THE STORY BEGINS WITH AN INTERNATIONAL GROUP of trainees and trainers in cold, wet Keswick, not far from the Scottish border.

We had started out as 10 trainees on an International Leadership Coaching course in our first “onsite” in Dubai. The trainees were from Zambia, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, USA, UK … but our countries of residence included Bosnia, Canada, Portugal and Australia. The trainers were from Germany, South Africa and Singapore/Malaysia. The course was tough and two fell by the wayside, sadly. One South African was white (Afrikaans) the other of Indian descent. The 2 from Malaysia one was Chinese the other Indian. One Brazilian lives in Bosnia the other in Atlanta, but is ready to move to the middle East … one of the Americans lived in Austria for over 40 years. Could you keep up with all that? Can get confusing!

As we sat around the table in Keswick last month, we were marvelling at what a mixed bunch were were, but also how this intercultural mix was for us our comfort zone. We discussed how we took our intercultural “savvy” for granted and that many actually struggled with what was so normal for us.

We would discuss issues of leadership, transition, change, growth … the “western” contingent jumping in without waiting, the Asians patiently waiting for an opportunity — and intuitively someone would say — “Kenneth, Pari, what Asian perspective could you bring into this? We seem to be thinking of this with our Western blinders on!” Then we would listen as we would see how some of the concepts differed or were similar through the lenses of a different worldview.

So, what brings a group which is so different to a place where they can all be open to such diverse viewpoints?

  1. Common goals and vision — the whole group was heading towards a common objective. Independently of our cultural frames of reference, all of us wanted to learn to become better coaches to be able to support leaders in our international organization.
  2. Intercultural experience and training — all of us have lived in multicultural and intercultural settings and worked on intercultural teams for years. We had all lived in countries other than our own and had been through the shock of cultural adaptation. Every one of us had at some point received intercultural training and were all aware of the need for “cultural intelligence“.
  3. Curiosity & humility — each of the members of the group are curious about other cultures and other viewpoints, as trained leadership coaches we are also not afraid to ask penetrating questions that probe into deeper levels … so, we will ask questions about cultural viewpoints we don’t understand and listen to the colleague who may be the “expert” in the room, rather than believing that we are the expert.

I love this kind of atmosphere — I confess that my difficulty lies in working in a monocultural setting where mindsets are limited to the possibilities and richness of other ways of seeing and doing. Don’t for a minute believe I have it all figured out, though! There’s a lifetime of learning and growing to do still!

What about YOU?

So, what are your intercultural challenges? What opportunities is your business not taking advantage of or struggling with because of intercultural issues? How can you tell the difference between intercultural and interpersonal conflicts and challenges? What are your cultural blind spots? In what ways are your marketing strategies blinded by your cultural tunnel vision? What can you do to grow in your understanding? How do you include different cultures on your team? What mistakes do you not know you are making? Are you marketing from a Western viewpoint? How do you know if your marketing will work internationally? What public are you not communicating effectively with?

I was told the story recently of an Asian worker who speaks only English and how the Portuguese colleagues do not include him in the group … what opportunities are they losing? What are the hidden costs for a company which doesn’t work intentionally towards intercultural success?

There are many more questions for you to reflect on — these are here just to provoke some reflection and point you towards a desire to become interculturally intelligent and competent yourself.