Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Yea 2023 Southeast Award winner. 

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Diversity, equity and inclusion may be an issue for U.S. politicians who are targeting DEI in the culture wars, but astute senior executives understand the value of diversity-led culture change, particularly with operations and markets spread across the world. Global-thinking business leaders wisely see the value of business-focused DEI strategies that enable organizations to become more efficient, collaborative, innovative and profitable. 

Based on changing demographics, immigration policies and other factors, American businesses are more reliant on the global marketplace than ever before. After the supply chain challenges the nation faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, we all realize the interdependence of the international supply chain. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

There are also significant changes taking place within the country that have economic implications. For example, the population of U.S. workers is shrinking, which requires companies to rely more on immigrants and globally dispersed talent. 

In order to succeed in the global market, companies must operate across borders and cultures. To do this well, executives must become culturally competent. Cultural competence is 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.


Executive teams that lack cultural competence open the organization up to numerous potential pitfalls. We have all heard stories or read about leaders who travel across geographic locations and alienate employees because of culturally inappropriate behavior. Many companies see productivity decline based on miscommunication or misinterpreted directions. Poor cross-cultural communication can also undermine relationships with employees or suppliers who are based in other countries.

Individual leaders can take steps to increase their cultural competence. Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues in India. To maximize my effectiveness, I used these three tips: 

  1. Be curious and do your homework

To be successful in my position, I had to first learn about the business culture. Several members of my team had experience working in India, so I asked them many questions: What were some of the cultural norms that I needed to understand? What were some of the phrases that sound and work just fine in the U.S., but might not be appropriate when speaking to someone of European or Indian descent? These conversations helped me improve my readiness, but I also had to be willing to learn and be curious about another culture.

  1. Make personal connections

Before every in-person business meeting, I made sure I crafted introductory emails in order to get to know the people I was meeting with on a personal level. I shared details about myself. I also made sure to ask my new colleagues about where they were from and how long they had been with their respective companies. As a result, when I landed at the airport in a different country, I was not meeting people for the first time. Instead, I was speaking with colleagues who I developed a relationship with. It was, “It’s so nice to meet you in person,” instead of “It’s so nice to meet you.” Politeness is universal, as is a smile. I found that thoughtful curiosity is almost always welcomed. 

  1. Focus on the relationship, not only on the deal

Being humble is really important. You could talk to many people and read countless books and articles about a culture, but there are still nuances that you will meet on the ground. You won’t have all the answers, which makes many business leaders uncomfortable. 

Pay special attention to your contact or liaison, who will want to help you be ready to meet their superiors, because you represent their good judgment. Don’t hesitate to ask about appropriate behavior and how to best communicate in meetings. Remember, you’re creating the foundation of a long-term relationship.


The main point that I want you to contemplate is how curiosity is essential when thinking about cultural competence. While I’ve benefited from the tips above, there’s a limit to what individuals can do by themselves. I had mentors and coaches who gave me the feedback I needed, which was extremely valuable as I engaged with executives from different cultures. 

Every leader needs someone to tell them hard truths, which can be challenging for executives whothat have many successes and accomplishments. However, learning development is indispensable at every level, particularly in global scenarios. To help fill this gap, The Diversity Movement has created TDM LeaderView, an assessment tool that enables leaders to identify their strengths and opportunities for growth. As a learning and development process, the tool identifies ways the whole leadership team can work on their inclusive leadership skills together, enabling them to become more cohesive and effective. 

As an individual, I’ve benefited from being able to work across cultures, but I couldn’t have been as successful without many people helping me broaden my skills, especially in areas where I had little experience. TDM LeaderView enables leadership teams to support each other in a similar way, so each person develops the cultural competencies that power global business excellence. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Southeast Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to change the world. As TDM CEO, he has guided work with hundreds of clients and through millions of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.