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Global Awareness

How an Affinity for Other Cultures Helps Leaders Succeed
August 2015

If you don’t have international working experience, it can adversely impact your chances of being considered for leadership positions by world-class companies. Yet merely completing an overseas tour of duty isn’t enough. Recruiters are looking for something harder to quantify but infinitely more valuable – a global mindset.

Leadership demands the ability to see things differently and make tough decisions and most executives would pride themselves on being open to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. But operating effectively internationally requires “intercultural competence” – the ability to appreciate the differences and similarities between cultures and what these mean for business globally.

This kind of cultural affinity can’t be developed simply by working in another country. A 20-year veteran of international assignments might still be deaf to the unique aspects of another society. A manager with true awareness of the needs of other cultures will have a rare and valuable blend of skills that will enable them to succeed.

Language skills

It would be easy to think that the growth of the Internet and the economic and cultural influence of the U.S. has made English the lingua franca of business, however, there are many places where English is neither spoken nor well-received so the ability to speak a foreign language is important for any international executive. In some places, candidates who don’t speak at least two languages other than their mother tongue may not receive consideration for senior positions.

Speaking the language of the country in which you are living or working is not only good etiquette, but also key to being able to operate autonomously at an executive level. It shows you are prepared to work at communication and understanding another culture.

Using a language every day for work will expose how much you really know – executives may be in for a shock if the last time they spoke a foreign language was at school. Many recruiters will test language ability, both spoken and written. If you claim fluency in a language, you’ll be expected to back that up.

Cultural appreciation

Learning another language demonstrates a willingness to learn new skills and explore other cultures – part of the DNA sought by recruiters for international roles. But language skills alone do not constitute a global mindset. While broad language capability is seen as a good thing, this needs to be combined with intercultural sensitivity. Having a true appreciation for the cultural differences and treating people respectfully against those differences is of the utmost importance.

Speaking another language demonstrates intellectual curiosity and a general interest in other cultures, and is recognized as a sign that an executive possesses a certain frame of mind and attitude. Other habits also point to a managerial mind that is interested in international concerns and issues. Consultants seeking a globally savvy leader might ask what part of a newspaper the candidate reads first. A person who reads the overseas section often has a broader mindset than one who sticks to the first three pages.


A willingness to engage different cultures will be an important factor. Recruiters and leaders frequently study the results of psychometric tests that reveal whether executives are quite as open-minded as they think. What can appear on the surface as willingness to interact with other cultures can turn out to be anything from cultural denial at one end of the scale to complete integration at the other. Consider the subtle differences between these two statements and the ways they can be interpreted by employers:

  • “I can be successful in any culture without any special effort.” – the speaker is trying to ignore or minimize cultural differences rather than deal with them. 
  • “I always try to study a new culture before I go there.” – the speaker is capable not only of accepting, but adapting to cultural differences.

For organizations prepared to pay large salaries to people for doing business in global-facing assignments, parsing out the thought processes behind such answers is a crucial part of identifying managers with an advanced global mindset.

These psychometric tests are more evidence that international experience doesn’t automatically grant a global mindset. It may be there before you go abroad – or never develop after years traveling. Ultimately, being able to demonstrate a flexible approach to change and a truly open mind are the most important elements to cultivate when the goal is to succeed as a global manager.

Cultural credentials for top-level roles

  • Fluency in two languages other than your home language
  • Experience working/living in another culture
  • Ability to interact with other cultures
  • Respecting and understanding other cultures
  • Accepting cultural differences and adapting to them
  • Having a flexible approach to change
  • Being open-minded