Intercultural Competence needed at the top

Cross-cultural training often focuses on those undertaking international assignments, rather than on senior decision-makers.

Dr Barbara Gibson, a consultant and lecturer in intercultural communication and global business, shares research findings she presented at this year’s EuRA Congress, arguing that failure to address intercultural competence at CEO level can hinder organisations from achieving strategic objectives in non-domestic markets.

In the increasingly global world of business, more and more companies of every size are doing business beyond their domestic borders. Unlike in the 20th century, when international business was the realm of the mega-corporation, and companies tended to progress slowly through identifiable stages of domestic to international to multinational to transnational, today many companies are global from start-up, and many global players are small and medium enterprises.

For smaller companies, the percentage of company resources focused on international markets means the stakes are higher. Even for the large, well-established multinationals, increased globalisation and worldwide competition have added pressure to be as successful outside their domestic markets as they are at home. But companies both large and small still often encounter cultural barriers that result in lost contracts, failed joint ventures, disappointing performance, regulatory and legal difficulties, and other challenges.

With a background that includes more than 25 years in corporate communication and business strategy, I had observed at first hand how many companies – including large global players – were often not achieving objectives outside their domestic markets. I often saw what I felt was a lack of intercultural competence at the top of the organisation. I had begun to suspect that ‘ethnocentricity rolls downhill’, and I wanted to find a way to help companies achieve success globally. So I decided to undertake a PhD in intercultural communication, focusing my research on the intercultural competencies needed by global CEOs.

What I found was that few studies actually examined the top level of management, leaving a gap in understanding which intercultural competencies are needed at the strategic level, where decision-making that determines the company’s success or failure in non-domestic markets takes place. Little is known about CEOs’ own perceptions regarding cultural challenges in their day-to-day jobs, or about their own capabilities in dealing with them.

The purpose of my study was to gain insights into the strategic-level intercultural challenges faced by companies doing business internationally, and identify the competencies needed by CEOs, in order to help companies to overcome cultural barriers to achieving their strategic objectives.

In total, I interviewed 28 CEOs of businesses operating in a global context. Companies represented ranged in size from fewer than ten employees to more than 200,000. Those interviews generated approximately 24 total hours of digital audio recordings, which were transcribed verbatim, resulting in more than 250,000 words of textual data available for analysis.

Areas of business impact

My first research question focused on whether the intercultural competence of the CEO has an impact on their success in achieving business objectives. The interview data was analysed to examine where, if at all, culture comes into play at CEO level. The findings clearly indicated that cultural challenges impact the CEOs in the study and that the CEOs’ intercultural competencies do have an impact on their ability to achieve their objectives in a number of areas, the top five being managing their top teams, conflict/negotiation, decision-making, hiring, and ethical issues.

Five key intercultural competencies

Based on those identified areas of business impact, I analysed which intercultural competencies are most likely to contribute to success or failure. In total, the data revealed 351 instances of competencies evident or lacking across all 28 interviews.
The findings identified five key intercultural competencies needed at the CEO level.

These were:

  1. Cultural self-awareness, defined as an awareness of one’s own cultural influences, tendencies and biases, and awareness of how one’s own culture may be perceived by members of a different culture.
  2. Cultural sensory perception, defined as the ability to recognise when cultural differences are in play, utilising a range of senses to spot verbal and non-verbal cues. (Although this competency is frequently referred to as ‘intercultural sensitivity’ in the literature, that term is also frequently misinterpreted as something akin to political correctness, so I coined this new term to better describe the sensing nature of this competency).
  3. Open-mindedness, defined as the ability to suspend judgement based on one’s own cultural biases and accept that other ways of thinking and behaving may be just as valid.
  4. Global perspective, defined as viewing the business from a transnational perspective, rather than as domestic first, rest of world second.
  5. Adaptability, defined as the ability to change one’s behaviour, communication style or business strategy as needed to fit the circumstances.

