Curiosity and Lifelong Learning: Keys to Cultural Competence

Curiosity and an interest in lifelong learning are key to cultural competence and global business leadership success.

Global business leaders who succeed internationally know that they have to adapt to and learn from the diverse cultures in which their organizations operate. Hence, Curiosity is one of the key leadership attributesidentified as critical by the Compass Global Coaching Consortium. So just what does curiosity mean in this context? Curiosity involves continually examining our own and others’ assumptions and values in order to look for different possibilities and interpretations.curiosity, lifelong learning, cultural competence, global business leaders Adapting and learning are easier said than done. We often have a tendency to fall back on tried and true experiences when solving problems and confronting new challenges. Here are some ideas about how to keep curious and learn from those around us to build a stronger global organization.

Ask Questions and Then Listen

Look for the new. When asking questions, hope for the unexpected answer. For example, if you ask a team member, “How do we start this project?” you should not immediately hope for a textbook project management plan.

  • Notice your own surprise to unexpected answers, but don’t interrupt or correct. Is she suggesting that you touch base with a community leader, or does he change the subject entirely?
  • Explore those answers with respect. What is it that your team member knows that you don’t? Are there values at work—community, family, social—that are key to the area? In some cultures, for example, efficiency is far less important than supporting the community. Learning about and working within those values will give you more options for success.

Don’t always be in a hurry to settle on a solution. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, but we all know that the first answer may not be the best. Being able to stay longer in the space between question and resolution will pay dividends.

  • Just giving yourself overnight to consider a proposed direction can be helpful. Unless there is a true emergency, most proposals can wait a day or two.
  • Listen to yourself, first. When you are not directly focused on the topic, you may find new ideas or further items you want to resolve before starting. It also gives you a chance to examine and validate, or question, “gut” reactions.
  • Listen to others not directly involved in the issue, as well.
  • What other perspectives should be considered when looking at the problem—social, financial, legal, organizational, shorter-term or longer-term time frames? Is there other data that you should consider?

Practice “I Don’t Know”

Uncover your own hidden assumptions and biases. If you are in a foreign country, you may find your expectations of your authority and ability to motivate others off base.

  • What is the history of the country, and how might their independence narrative affect their attitudes towards foreigners? How does that affect how you are viewed?
  • What are the career path expectations for your team, and how, if at all, do those expectations affect their motivation?
  • How does the political situation in the country affect engagement in your organization? Becoming familiar with local and national holidays and what they commemorate can provide insights into cultural values.

Build your network of support. Expand the number of people you can consult when you are confused about how people are reacting to you or your ideas.

  • Ask your manager or HR for help in identifying internal resources who can provide support, especially in legal, labor and financial issues.
  • Ask colleagues, especially those native to the area, to be mentors.
  • Look for people outside the organization to assist in explaining cultural differences.

Work On Yourself

Start with self-reflection. Staying curious and open requires a willingness to be flexible and a “beginner” even when you are in a position of authority. Classify your areas of strength and those you need to develop, and solicit suggestions from your networks of support. Then work on your strengths as well as your weaker areas.

  • Can you recognize that others are more expert than you, even in your strongest areas?
  • How strong are you in the interpersonal domain? Is your EQ (emotional quotient) high? Are you able to establish strong relationships inside and outside of work?
  • How cohesive is your team? Are you able to create a collaborative atmosphere in your organization?
  • Are you better at the big picture or the details?
  • Are you taking care of yourself—sleeping, eating, playing, family, spiritual pursuits?

Spread Curiosity

Finally, use what you have learned to “teach” headquarters. Build an ever-growing list—from your first day on the job to your last—of differences in underlying assumptions and values between the two cultures. It will be helpful as you explain your strategies to headquarters. They will be better prepared to evaluate results and consider how corporate-level decisions and policy changes may impact your area. After all, curiosity can be contagious. *** Charlotte Maure brings operational and executive experience to her coaching practice, which is targeted to senior staff and C-level executives and focuses on the development of a leadership voice that encourages the contributions of others in the management of change. Charlotte serves as the coaching practice leader for Human Capital Development, a Compass strategic partner in Asia, and has provided executive coaching in locations worldwide including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Charlotte is a certified integral coach. She holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Vassar College.

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