David Livermore, Research Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Questrom, was recently interviewed by Insights@Questrom contributor Drew Vaughan about his commitment to cultural intelligence and global leadership.
You’ve spent the last 25 years researching cultural intelligence. What is cultural intelligence and why do leaders need it?
Cultural intelligence is your ability to lead anyone, anywhere. You’ve heard about IQ and EQ. Cultural intelligence, or CQ, stems from the same body of research and it’s a way of measuring and developing the capabilities to lead effectively in complex, multicultural, unpredictable environments.
Whether you’re a leader who is traveling all over the world, managing a team who all live in the same metropolitan area, or spending most of your day on Zoom, cultural intelligence helps you read a situation quickly and accurately. It provides you with direction for how to operate more successfully in a world where cultural boundaries are increasingly diffuse and blurry.
Is cultural intelligence primarily for leaders in large, multinational companies?
This is a common misperception but every leader today needs cultural intelligence; it’s one of the reasons we’re taking such a strategic approach to developing it in our students at Questrom.
Your question is a fair one. Because we can easily see the relevance of cultural intelligence for leaders in global companies like Google, Qatar Airways, or BMW. But even leaders in local companies with no international presence interact with colleagues, suppliers, and customers from a diversity of backgrounds and they’re expected to manage their work in light of global trends, events, and realities.
Leading with cultural intelligence is not about geography. Every leader needs some degree of cultural intelligence to navigate the inevitable volatility, complexity, and diversity of today’s global business environment.
Is cultural intelligence something any leader can learn? Can people actually get better at it?
Yes! This is a critical aspect of cultural intelligence. In conducting our research, we specifically focused on assessing and developing leadership capabilities that anyone can improve. All of the skills included in cultural intelligence are things we can get better at, which is why many organizations around the world have adopted CQ. They use it to help their leaders get better at decision-making, conflict resolution, branding, negotiation, and much more in light of the global context of business.
How does cultural intelligence impact the ability of leaders to make informed and culturally sensitive decisions, especially in diverse and globalized work environments?
Decision making is something leaders do all day long. Where do we want to hold the next off-site? Which job candidate should we hire? When will we be ready to launch the new product? What is our remote work policy? What’s our growth strategy for 2024?
When everyone is from the same cultural background, there’s an unspoken understanding about who makes a decision, how it should be made, and the ideal way to execute it. But the more diverse and global the team, the less you can assume about what makes for a “good” decision-making process.
For starters, who should ultimately make the decision? The level of hierarchy within an organization and its culture is an important factor but it’s not quite that simple. For example, even though most US organizations are relatively flat, US decision-making often looks more similar to how decisions are made in places like India and Brazil. The decision is often made by one senior leader, albeit typically with input from others along the way. In Japan however, many organizations use the ringi system of decision-making that builds consensus from the bottom up. Managers in lower ranks of the organization discuss a new proposal together before presenting it to managers in the next level up. This upward progression continues and when the proposal reaches the highest level of decision-makers, it is either implemented or not. This gives the organization confidence that everyone collectively had a chance to weigh in on the decision.
Cultural intelligence provides insight into the assumptions people have about who should make the decision and more importantly, it provides a way to develop an inclusive, effective process for how to make good decisions on your team. Culturally intelligent leaders aren’t trying to appeal to everyone’s preferences about decision-making but they’re mindful of the differences and figure out ways to use them to lead to better decisions.
What role does cultural intelligence play in shaping the narrative and storytelling of a global brand, and how does it impact consumer perceptions?
Imagine you’re a leader for a US financial services firm and your marketing team presents you with a mock-up for an advertisement targeting the Latino population. The ad features a brown couple enjoying their retirement on a private beach. But spending time alone on a beach is incongruent with the collectivist and family-focused values of many Latin American cultures. A Latino colleague suggests you replace the image with a picture of the couple standing in their kitchen surrounded by extended family, a much more appealing vision of retirement for many Latinos. But you’re not sure. Is that accurate and even if it is, will you be perpetuating stereotypes? Surely there are Latino couples who would be quite happy with a retirement alone on the beach. And by the way, what’s the right language for referring to this demographic? Is it Latino? Latinx? Hispanic? Or something else?
Cultural intelligence helps you answer these questions. It gives you the tools to adjust your narrative for a diversity of groups without overdoing it and resorting to stereotypes. It helps you go beyond the conventional wisdom taught about marketing to adjust your strategy for a diversity of consumers. For a consumer who is risk averse, a compelling narrative often means providing a high level of detail and demonstrating how you’ve considered the potential risks. Others are annoyed with too many details and find a big picture overview and story much more compelling. Cultural intelligence helps you design your narrative so that a diversity of consumers are able to engage with your brand.
You’ve recently joined Boston University. How is cultural intelligence related to your work at Questrom?
Global engagement is one of our five strategic pillars at BU. We see it as a critical part of our mission and at Questrom, we’re developing some exciting ways to partner with industry leaders around the world to develop the cultural intelligence and global fluency of our students. This includes integrating the realities of global business into our curriculum, giving our students firsthand access to culturally intelligent executives and companies, and partnering with our alumni and corporate partners to engage in cutting edge research about global leadership. I’m incredibly grateful for BU’s global vision and exited to work together to build culturally intelligent leaders.