Analysis also found associations between specific competencies and the identified areas of business impact, providing possible insights into which competencies may be most critical, depending on the current strategies, challenges, and stage of business of the company.
By far the most-referenced source of culture-related challenge for the CEOs in the study was that of managing and motivating their culturally diverse top management teams. They experience problems building trust and loyalty cross-culturally, and motivating team members from other cultures with different value systems from their own. They encounter difficulties gaining the feedback needed to make sound decisions due to cultural differences in communication style, and at times they are tripped up by cultural differences in specific practices or attitudes.

The competencies most associated with the impact area of managing in the data were cultural sensory perception and adaptability. Those who are successful seem to rely more on their ability to sense that something is not working as intended, paying close attention to both verbal and non-verbal signals. Once they sense a problem, they can gather more culture-specific information and adapt their behaviour or strategy.

The findings revealed that culture impacts CEO success in dealing with conflicts, and in negotiating. Although not an everyday challenge, the narratives regarding this area of business impact often revealed incidents where the consequence of not understanding the cultural issues at play was complete failure (that is, the negotiation ended, the deal was lost). Therefore, where the CEO is involved in intercultural negotiation, either on a frequent basis or in areas of high strategic importance, this impact area becomes more important. Cultural sensory perception appears to be the most critical competency in this area, to avoid abrupt failures that are the result of being blindsided by cultural differences.

The competencies associated in the data with decision-making include cultural sensory perception (the most frequently associated), adaptability, global perspective and open-mindedness. Issues raised were not solely around whether or not decisions made were the ‘right’ ones, but also around the CEO’s ability to adapt to culturally-different decision-making styles, particularly when the CEO is the cultural outsider compared with the majority of the top management team and employees.

Hiring the right people for key roles in foreign markets, while not an everyday occurrence, is critical to a company’s success. As one CEO in the pilot study explained, the inability to hire the right people in foreign countries is one of her company’s greatest barriers to growth. While several competencies were associated with this impact area in the data, the highest association was with cultural self-awareness, particularly the ability to recognise one’s own cultural biases.

The competencies most associated with dealing with ethical issues were cultural sensory perception, open-mindedness and adaptability, and it seems that all three are required in this area, in this order. Without the ability to recognise that cultural differences are in play and the ability to suspend judgement, one is not able to adapt. While this interplay is probably present in other areas to some extent, it seems particularly strong in this impact area, due to deeply held beliefs and values.


The study has provided a clear indication that CEOs working in a global business environment do perceive that cultural challenges impact their success in a number of strategic areas, and that specific intercultural competencies are needed. This has implications not only for current CEOs, but also for boards of directors and others involved in CEO selection and succession planning, and for HR and communication professionals responsible for executive development.

For those working in the relocation field, perhaps the most notable findings from the study are those related to how intercultural competencies are developed. The most frequently cited source of learning by the CEOs was living and working abroad, with several noting that it was essential to avoid living in an ‘expat bubble’.

Development appears to come frequently from informal relationships, and from the opportunity for mentoring moments as failures occur. This would indicate the need to move away from one-shot training and pre-move orientation toward programmes that provide ongoing support throughout an overseas assignment, and possibly to move away from expat enclaves toward full cultural immersion.

For an extended version of this article, see the Summer 2015 issue of our Europe digital magazine, out July

For further information visit:

This article was originally posted on the Relocate Global website and can be viewed here.


Govt must comply with court orders or face jail Ilse de Lange –The Citizen  17.7.2015

An urgent court order granted in the North Gauteng High Court this week made it clear judges will not tolerate government officials ignoring court orders.

Judge Segopotje Mphahlele granted an order which would have seen the director-general and deputy director-general of Home Affairs go to jail for three months unless they complied with a court order granted a month ago in favour of a Chinese academic who grew up in South Africa.

Dr Yingwen Zhang, a post-doctoral fellow at the CSIR National Laser Centre in Pretoria, last month obtained an urgent court order forcing Home Affairs to issue a South African passport or emergency passport to him.

