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How to Solve 3 Modern Cross-Cultural Leadership Challenges

The future workforce is more diverse than ever. Census data confirms cultural diversity is growing faster than predicted, especially among Gen Z. A competitive talent landscape, technological advances, and global population shifts are rapidly increasing cultural diversity in the workplace. Regardless of your industry, you will likely experience vast differences between cultural expectations among employees, challenges in attracting and retaining culturally diverse talent, and the growing need to develop intercultural professionals and leaders. This article explores these challenges and, more importantly, five practical strategies you can take to solve them.

Cross-Cultural Strategy #1: Culturally Agile Leadership

Leaders increasingly face cross-cultural differences working with diverse customers and employees. With over 60 global cultures identified and numerous variations in regions within the national cultures, it is virtually impossible to be experienced in every potential situation. Cross-cultural differences require leaders with cultural agility.

A large-scale global study involving over 32,000 people from 28 countries found only 20% are willing to have someone they disagree with their point of view as a coworker. Cultural differences in the workplace can be substantial and quickly escalate into conflict and limit a leader's and organization's effectiveness.

Successful, culturally agile leaders can see themself through another person's perspective. They can:

  • understand their culture, their organization's culture, and how it impacts the business.

  • recognize and appreciate the differences between other cultures as compared to their own.

  • use their understanding of cultural differences to conduct business within cross-cultural situations effectively.

Cross-Cultural Strategy #2: Recruit for Intercultural Competence

Talent acquisition is a critical process for any leader and business. Increased competition intensifies the pressures on companies to find talent capable of immediately contributing to the organization with reduced onboarding periods. Adding to the challenge is the reality that the work is changing quickly, and positions needed today may not exist in the future.

The increased demand for cross-cultural professionals and leaders is multiplying the challenge for companies. To face these challenges, businesses can benefit by identifying and incorporating intercultural competencies into hiring practices.

Unlike competencies that address technical and behavioral knowledge, skills, and abilities of the work, these competencies address the cross-cultural leadership aspects of the work and workplace. Recruiting practices need to attract and select leaders with the inter-cultural competence to:

  • identify and appropriately engage in cross-cultural situations

  • drive cross-cultural value by capitalizing on cross-cultural advantages

  • achieve mutually beneficial outcomes presented in a cross-cultural situation

Cross-Cultural Strategy #3: Apply Strategic Workforce Planning

Likely you are familiar with conducting a SWOT analysis as a part of your strategic planning, where you identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to achieving your company's overall mission, vision, and goals for the future. Strategic workforce planning similarly identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that apply to the talent needed. Incorporating strategic workforce planning into your business's strategic planning process provides feedback to enhance strategy execution.

Strategic workforce planning is a dynamic process to ensure a business has the correct number of people with the right skills in the right places at the right time to deliver on current and future goals.

There is no "one- size fits all" approach to strategic workforce planning. The best approaches account for the unique context and culture of your business. It all begins with getting clear on your strategic business priorities and then integrating the following steps into your planning:

  • Role segmentation. Identify strategic roles based on their importance to the execution of the business strategy.

  • Environmental scanning. Conduct quantitative and qualitative analysis of the internal and external workforce supply and demand.

  • Scenario planning. Consider a range of potential futures to improve the possibilities of future success in your business.

Cross-Cultural Strategy #4: Employee Retention Interviews

Most organizations conduct exit interviews, but employee retention interviews are proactive instead of reactive. Retention interviews are intended to learn from current employees about the factors that motivated them to accept the offer to work with your company and if those reasons are being met today from the employee's perspective.

Retention interviews involve asking a series of questions so changes can be made to meet employee expectations before they exit the company. These interviews can be built into a regular part of one-to-one meetings or in large group team meetings. Sometimes, human resources can administer these interviews to help with anonymity and psychological safety.

Here are a few sample retention interview questions you can use:

  • Why did you decide to work for this company? Are those reasons still valid in your current job?

  • If you could change anything about the workplace, what would you change?

  • If you could make this job everything you wanted it to be, what would you change?

Focusing on retention and making changes where needed to meet the needs of cross-cultural employees will benefit recruiting efforts by improving the employment value proposition.

Cross-Cultural Strategy #5: Talent Development

There are many horror stories of organizations that have taken successful leaders with in-depth technical knowledge from one location and placed them in different cross-cultural situations, only to fail. Underestimating cultural differences from one part of the business to another is dangerous, especially in an increasingly cross-cultural context.

Cross-cultural leaders are not born; they are developed. Developing the competency of cultural agility requires dedicated effort and investment to break from the typical classroom presentation or eLearning module. Developing cross-cultural talent is most effective in a blended learning environment, including assessments, cross-cultural immersion experiences, and structured feedback.

Key Summary Points

  • Businesses cannot rely on leaders' tenure and technical expertise to solve increasingly complex cross-cultural challenges.

  • Modern leaders need cultural agility

  • Businesses should be recruiting leaders and professionals with intercultural competence

  • Strategic workforce planning should be incorporated into strategic planning activity

  • Leaders need to take a proactive approach to talent retention

  • Developing culturally agile professionals and leaders requires more than traditional approaches to learning and development

What is your cross-cultural opportunity?


Caligiuri, P. (2012). Cultural agility: Building a pipeline of successful global professionals. Jossey-Bass.

Frey, W. (2020). The nation is diversifying even faster than predicted, according to new census data. Brookings.

Mayo, A. (2015). Strategic workforce planning – a vital business activity. Strategic HR Review, 14(5), 174-181.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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