Intercultural Skills for HR - how to manage people around the globe

You have probably heard some jokes on globalisation - like someone protesting against globalisation but wearing a pair of shoes made in Indonesia, a watch made in Switzerland, a t-shirt made in China, etc. You get the idea.


The same happens in the organisations. You may say that using a global approach when managing people is not for you. However, like the protester above, like it or not, we all need to develop competencies to effectively manage people around the globe.  

Global HR is not just for organisations with international presence

Your organisation may be a local company with no branches in any other countries. So, why would you want to learn about managing people around the globe? When people think about Global HR they tend to think about it from a geographic perspective: “if my organisation does not have people working in other countries, then Global HR is not for me”.

Although this indeed creates increased complexity to the HR function, the chances that your organisation is 100% local are very small. Think about the markets you sell your products in or about your clients who may be established in the U.S. but have
headquarters in another country. Think about your suppliers – do they come from other regions of the world? And last but not least, think about your workforce - do they have different cultural backgrounds? In the great majority of the cases, you will need to contact, interact and/or manage diverse groups of people. Knowing how to do it right is the key for your success as an HR and business leader.

Everyone needs to have a global mindset; diverse ways of thinking is not just for leaders

You may think that because you are not the one directly facing customers, dealing with suppliers, or dealing with a culturally diverse workforce you don't need to have intercultural skills. Think twice. Although you may find multiple definitions, there's consensus that intercultural skills involve, among others, tolerance of ambiguity, cross-cultural empathy, and flexibility. So, it doesn't necessarily involve (although it would be beneficial) having a deep knowledge about a specific culture, international experience, or even fluency in other languages.

Leaders need to be masters in intercultural skills in order to be effective. So, how can you, as an HR professional (with or without direct reports), support the business strategy of your executive team without those skills? As mentioned in the previous bullet point, that strategy involves in one way or another interacting, managing and/or making business with people who have different cultural backgrounds from your own.

When developing a global workforce, technical skills development is not enough

How do you develop your workforce (and yourself for that matter) to effectively manage and/or deal with a culturally diverse team?
Most organisations focus on developing technical skills. Some organisations go a step further and have training and development initiatives on change management, team building, customer orientation, etc.

However, both research 1 and the experience of many leaders across the globe prove that this is not enough. To develop effective global employees, especially leaders, you need to make sure competencies like cross-cultural communication skills, global mindset, or managing uncertainty are developed.

Training is still not enough

Cross-cultural training and executive coaching are helpful initiatives to help develop the cross-cultural competencies we have been discussing. However, you also need to provide first-hand experiences. International assignments, job rotation or job shadowing in a different country, project assignments with culturally diverse teams – these are some of the most efficient ways 1 to ensure that your workforce is culturally savvy and capable of dealing with current and future challenges.

Development initiatives are only effective if aligned with other critical HR programs

By now you know that you need to be able to manage people with culturally diverse backgrounds even if your organisation is not multinational and/or you do not have direct reports. You also know that you cannot focus only on technical skills and it is imperative to incorporate development of intercultural relationship skills in your talent management programs. This development should include hands-on experiences like moving to another country for a certain period of time or creating a mentorship program where mentor and mentee have different cultural backgrounds.

But even if you have all that up and running, it will be of limited value if you don’t measure the success of those initiatives and tie them to other talent management, succession and total rewards programs. Make sure you include performance tracking measurements to control the effectiveness of the program, monitor those on a regular basis, and make adjustments as necessary.

Also, when developing the program, start by identifying the business objectives you are trying to accomplish and ensure alignment with other talent management programs you may already have in place. Succession planning, compensation, benefits, and performance management are among the most crucial programs you should take into account when defining initiatives to develop intercultural skills in your workforce.

Much more could be said about managing people across the globe and making sure they have the right competencies to succeed. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic…


Author: Ines Viera Nascimento. This article was originally published on the website of the Association for Talent Development, Chattanooga chapter.

Tags: intercultural training , leadership, education , human resources

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