When Home Affairs officials simply ignored the order, he asked the court to imprison Home Affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni and deputy director-general Vusumuzi Mkhize unless they complied with it. Judge Mphahlele gave them 48 hours to comply, failing which she ordered the sheriff to arrest Apleni and Mkhize and hand them to Pretoria Central Prison to be detained for three months. She also granted a punitive costs order against them.

The two barely made the deadline and Zhang’s attorney only received a message yesterday that he could collect his passport. Zhang was born in China, but came to South Africa in 1994, was granted a certificate of naturalisation in 2003 and obtained a passport in 2004. But Home Affairs refused to let him apply for a new passport when it expired as he was “under investigation”.

His attorney Andries Stander said in an affidavit officials in the department were powerless to issue the passport because Apleni and Mkhize refused to provide them with the authorisation. “(Their) conduct … is yet another example of senior government officials who in a contemptuous manner flout the constitution and the laws of the Republic of South Africa by wilfully and without any justification failing to comply with a valid and binding court order. Public interest demands … that such unlawful behaviour be dealt with swiftly,” he said.

Zhang missed two major international conferences, was unable to visit his research collaborators in Canada and would miss the largest conference on laser technology in America next year unless he had a passport.

A sad indictment of heartless South African Home Affairs…

When a judge, writing in July 2015, says the treatment of an individual in a case he’s been hearing is one of the worst since the advent of democracy, you pay attention. Who is this person who has been treated so badly? What happened, and who was responsible for abuse that shocked even a hardened judge? Emeka Christian Okonkwo is a Nigerian trader. It’s an undisputed fact that he’s in South Africa quite lawfully. He had a little shop in East London where he sold cellphones and gold chains for which he was properly licensed. But on 3 August 2012 his world turned upside down: He was summarily picked up and detained by officials of the Department of Home Affairs, long a byword for high-handed abuse of individuals and of an equally high-handed disregard for the law.


They pretended that they had a warrant for his arrest – a blatant lie as it turned out. Then they locked him up in Fort Glamorgan prison, turned their backs and walked away. For 75 days he languished there, completely cut off from family and friends. No one except the officials who incarcerated him knew where he was. He wasn’t charged or taken to court. He wasn’t told why he was being locked up or what he was supposed to have done wrong. In fact, as Judge Phakamisa Tshiki said later, those who locked him up never had any intention to take him to court, and it was the clearest case he had seen of malicious arrest and detention. Okonkwo might still be there if it hadn’t been for an alert prison warden – someone who should be nominated for a human rights award – who took an interest in this man, imprisoned for no apparent reason. Thanks to that intervention Okonkwo was ultimately simply let go, without ever having appeared in court or being informed of what sin he was supposed to have committed. But the abuse of Okonkwo continued even after his release. Not surprisingly he sued the Department of Home Affairs, but did the department admit its officers were culpable and offer to make amends? No way. They fought the case as though some high principle were at stake, forcing Okonkwo to go through every legal hoop until the matter was about to be heard as a full trial. Only then, with court dates settled and the matter about to proceed, did they cave in and admit that his arrest and detention were unlawful and that they were liable to pay damages of whatever amount a court found appropriate, as well as his legal costs. When the question of the actual damages was argued, the two parties couldn’t agree on the appropriate compensation he should be awarded and the issue had to be decided via a full-blown trial. Okonkwo was the only witness. The department, despite fiercely defending the matter, led no evidence whatsoever. Okonkwo told a sorry tale of how his life as fallen apart as a result of his unlawful detention. His wife and child are both lost to him. She left him and his child has gone, too, because he couldn’t take care of them while he was locked up. The arrest in his shop was made more humiliating as it was witnessed by his family, neighbours and others. His experience in the cells was not only humiliating, it was terrifying as well, with other prisoners attempting to rape him.


