MTM LinguaSoft recently added cross-cultural training to its roster of services. This is the beginning of a series of articles that will introduce you to some of the wonderful consultants we work with in this area.

photo of carol cunninghamCarol Cunningham has been in the culture business for longer than the 17 years her consulting company has been in existence. It isn’t what she started out to do. Her training was in environmental issues and she started out by working for an environmental consulting firm. Then she moved to the East Coast and landed a consulting position with Johnson & Johnson that took her around the world “to make sure that the intent of a number of their quality, health and safety, and environmental” standards was being implemented in other countries. In doing this, she had to take account of the differing cultural traditions and other conditions in the various countries. “So basically I traveled the world working in many, many countries for about eight years, really understanding how business was conducted and what it was that people needed to be successful in working with other cultures.”

After eight years, the constant traveling got to be too much for a woman who, by this time, had two children, and she decided to take a break; but the job left her with a wealth of knowledge about other cultures and a recognition of the necessity for business people in the U.S. to gain a better understanding of other countries and cultures “to be successful working with their global counterparts.”

Carol’s interest in culture did not begin with her stint with J&J. She grew up in the Lake District in England and got a degree in geography there before going on to study in France and the United States. In England, the study of geography includes much more than finding places on maps. Her coursework included cultural anthropology and “a whole load of interesting topics about how people react and do things differently.” This initial training and interest had been reinforced and given a concrete context by her work for J&J. So, seeing a need in American business for this type of knowledge, she set up on her own as a consultant, eventually forming her own company.

Costs of Lack of Cultural Intelligence

Her clientele has been and continues to be mostly large companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical, energy, chemical, and financial sectors, although in about the last year, she has begun to do more work with smaller firms as they move into international markets. But, even in the case of large companies, she says that most firms didn’t come to her until someone in leadership had personal experiences in other countries where they realized that they had made cultural gaffes or simply that the interactions could have gone better with more advance knowledge of cultural differences.

And it’s not just interactions with people outside a company that cause problems. These days a lot of work is done by global teams that have to work together smoothly. Miscommunications can be very costly when work has to be redone. One concrete experience of the real costs involved in not getting cultural training often causes a company to belatedly look for cultural training services like Carol’s. She gives an example of people from Asian cultures—India, China—where people tend not to give feedback and not admit mistakes, at least directly. Americans have to be trained to recognize the subtle clues that might indicate that the team is not all on the same page and be able to bring the team back together.

Three Aspects of Cultural Competence

There are three aspects to becoming culturally competent. First, you have to become aware of how cultural influences affect your own thinking, behavior and communication style. Most people don’t realize just how much this is true and how differently they may be perceived by people outside their cultural context. Next, you have to learn to recognize, understand, and appreciate the fact that people in other countries do things differently “and it’s not good or bad it’s just different.” You have to be able to identify what those differences are and understand the rationale for the differences, whether it is religion, geography, tradition, etc. Carol has developed a simple tool to help people understand these differences. Finally, you have to be willing to adapt and develop the skills to be effective. “[I]t’s not just about communication—communication is a key piece of it—but it’s an understanding of the knowledge of why people behave the way they do, what they value, why they value things, and being sensitive to that, curious about that, and very respectful of that.”

Carol certainly has to adapt her own training methods to different cultures. She has found, for example, that in Latin America, she always has to provide photos of all the participants to each of the participants, not simply so that they can recognize each other, but because these kind of events are shared with friends and family who want to see who you have been meeting or working with.

Still going strong after about 20 years in the cultural training business, Carol has certainly never regretted her career move. There is always something different to keep the work interesting and challenging. Just as she saw the need so many years ago, she can also see the real, positive effects that she is having in helping companies operate in a multicultural environment.