awareness Month, and it’s a great opportunity to educate your team — and yourself — toward greater cultural competence. Whether you’re leading a multinational organization or a small startup that wants to be ready for potential international deals, the keys to success are similar: educate yourself, share what you learn, and work to develop the core competencies you’ll need to be successful on a global scale. 

Cultural competence is critical to international business because, no matter what products or services your company offers, business is conducted by people and driven by communication.  Here are my top tips for getting started.

Start Your Culture Work Here at Home

Don’t put the cart before the horse. Before you can tap into a global market or effectively manage multiple teams in different geographic locations, your company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) should be firmly established in your U.S. organization. Cultural competence is an essential pillar of DEI because it helps create a mindset and a practice of respecting each other’s individual differences. The strongest preparation for a global expansion is to make DEI an integral part of your corporate values, hiring and recruitment process, communications, and day-to-day culture. 

If your organization enters an international market without appropriate cultural competence, you’ll be vulnerable to numerous pitfalls. Your messaging may fail to reach target audiences, your products and services may not meet the needs of consumers, you may turn away top talent in the field, and your frontline professionals may be out-of-sync with local cultural attitudes and norms, thereby offending or alienating consumers. 

Get Cultural Competence Training

To avoid these hazards, you need to engage all levels of your team in cultural competence training. How do you choose the right training program? Look for an objective, external partner that will tailor their approach to your organization and your specific desired outcomes, with content, delivery format, and duration that best fits your operational model. Research shows that most managers and executives prefer online training courses they can take at their own pace, while many frontline professionals prefer bite-sized microlearning that will fit into small moments of their day. 

As you do your research, keep in mind that all good cultural competence training:

  • is based on evidence, research, and experience
  • addresses awareness, attitude, knowledge and, most importantly, action-based skills
  • promotes a positive view of the benefits of cultural diversity
  • and values cultural differences while recognizing that all individuals are unique. 

Don’t fall into the trap of learning about national cultures only in general terms, or you’ll also be prey to what sociologists call “the ecological fallacy”: the human tendency to draw conclusions about individuals based on the groups they are a part of. For example, knowing that most British people like soccer does not mean that every British person you meet will be a fan. What you want to do is understand national cultural differences while also keeping one eye on the fact that all cultures are composed of different individuals with different views, values and identities.

If you are working with professionals in Germany, France and India, how they each approach communication, business protocol and organizational challenges may be very different. Cultural competence training will deepen your employees’ knowledge of different cultural values, customs and practices and of the linguistic differences that may impact communication. It will also help develop your team’s ability to adapt their behavior in a variety of cross-cultural situations. As Harvard Business Review explains in “3 Ways to Improve Your Cultural Fluency,” “as a leader, you must be willing to adjust your approach to others. Never assume that others will adapt to you.”

Keeping Cultural Competence Front and Center

Once you’ve invested in developing cultural competence as a priority for your team, how do you keep it front and center as an organization-wide value? One approach is to use survey tools that measure and track each employees’ cultural competence over time. You might also consider adding cultural competence-related questions to your job interviews and applications, such as: 

  • Tell us about a time when you changed your style in order to work more effectively with a person from a different background.
  • What opportunities have you had working and collaborating in diverse, multicultural settings? 
  • When interacting with a person from a different culture than your own, how do you ensure that communication is effective?

Improving your team’s cultural competence will help your employees to work effectively and respectfully with people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They’ll be more willing to learn about the cultural practices and worldview of others, and they’ll be better able to interact with people from different cultures in ways that feel authentic and respectful. 

If your goal is to grow into an international firm, recruit talent from across the world, tap into the global market, or attract international investors, it’s time to commit to cultural competence.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide culture change through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. His autobiography, “Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Journey to Success” will be available in 2022.