Leading with Cultural Intelligence


Several years ago I spoke at a few different events in China. I began each presentation with a humorous, self-effacing story I had used effectively with many audiences. And sure enough, the Chinese audiences laughed enthusiastically. It’s such a great feeling when you get the sense that your audience is with you right from the start.

The problem is, they weren’t. I was later told that my interpreter wasn’t translating my introductory story. Instead, she said something like, “Our esteemed speaker is sharing a story he considers to be humorous. This is something many North Americans do when starting a speech. I don’t really understand the point of the story but rather than embarrass him and have none of you laugh, please laugh when I tell you to do so. Then I promise I’ll begin translating as soon as he begins his real presentation.”

We’re often given lists of best practices for public speaking and keynote presentations. Similar lists exist for effective leadership or demonstrating executive presence. The problem is these practices are almost always biased toward certain cultures.

Speaking with charisma and telling self-effacing stories build credibility in some contexts. They erode it in others.

Nowadays, I often find myself speaking to audiences with people from several different backgrounds. I suspect the same is true for you. So what do we do? How do we account for the diversity of preferences and still speak authentically?

These are the kinds of issues and dilemmas that have informed the research my colleagues and I have been involved in for the last couple of decades. Our work is focused on cultural intelligence, or CQ, defined as the capability to be effective in culturally diverse situations. We’ve surveyed more than 50,000 professionals across 98 countries. In these surveys, global leaders tell us they need a more sophisticated approach to working across cultures than learning simplistic generalizations about, say, French versus Chinese or tips on how to exchange business cards.

Instead, they want to develop an overall skill set that allows them to be both effective and respectful. Thankfully, the research on cultural intelligence offers a way forward.

Four capabilities consistently emerge among those leaders who can effectively work in culturally diverse situations. And we’ve developed a CQ Assessment that measures an individual’s skill level in each area. The four CQ capabilities are:

1. CQ Drive: Having the interest, confidence and drive to adapt cross-culturally
This is your level of interest, drive and energy to adapt cross-culturally. Do you have the confidence and drive to work through the challenges and conflict that inevitably accompany cross-cultural work? To what degree do you understand the relevance of cultural understanding to how you effectively communicate and achieve results?

A survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90 percent of leading executives from 68 countries identified cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge for the next century. Cultural intelligence is no longer just a “nice-to-have” skill set; it’s become a critical capability for leading in the 21st century world.

The top two reasons organizations need culturally intelligent leaders are the increasingly diverse markets and the growing diversity among the workforce. For most organizations, the greatest opportunities for growth exist in expanding across diverse markets at home and abroad. And one of the best ways to effectively reach these diverse markets is through a diverse workforce.

The motivation to understand other cultures is more than just a touchy-feely, lofty ideal. It’s directly tied to the bottom line.

2. CQ Knowledge: Understanding intercultural norms and differences
This is your knowledge about culture and its role in shaping how you lead. Do you understand the way culture shapes how people think and behave? It also includes your overall knowledge of how cultures vary from one another.

For example, the dominant preference in the United States is for a speaker who uses humor, focuses on the big picture and offers a succinct introduction and summary that ties together what has been communicated. However, the dominant preference of many in Germany is to listen to a speaker read a well-prepared manuscript that describes the theoretical background of the argument being used, offers a detailed analysis and holds back on suggesting too much application too soon.

There will be many from the U.S. and Germany who deviate from these norms. But having a broad understanding of the different values people learn based upon their cultural background plays a pivotal role in effectively leading and communicating across cultures.

A similar understanding is needed to effectively negotiate across cultures. The art of persuading an individual or organization to do business with you requires insight into what motivates them, how to build their trust and knowing what they perceive as a “win.”

To have high CQ Knowledge doesn’t mean you’re a walking encyclopedia for every culture you encounter. That’s impossible. Instead, it means developing an understanding of the variations on key cultural values, such as a preference for a top-down approach to leadership or direct-versus-indirect communication.

