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Cultural intelligence – a skill critical for SME leaders

Cultural intelligence - a skill critical for SME leaders

FRANCOIS (not his real name) was parachuted into Singapore some years ago. He had performed well in a Swiss-owned pharmaceutical firm in Basel and when the opportunity arose, he was posted to Singapore to undertake the role of managing the Asia-Pacific business.

Francois had worked in multiple European countries and a two-year stint in the US. At the age of 46, Francois was at the peak of his career, and based on his track records, his boss, the global CEO, had high expectations. Francois’ mission was to grow the Asia-Pacific business during his three-year posting.

Francois and his employer had two challenges, both should have been foreseeable. One, the pharmaceutical industry was going through a disruptive period. With multiple patents expiring came the advent of generic drugs, and this in itself posed the greatest business challenge. To make things worse, new drug discoveries were nowhere on the horizon.

Secondly, the company overlooked the fact that the seven countries that Francois had to manage were culturally different. Francois did not do sufficient homework on his part as well, and as an example, he thought that Chinese people in the seven Asia-Pacific countries were all the same. Of course, this is not the case.

Eight months after – the CEO called in an executive coach as nothing was going right. Francois had failed to garner the full support of his key leaders, and found himself fighting not just a business war, but flagging staff morale. He became a leader without sufficient followers. Alas, the damage had already been done, and un-doing it was almost a mission impossible. The company eventually took a decision to outplace him.

There are lessons to be learnt here for SME owners as well as leaders. SMEs are more likely than not to be looking at opportunities to venture beyond the shores of Singapore for growth. What has worked well in Singapore might work overseas, with some tweaking here and there, business-wise.

For sure, we have to work with others, both colleagues & customers, in a foreign land. Hence, we need also to inject a huge dose of cultural awareness & sensitivity. Managing a team of developers in Vietnam is quite different from getting things done with another group in Bangalore.

As leaders, the key lesson for us is to continuously take charge of our own career, un-learn, re-learn & learn. Your past accomplishments and glory are important, but not as critical as your future contributions to the business. Nobody owes you a lifelong career.

Managing across borders is no longer just the responsibility of jet-setting business leaders, but it has also become a part of every management’s focus for SMEs expanding outside Singapore. Organisations will have to identify & develop effective cross-cultural leaders as one of the top management priorities, not only to thrive but for mere continued existence.

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) has become one of the most sought after soft skills for leaders who have to manage and operate the complex web of regional and even global operations and expanded market places. Leaders need to engage people, build connections, find common purpose and turn resources into capabilities amid ever-evolving global challenges.

Leadership qualities such as being visionary, inspirational, supportive, competent, resilient, etc still apply, but now they have to be perceived equally by people outside Singapore, and across different cultures.

While a high emotional intelligence (EQ) may help us to read expectations of others and modify our behaviours appropriately when we interact with people from diverse social environments, a high cultural intelligence (CQ) will help us read their expectations, and adapt our actions appropriately in a cross-cultural environment.

According to Cultural Intelligence Center, CQ is our capability to function effectively in a variety of cultural contexts (eg, national, ethnic, organisational, generational, vocational etc.) It is about being ourselves while respecting others. There are four aspects of CQ: (1) Drive (2) Knowledge (3) Strategy and (4) Action. Leaders with high CQ are strong in all four. They are natural bridge builders building trust and connecting people, and can handle challenging multicultural situations with ease because they know how to adapt and adopt strategies appropriate to different cultural situations.

So long as we have the motivation, and the self-awareness on our own cultural pattern, enhancing our level of CQ, just like emotional quotient (EQ) can be learnt.

Frequent travelling does not necessarily mean we will naturally have a higher level of CQ. If one does not take an interest in the people and their behavioural traits, merely collecting passport stamps will not increase one’s ability to connect with people from that culture. Thus, there is a need to “discover others” – what we term as CQ drive.

Curiosity helps increase our CQ knowledge when we visit a country, find out more about its people, history, food, customs etc. Besides reading, another simple strategy is to talk to the locals, at the hotel, in the cab, while dining, etc. Cab drivers, from our experience, are one of the better bets as they are “connected” to the ground, and frequently are more than keen to share as a “break” from their otherwise monotonous duties ferrying people from Point A to Point B.

More important and perhaps the relatively more challenging aspects are to develop our abilities to strategise (CQ Strategy) and appropriately adjust our actions (CQ Action) so that we can attain the intended outcomes under the different cultural situations.

Getting involved in projects with overseas partners will provide the first-hand experience to sharpen one’s skill, but the best is to get on a regional or even international assignment. Not only will we get to practice & strengthen our CQ Strategy and CQ Action through interactions with people in another country, but it will also help build a strong support network outside our home country, thus paving our way to successful regional/global leadership, and continued success for our businesses.