Global Leadership: Do You Have These 3 Cultural Agility Skills?

I like to spend time with people who have lived in other cultures. They are interesting. They have great stories. And they usually possess an exemplary set of interpersonal skills. The ability to be successful in other cultures – personally or professionally – is not an accidental ability. It is something that is developed.

As we encounter different cultures, we subconsciously use one of three methods to make intercultural relationships work. Understanding these three strategies can help us be more effective in becoming culturally agile.

Strategy 1 – Cultural Minimization. You standardize or control cultural differences in order to create consistency. Your goal is to limit cultural differences.

I teach in both North America and in Europe where grading norms differ. In order to provide a consistent standard, grading is defined by a rubric. A grading rubric outlines exactly how a grade is calculated. This minimizes differences in grading standards, something that is important when you have courses taught by people from different nationalities.

Strategy 2 – Cultural Adaptation. You adjust to cultural differences and respond in a way that is expected in that culture. You adapt to the norms of others.

My friend who lived in Indonesia was driving us through the busy streets of Jakarta. To a North American, the driving norms resembled chaos. However, as he spoke of traffic he stated, “In Jakarta, you need to drive like you are in a river. You just have to go with the flow and the currents of traffic and you’ll be fine”. Cultural adapters learn to accept and thrive within existing cultural norms.

Strategy 3 – Cultural Integration. You create a new set of norms and respond with collaboration to find solutions acceptable to all cultures affected (Caligiuri).

A friend of mine is a North American Expat living in the Middle East. In this prevailing Muslim culture, women are expected to wear abayas to cover themselves completely when in public. However, inside their expatriate camp women are theoretically free to dress as they please (they could wear their athletic workout gear at the commissary!) In practice, most women wear clothing that isn’t revealing and is deemed acceptable. Long dresses or loose clothing is worn to provide some cover yet not offend. Discretion and discernment result in an integration strategy that finds acceptable middle ground. 

An easy way to understand these skills is with the following continuum:

Cultural Competency Strategies

When you minimize, you seek to make differences insignificant. Conversely, when you adapt, you decide to let the prevailing culture dictate your behaviors. An integration approach combines the two and seeks to find a middle ground or a new norm.

However, knowing these three strategies is only the first step in being culturally effective. The key is knowing when to use each one at the appropriate time (Caligiuri). There are times when minimizing will be effective and times when it will be offensive. Similarly, integrating or adapting are not always the right solutions.

Therefore, effective leaders must first equip themselves with knowledge about these three unique skills. Secondly, they must develop know-how that helps them know when each is most effective (or inappropriate). Research shows that these three skills are not optional for global workers. They are of utmost importance if you seek to be effective.


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Dr. Jeff Suderman is a global apprentice, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Paula Caliguriuri (2012). Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals.

More Agility Please! The State of Strategy

There is a strong correlation between a companies financial returns and their planning horizon.1 Effective strategy considers the future! If you know me or read my writing you know that I resonate strongly with this concept.

In recent months I have read several blogs which proclaim that strategic planning is dead. While these titles are somewhat over-sensationalized (see The Problem with 7 Step and 3 Things), I believe that the concept is correct. Strategy as we know it is dead and this is a very good thing because it is being replaced with something better. This is supported by a recent study which examined three different strategy models and their corresponding success rates (see Figure 1). The results are as follows:

1. Ad Hoc – Success Rate: 46% | Tagline: Hand-to-mouth strategy | Definition: This style develops and implements strategy as the organization wishes and there is no defined planning horizon.

2. Traditional – Success Rate: 53% | Tagline: Your father’s strategy | Definition: This is the best understood as the current strategic planning model which typically develops strategy for the next  3-5 years (though most actually plan within the 1-3 year horizon).

3. Agility – Success Rate: 85% | Tagline: Strategy which makes uncertainty part of the plan | Definition: Strategy is evaluated and regularly re-evaluated in the context of a rapidly changing environment. EffectStrategic Cycles and Successive organizations actively study the future in order to compete in the present and have strategic cycles which are longer than 5 years.

This study reveals that effective organizations apply long-term agility-based thinking to conundrums, something that planning and control sciences were unable to do.Pierre Wack, a forerunner of the agility movement, once stated, “In our times of rapid change and discontinuity, crisis of perception – the inability to see a novel reality emerging by being locked in obsolete assumptions – has become the main cause of strategic failure”

If we live in an unchanging environment, then traditional planning methodologies work. However, very few people that I speak with believe that they operate in a stable environment. The need to develop agility is supported by the fact that over 85% of executives noted that their strategy formulation failures were rooted in the lack of understanding of future trends.Figure 6 reveals how foresight tools are being used to develop agility.Foresight Case

Strategic planning may not be dead but I believe that it has morphed. Research reveals that effective organizations use planning time frames which are greater that five years. This requires that we shift from a strategic mindset of control to one of agility. Foresight and tools which foster future agility are becoming the new normal for effective strategy development and execution.

Do you work in an organization that needs to extend your planning horizon? Contact me to schedule a free assessment of your strategic planning processes (

Head ShotJeff Suderman is a consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman



1 A.T. Kearney (2014). The state of strategy today. Retrieved from

This concept was derived from a personal conversation with my teacher and mentor, Dr. Jay Gary

Pierre Wack (1984). The gentle art of re-perceiving. Unpublished manuscript. Harvard Business School.