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Why Intercultural Competence For Leadership?

Written by: Barbara van Heerden, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Having grown up in arguably the most culturally diverse country in the world, South Africa, I have had a fascination from a young age regarding different cultures and how they manifest in the world. I entered the workforce over 40 years ago and have worked as a programme manager delivering products and services across cultures since 2008. I started to cross cultural coaching in 2007 coaching 3 executives for BP in Angola. I have had the privilege of coaching executives who were leaders in a large conglomerate operating in many countries including Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

It was this exposure that resulted in a quest to understand intercultural sensitivity and competence. I have learnt from my experience that cultural diversity in the workplace is often seen as a problem to be solved rather than an enriching opportunity. Learning intercultural competence can effectively enrich one’s life as a leader and increase effective teamwork resulting in meeting business goals. Without intercultural sensibility and competence, projects can be highjacked or fail due to confusion, misunderstanding and conflict between culturally diverse team members.

Globalisation has increased multi-cultural and cross-cultural engagements within the modern workplace which, in turn, has led to various challenges in contemporary leadership. The global COVID pandemic increased many people in the workforce working from home thus increasing skills to work online and the opportunity for businesses to offer products and services to every corner of the globe.

To manage, amongst others, multinational subsidiaries, global projects, and to lead a culturally diverse workforce, business leaders increasingly must learn intercultural sensitivity leading to intercultural competence for their businesses to thrive. Without a solid framework to understand the culture and how the varying cultural orientation of the workforce affects our worldview, work ethic, work practice, communication and teamwork, it is likely to lead to confusion and conflict between colleagues resulting in failed endeavours

To address this gap, the aim of my PhD was to explore, describe and understand the development of intercultural competence, utilising leadership coaching as a developmental approach. The experiences of seven African business leaders from five different African countries as recipients of this leadership coaching provided deep insights into using leadership coaching as an effective methodology resulting in being able to work effectively across cultures.

The following significant findings emerged from the research (i) Six of the seven participants developed intercultural competence after participating in a cross-cultural leadership coaching programme for 12 months. (ii) The participants acquired intercultural competence through an action–reflection learning based coaching model which led to transformative learning on a cognitive, affective and behavioural level. (iii) The participants had to be prepared to engage in active reflexivity for the transformative learning to take place, by accessing and understanding their own cultural orientation. (iv) All participants indicated a change in cognition, affect and behaviour resulting from a consistent and identifiable set of critical moments or triggers present either in the environment or included in the design of the coaching process. (v) The findings suggest that the use of a simple cultural orientation framework aided the learning process. (vi) For leaders to learn intercultural competence they need some experience of working across cultures as a prerequisite to starting the coaching process. (vii) Given the dynamic nature of culture itself, intercultural competence requires the effective negotiating of new realities, in multiple and varied cross-cultural settings.

As far as I could ascertain limited empirical research is available regarding leadership coaching for the development of intercultural competence, particularly in the African context. Given that this continent is widely seen as an emerging market (Richman & Wiggenhorn, 2005; McKinsey, 2013) the Cross-cultural Leadership Coaching Model proposed here offers a meaningful framework for businesses planning an expansion into these markets.

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Barbara van Heerden, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

“Coaching is change management one person at a time”. Jenny Mc Nulty. Regarding coaching, she specialises in business leadership coaching but can work within any organisational context. Her personal passion is leadership coaching to equip leaders to effectively lead multi-cultural and cross-cultural teams. She follows a strengths-based leadership coaching model that enables leaders to harness their strengths in such a way that their weaknesses become insignificant. She successfully concluded of a PhD in Leadership Coaching Towards Intercultural Competence in 2016. Working across cultures is often seen as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be explored. She is also an experienced programme and change manager. She has led large-scale programmes in corporate South Africa over the last 25 years and has worked in seven different African Countries.



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