For 75 days he had no bed, he couldn’t eat the food provided, there was competition for the toilets. The whole place stank. Perhaps the most outrageous part of the whole story, however, is the two-part argument put up on behalf of the department to explain why Okonkwo should be paid far less in damages than he claimed: The court was ‘dealing with public funds’, said counsel for the department; moreover the court had to weigh up what was appropriate to award as damages considering Okonkwo’s ‘standing in society’. The implication of the second part of the argument was that he was a nobody, a mere Nigerian trader, and he should therefore be satisfied with less compensation than would be awarded to an important person. Such an argument speaks volumes about the department’s understanding of the Bill of Rights and the guarantee of equality in our Constitution. As for the first part of the argument, that public funds that would be used to pay damages to Okonkwo – there is a solution to the problem, namely that the responsible officials pay the damages out of their own pocket. In the end Judge Tshiki, who heard the case in the High Court, East London, called the way the department handled the litigation ‘reprehensible in the extreme’, awarded Okonkwo damages of R750 000 plus legal costs. There’s deep irony to the timing of judgment in this case. It was delivered 800 years, to the very month, after the signing of the Magna Carta, that charter which has so fundamentally shaped our views of human rights over the centuries, and which is one of the influences that led ultimately to such other documents as South Africa’s Constitution. Here, for example, is Chapter 39 of the Magna Carta: No man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. For 800 years that has been a touchstone by which a government could be judged. In the case of Okonkwo, however, you see a man taken and imprisoned, dispossessed of his family not to mention his financial losses, completely without sanction by the law of the land.


It’s a damning indictment of the Department of Home Affairs, its officials and the broader government that continues to allow this department to behave as though the Constitution did not exist. Actually, since our money will pay for this atrocity, it’s also an indictment of the public.


Unless we speak up, urging that officials who flagrantly defy the law pay for their misdeeds out of their own pockets, and that legal action is taken against them where appropriate, we are unavoidably complicit in their crimes. That, at any rate, is my view. and in this, the first of what will be a fortnightly column, I put it forward for debate. My intention in A Matter of Justice is to highlight judgments and other legal issues through which we can see more clearly where we’ve come from and where we’re going. My hope is that these columns, with the discussion that hopefully follows, will help contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of our Constitution as well as the democratic society, founded on the rule of law, that we want to create.


Okonkwo v Minister of Home Affairs & another

Article written by Carmel Rickard


Research shows impact of new visa laws

The new South African visa regulations implemented last year and the recent child visa laws are indeed affecting the local tourism industry and GDP, according to research.

The research, done on the behalf of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), is published in a report prepared by Grant Thornton entitled “TBCSA’s Report on the Impact of the New Immigration Regulations on the Travel and Tourism Industry”.

So what were the findings?

The report found that the new immigration regulations are in fact negatively affecting South Africa’s tourist industry and GDP.

“The total direct, indirect and induced impact on the South African economy in 2014 was a negative R2.6-billion and a potential loss of more than 5 800 jobs,” the report said.

This includes a R886-million loss of direct tourist spend for the tourism industry.

However, the true impact of the regulations remains to be seen.

” In 2015, the number of lost foreign tourists due to changes in the immigration regulations is likely to increase to 100 000, with a direct tourism spend of R1.4-billion and the total net loss to the South African GDP of around R4.1-billion and a loss of 9 300 jobs,” the report said.

“The amendments to the visa regulations have had, and will continue to have, a significant negative impact on South Africa’s tourism industry and the economy as a whole.”

The researchers suggested that the regulations for the collection of biometric data be put on hold and that a “biometrics on arrival” system rather be implemented.

The report also recommends that a visitor-friendly visa regime be implemented.

