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This is the first Q&A with David Livermore in a two-part series about cultural intelligence. 

Recruiters nearly always evaluate job candidates based on their work experiences and skill sets, but they often ignore an important factor: cultural intelligence. For companies with global employees and customers, it's vital to find candidates who can work across different cultures, argues David Livermore, president of The Cultural Intelligence Center. Here, Livermore differentiates between international experience and cultural intelligence — and makes a case for recruiting based on the latter.

How do you define cultural intelligence?

Cultural intelligence goes beyond cultural sensitivity to saying, 'How do you help people develop the capabilities to work effectively across lots of different cultures?' For most of the companies we work with today, the primary emphasis is not so much just 'how am I going to understand the Chinese Americans or some very specific culture?' But instead it's, 'How do we help people develop an overall capability to move in and out of lots of different cultural contexts?' Recruiters should consider more than the fact that someone has depth of experience in the French language and culture, but how that individual can translate those skills to also work with someone who comes from a very different culture.

How does cultural intelligence play a role in the recruiting process?

First and foremost recruiters must have cultural intelligence to be able to find the kinds of people that are going to be a good fit for an organization. For example, when Google was looking for the DNA of a Google employee in different parts around the world, places like the Asia Pacific, the recruiters were having a harder time spotting what an innovator looks like if he comes from Japan or India as opposed to if he comes from the Silicon Valley.

Often recruiters overlook good talent if they don’t know how one might express something like innovation, initiative or empowerment. Many companies have presumed that international experience automatically leads someone to be culturally intelligent. But just because you’ve lived, worked or traveled abroad doesn’t necessarily mean you have the capabilities to work effectively across cultures. Other companies may look primarily at tactical confidence or soft skills, but again what do those look like if they’re working with someone from a different cultural background? The things that are often looked for as evidence that someone has cultural intelligence are usually potential contributing factors but aren’t necessarily what lead to it.

Can you give me an example how innovation looks different to people in different cultures?

The vast majority of the world comes from a very collectivist orientation, which says that the sore thumb is the one that stands up and gets chopped off. You’ve been socialized to not speak up, blend in and work as a collective whole, yet many of our Western organizations presume that innovation is primarily about standing out from the pack. In contrast, someone who is innovative might be someone who as part of a group came up with a different kind of solution. A collectivist society might be more likely to offer their input by having time to think, work together with teammates and share collectively as compared to doing a brainstorming meeting, and whoever speaks up with ideas will put his idea on the whiteboard.

Do most companies think of cultural intelligence as international experience or the ability to work across cultures?

More and more CEOs are espousing the need for people with global capabilities that can work with diverse people, but when it comes down to it, cultural intelligence is overlooked, unless there’s a very direct role that someone is going to have. For example, companies would be more likely to look at it if they’re interviewing someone who’s going to be posted overseas or be tasked with leading the charge on a new market initiative in the Hispanic market as compared to the dominant Caucasian market. But if I were to take a broad brush, I would say it’s being raised more and more to people’s consciousness but whether or not that transfers into the recruitment strategy, I think it’s still the case that more don’t do it than do.

What 's stopping them up from evaluating cultural intelligence?

It’s a combination of factors. One may be lack of consciousness about how relevant it is. A second reason is if people haven’t looked at the fact that we’ve quantified a way to predict who’s going to be culturally intelligent and who isn’t, it feels like a very elusive soft skill. In part there’s the question of what would that even look like?

At times I think some of the training we’ve done on cross-cultural training and diversity and on overall environment of political correctness can paralyze companies from actually addressing cultural intelligence. You wouldn’t want someone saying, 'Every German is going to be this way, and every Indian that way.' Out of fear of offending someone by asking the question, some companies say, 'Let’s just leave that alone instead of opening Pandora’s box.'

Photo: Can Stock