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How culturally intelligent is your organisation?

Posted on by from Changeboard

Aligning local and global strategies could be the key to driving your business forward. We canvassed global leaders for advice on how to define and achieve cultural intelligence.

Equipping yourself with the right technology and knowledge is a strong combination, but ensuring your global workforce is fully supported – and supports you – makes for a robust future. Here, experts share their strategies for ensuring cultural intelligence (CI) is, and always will be, present within their organisations. 

David Roberts, global HR director, American Express

I like to think of culture as how we approach achieving goals at work. The definition is important when talking about ‘intelligence’: to be intellectual, you need to understand what defines the topic in your business; true intelligence is being able to adapt, or even influence it to align to your strategy. 

We are a relationship business and rely on our network in a complex matrix structure. However, we know there’s a need to evolve our culture, aligning it to our strategy of maximising revenue growth. This requires our global teams to understand and adapt it, which needs to be achieved through carefully planned building blocks. In most organisations this will take the form of communications, structures, hiring decisions and rewards. However, my first step is ensuring employees can clearly articulate the strategy, relative to them.

Simon Wright, head of talent, UKTV


The Harvard Business Review describes cultural intelligence as “an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would”. You need to maintain the company culture across many different departments, and often, countries. 

Should we adapt or change the culture depending on the area, department or client base? Communication is key. People must be aware of common goals, and transparency from senior management needs to be communicated; this helps create a sense of CI. 

Managing a global workforce is tricky. You’re rarely there to see what’s going on but regular communication and inclusivity is essential. It’s about understanding how different cultures in different departments can feed into company goals and individuals knowing the part they have to play.

“It’s about social norms that influence how people think, feel and act”

Sarah Homer, people and culture director, MEC EMEA

The world has become a smaller place for global organisations. The rules of the game have changed, people interact in ‘real time’ across multinational, multicultural and tech-enabled invisible boundaries. People are connected and yet mobile at the same time. Respect for individual needs, values and differences (and not just gender, race or sexuality but diversity of thought, work style, education or experiences) is no longer a choice. 

At MEC, we embrace and actively encourage difference. Our manifesto “Don’t just live. Thrive” outlines the opportunities for colleagues to grow and be their best selves. We have a culture that celebrates the uniqueness of every single person who works here. But what does this actually mean? Well, for MEC, this includes driving a culture of real-time feedback, a culture where everyone has a voice and is supported; creating an ‘experience’ for colleagues and embracing how people want to work to drive change, rather than being fixated on policies and processes.

Dee Jas, people director, Girl Effect

As a charity, our organisation is built on the premise of ‘culture brands’; work that resonates with girls in their countries and provides an authentic reflection of their reality. CI is critical for us, the key word being ‘intelligence’. It implies something more than information; it is deliberate and insightful as well as applicable. 

To me, CI means having a sensibility in the organisation that respects values and applies cultural insights to create an engaging, diverse work environment, and inform the development of relevant products and services. Managing a global workforce is difficult; you want to promote a sense of ‘one-ness’ so it’s important to identify the elements you don’t want to compromise and where to be truly global. 

Local context becomes important in alignment and expression; how can we translate global approaches to fit locally and shape global approaches using local intelligence? Looking at wider business trends, CI becomes evermore prevalent given the focus on understanding your market and customers, plus the desire for innovation and personalisation. It’s about understanding social norms that influence how people (consumers and employees) think, feel and act.

Annabel Jones, HR director, ADP UK

ADP operates in more than 100 countries, which brings a litany of challenges, from legislation to regulation. One of the most important goals for us is to keep our culture aligned and robust. Working across borders means CI is key to successful organisations. Here are tips to ensure that CI is recognised by your entire organisation. 

Teach CI: As companies become more global, the HR challenges that arise become central to their success or failure. If HR representatives and management don’t incorporate the four CI capabilities (motivation, cognition, meta-cognition and behaviour) into their employees’ learning, they could see their culture become siloed. 

Lead from the top: Management should demonstrate the CI it hopes to filter down to the workforce, working across borders to enhance the shared culture, while understanding the separate distinctions. 

Don’t let technology alienate: The rising number of remote and flexible workers means the workplace is changing. Technology can help connect your workforce, take care not to let it separate and alienate colleagues.

“Respect for individual needs, values and differences is no longer a choice”

Claire Cusack, HR director, Allianz Worldwide Care

Our workforce reflects the international nature of Allianz Worldwide Care’s business, with more than 60 nationalities and almost 30 languages spoken throughout the company. CI is the ability to understand and work productively with people of different nationalities, beliefs, gender or culture. CI is our capability to relate to, and work with, a multitude of cultures. 

We have developed a dynamic, flexible workforce via learning and development and HR programmes focusing on leveraging our diverse workforce. Employees who have the ability to support clients in three or more languages receive a financial bonus for doing so. We also offer holiday accrual, allowing our international employees time to visit family and friends at home. 

CI means respecting the diversity of our workforce, but it’s equally important to buy into our company culture which begins with our recruitment and talent management process and is carried throughout the employee life cycle. These measures help create a workforce that embraces diversity, while being attuned to multinational clients’ needs

Emily  Sexton-Brown

By Emily Sexton-Brown

Emily is the commissioning editor at Changeboard

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