Using Cultural Intelligence to Achieve Great Work

Originally published in MediaPost.

I started my career in 1995 as one of the few white people at Carol H. Williams Advertising, a full-service agency dedicated to African American and multicultural branding. Being in the minority at the agency gave me the opportunity to experience the advertising business from a unique perspective.

I was grateful for the opportunity to work with colleagues and clients dedicated to supporting cultural differences. At that time, the racial tension surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial and subsequent acquittal were in full force. Some days our cultural biases were squarely on the table. Other days, we worked harmoniously across all lines. Adaptability became a core skill, and respect for differences, clear communication, and cultural considerations became the foundation of my work ethic.

It was only after my tenure at CHWA that I began to understand the value of cultural intelligence (CQ). The Cultural Intelligence Center defines CQ as “your capability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations.” Mapped and tested in 98 countries, the value of CQ is undeniable—but it’s not a given. The bulk of us never leave our country or our comfort zones for work, and even when we do, it’s often fleeting. However putting such intelligence to use within your own culture is not only valuable, it can promote multiculturalism within the work place. Here’s what I’ve learned from growing my CQ over the years.

There is no “in spite of cultural differences.”

To not acknowledge differences is one thing, but to believe our differences are unreconcilable is where we run into a road block. To get great work done, we must see differences as opportunities for growth and learning. This ultimately means our work will be better and appeal to a wider audience. As Forbes points out, “Culturally intelligent employees also possess the potential to drive up innovation and creativity, due to their ability to integrate diverse resources and help the business make best use of the multiple perspectives that a multicultural workforce brings to the workplace.” In other words, CQ doesn’t just help you communicate, it helps you create.

Each of us has a voice. Finding it within culturally diverse situations is critical.

Where my time at CHWA was about sharing our voices and amplifying them to create great work, my recent trip to our Singapore office was about finding my voice. Traveling to support colleagues on a large data project, the trip included sharing our U.S. best practices on data-driven social media with the CEO of the Singaporean Health Promotion Board. While working together, I quickly discovered that it was not just about accepting and being aware of differences, but about learning a new language around technology, scope, and client perceptions.

I found myself mostly observing and defering to my Singaporean counterparts for their expertise on the client’s business which, in this case, was very specific to their nation. It took all of my experience, intuition, and dedication to our work to remind me of my purpose for travel: my perspective was greatly valued.

And so I spoke up.

I shared proof points that inspired the work. From there, we collaborated equitably on a compelling presentation that landed well and has had positive business outcomes since.

The bottom line.

We can’t make changes if we don’t voice opinions or are silenced by differences. We may adapt quickly to trends, fads, and new technologies, but we need to change constantly to the diverse landscape we live in.

A fierce commitment to continuous learning from our intercultural experiences means we may need to adapt our perspectives to be heard clearly. But if we remain dedicated to putting the work first, and truly consider our audience, anything can happen.

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