You don’t need to know exactly where a culture falls along these cultural dimensions. Instead, as you build your understanding of their differences, you’ll be able to identify them as you listen and observe colleagues and clients in various situations.

3. CQ Strategy: Making sense of culturally diverse experiences and planning accordingly
This is your ability to be aware and strategize when crossing cultures. It’s the ability to draw on your cultural understanding (CQ Knowledge) to solve culturally complex problems.

The importance of CQ Drive is pretty obvious: How can you be effective if you have no interest in another culture? And the cross-cultural understanding that comes from CQ Knowledge has been emphasized for years in cross-cultural management courses and books. But CQ Strategy pulls it all together. It’s the linchpin between your motivation and knowledge in developing effective plans that you can use in the midst of an intercultural interaction or presentation.

CQ Strategy draws upon understanding the tendencies that exist among various cultures. Some leaders resist the idea of doing this because it runs the risk of stereotyping. The reasoning goes something like this: “Instead of broad generalizations about Chinese leaders or millennial workers, why not just get to know people as individuals and avoid putting them in boxes?”

It’s a valid concern and we definitely can’t assume that culture alone predicts someone’s behavior. That is the danger of CQ Knowledge by itself. I can’t assume all Indians prefer a top-down approach to leadership or that all African-Americans enjoy large, extended family gatherings.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to effectively lead without distinguishing between cultural tendencies when you plan. CQ Strategy helps leaders use cultural knowledge to plan an appropri-ate strategy, accurately interpret what’s going on and check to see if the plan is appropriate or needs revision.

You might find that opening your speech with a humorous story works fine, even if it’s not the norm. But it’s better to be prepared than to simply assume you can lead from the gut and figure things out on the fly. Your gut is programmed to interpret things based upon your own cultural background. CQ Strategy helps you step back and consider what plan will work best in light of the situation and the cultures involved.

4. CQ Action: Changing verbal and nonverbal actions appropriately when interacting cross-culturally
Finally, CQ Action is your ability to act appropriately in a range of intercultural situations. Can you effectively negotiate a contract, give a presentation or motivate people in different cultural contexts? It’s one thing to understand the different preferences of one culture versus another; it’s another to actually adapt the way you behave in intercultural exchanges.

A challenge I’ve experienced when speaking to different audiences involves my rate of speech. I speak with a lot of enthusiasm and speed. That works great when I’m back with my fellow New Yorkers who enjoy the fast pace. But when I’m speaking in Tokyo, I need to temper my charisma and slow down, but not too much, lest I come off as inauthentic or, worse yet, insulting.

One of the most important aspects of CQ Action is in knowing when to adapt to another culture and when not to adapt. It would be unnatural for me to fully read a speech, regardless of cultural expectations. And I find that people from different cultures enjoy my more extemporaneous style, even if it isn’t the norm for them. So I wouldn’t change this aspect of my general speaking approach.

But I’ve learned to think about whether something like a self-effacing story is the best introduction for a culture in which making fun of one’s self at the very beginning may be as much of a slight against the people who invited me than against me personally. The good news is anyone can improve their CQ. And the global, diverse scope of the Toastmasters community is the ideal context for doing so. Talk with other members in your club about the characteristics that are most important for an effective leader. Ask them what kinds of speeches resonate most in their context. And build your repertoire of leadership and communication strategies for use as needed.

As you improve your cultural intelligence, you’ll find that not only does it improve your effectiveness overseas, it also makes you a more effective leader closer to home—whether working with different ethnic groups, different generational cultures, various professional groups and organization cultures, or more.

Learn more about the CQ Assessments and training programs being used by leaders and organizations around the world at www.culturalQ.com.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.

About the Author

David Livermore, Ph.D.

is a thought leader in cultural intelligence and global leadership. He is the founder of the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan. Learn more at davidlivermore.com.