Intercultural competence:
why is it my passion?

Cities connected with lines on a blue globe.

Do you ever think “If I would have known then what I know now…”?

I thought this often while acquiring cross-cultural competence and becoming an expert and teacher of this skill.

Privately and professionally, I have been living an intercultural environment that I am able to navigate well and successfully – the interactions, friction and challenges of the situations I was confronted with triggered my curiosity to learn more about culture characteristics and what it means to have intercultural competence.

My conclusion is that if I knew then what I know now, I would have been more successful faster.

Successful with my colleagues because having intercultural competence puts people in the position to understand, and understanding is an important factor to decrease friction within the team. The collaboration level increases because there is a high level of trust, created by the mutual understanding and openness achieved, causing the focus to move from the discrepancies among team members to successfully completing the task or project at hand.

While working for a large paper distribution company in Europe I was responsible for specific product lines and one of my responsibilities was to create a homogenous product portfolio across all of Europe in order to increase efficiency and economy of scale. This is one of the cases where I look back thinking if I knew then… Yes, I had international competence, but it was not deep and conscious enough to navigate the project as smoothly as possible. In fact, on several occasions I encountered resistance from the local teams in the various regions, each of them having good reasons to question or even refuse the harmonization project. This resistance led to internal conflicts, frustration, and moving the attention away from the project goal and into the friction at hand. The primary cause, in hindsight, was my missing deeper knowledge of what I should have paid attention to in an intercultural context. Despite all speaking the same language or my ability to speak my colleagues’ language, there is so much more to it. All aspects related to how we communicate, how we build trust, how we make decisions. This is exactly where cultural clashes happen – we just see everything through our own cultural glasses and unconsciously assume that everybody else acts and feels the same way. Solving the conflicts costs the company extra for me to travel in person the site more than it should have been necessary if equipped with the needed competence.

Similarly, successful with my clients because, thanks to the openness and trust described, the goal is that of collaboration versus competition. During my career as a sales manager in the industrial B2B sector I have often experienced that companies perceive their customers as competitors, an entity to keep at a distance, often stamping them with negative stereotypes. Acquiring intercultural competence means learning to take the steps beyond the stereotypes. Collaboration and mutual trust binds the customer to the supplier and makes it more likely to increase the supplier share of business with the positive impact for the company’s bottom line.

Another personal example to clarify; while working for a market leader based in the US I was responsible for managing and developing the European market. Among others there was an important customer with whom the relationship had developed negatively, both personally and businesswise. On one hand the customer had clear expectations and, from their point of view, they had clearly communicated them. On the other hand my employer was wondering why the customer was being so difficult, so demanding, so hard-headed and tough, in addition to the declining business. One of my most important goals was to reestablish a good work relationship with this client, while defending the interest of my employer. Easier said than done! Again reflecting on this situation, I think if I knew then what I know now…  Thanks to a lot of effort and negotiation skills on my part I was able to achieve the goal set, however at what costs? At the high cost of missed revenue! If I would have been able to use the intercultural competence I have acquired it would have been possible for me to achieve my goal faster, making my customer and my company happier faster – this would have led to increased sales FASTER!

One of my strongest drivers in the professional context is to achieve mutual sustainable success both on a business level, that is the bottom line, as well as on a personal level, creating trust and respect with my business partners. When working in an international context, this can be achieved much better, faster and cheaper if the skill set includes cross-cultural competence.