Foreign Affairs

Nowadays, cultural competency goes well beyond learning to interact with those from different cultures who have come to work in the United States. Increasingly, as American employees work abroad, they must learn to interact in an international business community—which often means navigating multiple cultural mores.

Michelle Gadsden-Williams, the managing director and global head for diversity and inclusion for international banking powerhouse Credit Suisse, is well versed in these complex cultural competencies and knows how to develop the skills needed to operate in the international business arena.

A seasoned diversity practitioner with more than 20 years’ experience working in the pharmaceutical industry before transitioning to financial services, she has received many honors, including the 2010 Maya Way Award for Diversity Leadership, presented by Dr. Maya Angelou.

Gadsden-Williams, who recently moved back to New York after working in Switzerland for 10 years, spoke to Diversity Woman about the importance of developing cultural competencies in today’s global business environment.

DW: As American companies are becoming more multinational, is cultural competency training becoming standard?
Michelle Gadsden-Williams: Yes. This type of training is offered everywhere, in just about every industry I’ve worked in. And the training isn’t just specific to the country where you will be based. If you are going to lead a global team, you need to have an understanding of many different cultures and how they operate in a business setting.

DW: What are some of the key teachings for an American employee who is going to transition abroad?
MGW: Learn another language if you don’t have one under your belt already. Diversity leadership training is key. If you’re used to leading and engaging a diverse team here in the United States, then that training will serve you well when you begin to operate in another country.

Can you give an example of a cultural disconnect that you’ve experienced?
MGW: My family is from the South, so we’re huggers and we extend ourselves in a less formal kind of way. Abroad, especially in Switzerland, the standard greeting is two kisses on the cheek. I went to embrace someone in a hug, and the person looked at me like I had three legs and eight heads. You can’t bring your own cultural norms to the table.

DW: Do you seek different attributes for employees of an international organization than you would for a company based solely in the United States?
MGW: I think it’s one and the same. I look for those who can lead different types of individuals, whether they’re international or local. Diversity has different definitions and connotations depending on where you are, but as long as you’re used to interacting with individuals unlike yourself—it could be the LGBT community or the disabled, not just those of other races, genders, or nationalities—you will be successful.

DW: Describe your concept of constructive disruption. What does that mean and how do you implement it?
MGW: Constructive disruption is when you create a strategy for solving the most complex organizational problem that you have in a very deliberate way, in which the result can be uncomfortable for people. You need to have the comfort level to know that when things get a little rocky, you will get to the smooth path at some point, but it’s going to be bumpy along the way.
If you are going to lead a global team, you need to have an understanding of many different cultures and how they operate in a business setting.

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