What’s Your CQ? Cultural Intelligence and Effective Leadership

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made headlines late last year when he conducted a live Q&A session with Chinese university students entirely in Mandarin. His embrace of their language was a huge success. Suddenly, the axiom that English is the international language of business seemed very dated.


Zuckerberg professed personal reasons for learning Mandarin – his wife is Chinese, he likes Chinese culture, and so on. But certainly a key motivator was his desire to forge a better business relationship with China, which has banned Facebook.


As one news report pointed out: “The company has ramped up its make-nice efforts this year, but none has been splashier than Zuckerberg’s charm offensive at Tsinghua University’s renowned business school …”


To me, Zuckerberg’s “charm offensive” is the outward manifestation of a capability that has become critical for all executives to master to help their organizations succeed in the global marketplace. That capability is cultural intelligence, or CQ (similar to EQ for emotional intelligence or IQ).


A leader with finely-tuned cultural intelligence understands and adapts to the working styles, values and expectations of colleagues, associates and customers from other countries and regions. Cultural influences have tremendous impact on practical issues, such as how employees perceive assignments and deadlines, interact with team members, respond to feedback, adjust to managerial relationships, and function in different organizational structures.


Discerning cultural considerations and creating a work environment that enables and motivates everyone – no matter their nationality– to contribute to the best of their abilities is the mark of a culturally-intelligent leader.


Executive coaching can be a powerful tool to help managers and team leaders raise their CQ. I recently worked with Dan, a manager at a technical company that outsources projects to an office in India. Dan preferred to use the telephone to get work done, but he was having tremendous difficulty pronouncing the names and understanding the accents of his Indian team. The time zone disparity was another challenge. One of the coaching solutions was to rely more on email, a medium in which he had no worries about any of those issues. That was a relatively easy fix. Some of the other challenges ran deeper.


Dan was frustrated because his team didn’t put in as much overtime as he would like and took time off for holidays. Dan had the live-to-work mentality common among many older U.S. managers; he placed high value on longer work hours and career advancement. His reports in India, however, viewed work more as a means to an end – namely, spending time with family and friends. Once sensitized to the cultural differences that were creating a gap between his expectations and the team members’ performance, Dan became more respectful of their viewpoint. In turn, they became more receptive to him as a manager.


Lastly, Dan had to become more socially sensitive. Instead of getting right to business in his emails or conference calls, he learned to begin with the personal small-talk that eases conversations the world over – “How are you?” “How is your family?” and so on. When he established that personal connection first and then moved into business matters, participants were more engaged.  As a result of making these small, but profound, adaptations to his working style, Dan was rewarded with a much more responsive and higher-performing team.


Coaching can help across a wide range of issues where executives need to adapt to and incorporate different cultural considerations and contexts. In addition to helping managers like Dan work with international offices, a coach can prepare executives to launch successful positions abroad, and advise on re-acclimation issues when executives return home from international assignments.


Here are some questions to consider as you think about conducting business globally:

  1. What cultural considerations might be impacting employee engagement in your organization?
  2. Is your approach appropriate for the cultural context of different employees/team members/initiatives?
  3. What processes are in place to accommodate different cultural contexts?
  4. How are you preparing and training executives for cultural sensitivity and intelligence?


Why are these issues so important? Let me leave you with the words of social psychologist Geert Hofstede, one of the giants in the field of cultural intelligence:


In our globalized world most of us can belong to many groups at the same time. But to get things done, we need to cooperate with members of other groups … Skills in cooperation across cultures are vital for our common survival.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss the key cultural differences that Hofstede uncovered in his research and what these behavioral markers can mean for your business relationships.


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