Global Business

The Value of Cultural Fluency and How It Can Help You Succeed in Your Career

This article is sponsored by IESE Business School.

One of the main reasons many of our students and alumni choose to pursue their full time MBA at IESE Business School is because of the global nature and diversity in the program (as is the case for most programs based in Europe). We talked one of our alumna and three of our current students to better understand how they developed (and continue to develop) their cultural fluency and why it is critical for their careers:

  • Laura Cushing
    IESE MBA Class of 2017, from the US, now in London working for Amazon
  • Daniela Bocco
    IESE MBA Class of 2020, from Venezuela, summer internship in Kenya
  • Christina Chung
    IESE MBA Class of 2020, from the US, summer internship in Switzerland
  • Kailah I. Mays
    IESE MBA Class of 2020, from the US, summer internship in Spain

 Do you feel that cultural fluency is required for a successful career today? How do you think it helps you in your job? 

Laura: Cultural competency is an often overlooked but highly necessary skill for a career and is even more pertinent when pursuing an international career. Numerous research has been conducted on this core competency, which when developed, builds trust, improves creative thinking and innovation and financial performance in organizations. And fundamentally, the more individuals and teams focused on improving cultural competency inside an organization, the better they are at being attentive to cultural differences and needs in their customers and communities.

Working in a customer-facing product manager role, it’s my responsibility to understand customer needs and pain points from the multiple countries our company serves. Cultural competency helps you stay connect to the customer to ensure you are building the right products and features that solve their needs and how to adapt products when scaling/launching globally.

Daniela: Understanding and being aware of cross-cultural diversity is something that not only has been essential for my professional journey, but also my personal one. Growing up, I moved between Venezuela and the United States, having organic exposure to the culture differences between both countries. I think, as a teenager I was angry at my parents for moving (classic), but later in life I recognized how those experiences and interactions helped me have a more open mind when approaching a new country or person.

Most recently, I did the largest shift yet. After working across the Americas and moving to Barcelona for the MBA, I decided to relocate to Nairobi for my summer internship. There were clear synergies between the Latin American and East African cultures that helped me navigate my way through the workplace; but there were also clear distinctions. For example, some of my Kenyan colleagues found me to be quite rude in the beginning, because I always spoke my mind no matter who was in the room (always polite and humble, but honest); I later learned more about the importance of hierarchies in families in Kenya, and understood that giving my opinion to my boss or superiors could be interpreted as me being rude. I find it fascinating how “little” things can make such a huge difference in how we perceive a certain situation. 

Kailah: Cultural competency is absolutely necessary for a successful career.  The world is more connected than it’s ever been. In a day, one can interact with a colleague or client who is halfway around the world, speaks a different language, or practice a different religion–without cultural competency, empathy would be impossible and building these relationships would be very difficult.

We are all shaped both by our cultures and our personal and professional experiences; cultural competency allows you to learn things that may have previously been outside of your purview, different from your culture, and beyond your experience.  Cultural competency allows you to better yourself while leveraging the strengths and knowledge of those around you. 

Christina: While globalization is a major influence in many business decisions, I believe the most successful companies with the greatest opportunity for growth are the ones that have built diversity and cultural awareness into their DNA and are seeking employees to represent these core values.  Being culturally aware not only allows employees to respect and understand each other, it also provides an opportunity to combine different perspectives to create value greater than thinking separately. As such, companies are recruiting for people who are not only diverse in culture, skills, background, etc, but are also willing to listen and learn from others who are equally or more diverse.

Having an ability to navigate through cultural norms and differences has been integral in my former roles in investment banking, advertising media technology, and private equity, particularly when it came to relationship management and negotiations.  I have been fortunate to have firsthand experiences being open and adapting to cultures that had behaviors and beliefs far different from my own upbringing.  These experiences have helped shape my own beliefs and are a constant reminder that I have much more to learn from the people and places I meet in the future.  

How did your MBA help enhance your cultural fluency? 

Laura: IESE’s MBA helped my cultural fluency in two primary ways: by the profiles of students in my class and the method in which we learned. In my class, we had 60+ nationalities represented and every day, I had the privilege of being in a “mini UN.” Having a curriculum that is case-based encourages you to build an approach for a given challenge. While frameworks are provided, we all bring our own experiences, beliefs and bias to a problem. This is where cultural competency is key. Case studies and the discussions that follow, help you understand why and how other individuals and cultural groups have built their views and ultimately, enables us to create a more inclusive environment where is it comfortable to discuss.

Kailah: Exposure. My MBA experience has given me the opportunity to learn, debate, and socialize with people whose backgrounds differ from my own. I spent my first year working on a team with eight other nationalities and have been to countless cultural dinners (Mexican, Korean, Peruvian).  I’ve been exposed to new foods, new customs, and new ideas that have enhanced my cultural fluency.  My MBA experience has reminded me of the importance of diversity of thought.  

Have you ever faced “culture shock?” How did you manage it?

Daniela: When you begin the MBA program at IESE, they divide you into sections and later into teams. My team was, in my opinion, one of the most culturally and geographically diverse; members included a Japanese-American, a Brazilian, a Nigerian, a Korean, a Spanish, an Indian, an American, and myself (Venezuelan).

Learning how to navigate the different communication styles each one of us had, how people were accustomed to hold meetings, the differences in work-life balance for each one of us, so many different things. Some are cultural, but others are personal. The debate goes on, right? Nature versus nurture? There are certain things that we might learn from the communities in which we grow up, but others we decided to take-on and it’s important to be able to see each person holistically, understanding all of their complexities. 

What else can you do to build your cultural awareness?

Laura: Cultural awareness, I believe, is not a static activity and should be viewed as a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Firstly, continuously put yourself in learning opportunities to increase your culture fluency – whether that be in exploring more international projects or clients as part of your job or joining new organizations. Raise your hand often and be firm about your interest. Secondly, practice the art of listening. It’s been often said that when you are speaking, you are not learning. Listening keeps you grounded in being receptive and non-biased when hard conversations and situations arise.

Daniela: To build cultural awareness we must be open-minded, polite, humble and empathetic. Some of these topics are seen as politically incorrect or awkward, because we’re not supposed to ask people about their cultures, it’s almost as if we’re expected to mind-read. But I personally believe that if someone is genuinely interested in knowing more about another person’s background, you can have a fantastic conversation when you’re brave enough to ask. Of course, it’s important for us to speak from a place of mindfulness and self-awareness, not jumping to conclusions or natural biases we might have.

I think it is extremely important for all of us to understand that above all, nationality, race, gender, we’re all human beings; that fact connects every single one of us. And so if we’re open to learning more about others, if we manage to not be biased or judgmental, we can meet incredible new people who can teach us how to see certain situations in completely different ways.

Related posts

Get newsletters and events relevant
to your career by joining Forté.

our partners