Avaya’s Talent Exchange Program: Leading with Cultural Intelligence

Avaya’s Talent Exchange Program: Leading with Cultural Intelligence

One of the most beautiful quotes I’ve read comes from French-born American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “Our cultural strength has always been derived from our diversity of understanding and experience.” In these few words, Ma elegantly defines cultural intelligence and how, like all strengths, it is developed over time with an open mind and a willingness to explore and embrace the experiences of others. To me, cultural intelligence (CQ) has always been an essential ingredient to grow as an individual, but now it’s become something companies need to nurture as well.

Since 2008, IKEA has been the world’s largest furniture retailer. The company designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances, and home accessories. It operates in 49 different countries. IKEA’s success can be attributed largely to the research it does when breaking into new markets. They forgo surveys, and instead opt for home visits and in-home camera installations to gather data. When researching Shenzhen, China, the company observed that sofas were used as back rests, rather than seats, and that consumers have different kitchen design needs–the coffee machine versus the rice cooker or the need for a kimchi refrigerator. These insights allow IKEA to customize products to specific markets. Their model is a terrific example of CQ and how it helps companies become more competitive.

The formal definition of CQ goes something like this: the ability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations. The key word is “relate” because when we relate to people, we endeavor to understand each other. And that understanding leads to stronger communication and collaboration, making it easier for people to solve problems together.

Technology has made our world feel smaller because of its ability to bring together people from different geographies, faiths, genders, and generations. However, with this brilliant richness of diversity growing every day, companies must be ready to teach employees not just how to work together, but how to understand each other on a deeper level. Why? When people from like cultures come together, their experiences, customs, and ways of approaching issues are generally similar. This is not always the case when you bring together people from different regions of the world. Add to that the tendency to focus on our differences rather than our similarities, and it can make working together challenging. Companies are experiencing this right now. For example, a recent survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that 90% of leaders from 68 countries cite “cross-cultural management” as their top challenge in working across borders. For this reason, CQ must become as important in the global workforce as EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) and IQ (Intelligence Quotient). In fact, the SHRM Foundation calls CQ “the essential intelligence for the 21st century.”

A Talent Exchange

In my first blog, I described myself as someone happily consumed by wanderlust. My mum believed so strongly that her children experience the world outside our home that we travelled regularly during my entire childhood. What I didn’t realize then was how my cultural intelligence was being strengthened with every new country and region I visited. It helped me evolve as a person, colleague, and leader.

I’m proud to be part of an organization today that recognizes the importance of building cultural competence in the workplace. And they know it isn’t something that can be fostered with a one-and-done online training course. Real cultural intelligence develops over time—it’s ongoing—and the best lessons usually come from directly experiencing other cultures. To this end, we introduced a Talent Exchange Program. How it works is simple—eligible employees apply to do their jobs in another part of the world—and the benefits are far reaching.

For employees, they’ll gain deeper insights and knowledge of cultures foreign to their own, which will help strengthen relationships with their colleagues, customers and partners across the globe. In addition, the new experiences and relationships they develop will better position them for the next step in their professional journeys. From a company standpoint, Avaya will strengthen its innovative talent pool with unique perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, all of which will more strongly position us to solve the complex problems our customers will face in the future.

Best of all, employees who successfully complete the Talent Exchange will become our cultural ambassadors:

  • Helping fellow colleagues assess and improve outcomes of culturally diverse situations
  • Understanding how culture influences behaviors, relationships and world viewpoints
  • Anticipating potential challenges as we move into new markets

This program is one way we believe we can cultivate the cultural intelligence needed to stay competitive in today’s global market (and it’s part of proactive, lifelong learning that delivers a thriving people-first culture).

Crossing cultural boundaries can be intimidating. It’s venturing into the unknown, where we can feel like the minority rather than the majority. But if we’re able to let go of our fears and really open ourselves up to new perspectives and embrace (not just tolerate) one another’s differences, we will build strengths we didn’t know we had. And the rewards—both personally and professionally—will be fascinating, revealing, and compelling. Take it from me: the lifelong #wanderluster.

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