Original article on

From the Horse’s Mouth – Cameroon


Contributions by our very own Jacob Kuh and Benjamin Nwall in Cameroon
Facts you did not know about Cameroon (Cameroon, officially the Republic of Cameroon on the Gulf of Guinea, is a Central African country of varied terrain and wildlife. Its inland capital, Yaoundé, and its biggest city, the seaport Douala, are transit points to ecotourism sites as well as beach resorts like Kribi – near the Chutes de la Lobé waterfalls, which plunge directly into the sea – and Limbe, home to a wildlife centre.)


1. How are birthdays celebrated?
Birthdays are either celebrated quietly with a cake and a few friends and family members, or a feast is organised and friends, family, and colleagues are invited to rejoice with the person celebrating. Birthday feasts are mostly organised over weekends.

2. When you first meet someone, how do you greet them?
In Cameroon, it is not polite to offer a handshake to a person who is your senior. The junior will say good morning or afternoon and wait for the senior to offer his or her hand. It is not also advisable to shake the hand of a senior person whilst wearing a cap or hat – while your right hand reaches out to the hand being offered, your left hand should be used to remove the hat or cap.

3. What languages are spoken in your country?
French and English are the two official languages in Cameroon. The country has ten regions, eight are Francophone and two Anglophone. While these are the two official languages, Cameroon is home to about 230 ethnic groups and each group has its own language; therefore about 230 local languages are spoken in Cameroon.

4. Do you use a twelve hour clock, or a twenty-four hour clock?
Due to the bilingual nature of the country, both the twelve and twenty-four hour clocks are used. The Francophones use the twenty-four hour clock while the Anglophones use the twelve hour clock.

5. What side of the road do people drive on? What do we need to know about driving in Cameroon?
In Cameroon people drive on the right-hand side of the road. Driving is really different from one town to another. In Douala, the commercial capital, driving is very hectic. You must have a valid driving license of course and your car must be in good shape. We also have lots of motorbikes which makes it difficult to drive as they don’t really respect rules and regulations. The roads are not good, even in the major cities such as Douala and Yaounde. It is quite common to be stuck in traffic for anything from two to four hours at any given time.

6. How important is punctuality?
Punctuality is commonly not very important and ‘African Time’ is the order of the day. Most people will generally be 30 minutes to 1 hour late and will routinely blame traffic jams for this.
For official and government appointments, however, you are expected to be punctual.

7. What types of music are popular? Who are some of your most popular musicians?
Makossa and Bikutsi traditionally used to be the popular music forms in Cameroon. The advent of globalisation, however, brought many musical genres to Cameroon. For example hip-hop, R&B, Congolese rhumba and music from Nigeria.
Some musicians presently popular in our country:
Petit Pays – Watch
Manu Dibango – Watch
Richard Bona – Watch
and Charlotte Dipanda – Watch

8. Are there any Traditional Dances?
As mentioned earlier, Cameroon has more than two hundred ethnic groups and each group has their own traditional dance. Here are examples of a couple of traditional dances:
the Bakan Pygmies Dance – Watch
the Assiko (Bassa traditional dance) – Watch

9. What traditional Festivals are celebrated in your community?
The Batanga community of Kribi celebrates Mayi on the 9 of May every year – Click here.
The Duala community celebrates Ngondo each year on the Wourri river shores – Click here

10. What are your seasons like?
Cameroon has two seasons, a rainy and dry season. In the southern part of the country, the rainy season lasts up to nine months – generally April to November/December. Interestingly the 4th most rainy city in the world, Debudscha, is found in the South West Region of Cameroon: Click here
And the dry season lasts only three months – generally December/January to March.
In the northern part of the country the dry season can last about ten months while the rainy season can last just two months.
11. Tell us an interesting fact about your President?
Paul Barthélemy Biya’a bi Mvondo known as Paul Biya was born on the 13 February 1933. On 6 November 1982 he was selected to be the second president of Cameroon since the country’s Independence after the resignation of the first president Amadou Ahidjo. Mr Biya is one of the longest serving presidents on the African continent and is considered to be a key player in the central Africa region. He made headlines lately when he decided to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, joining forces with Nigeria Chad and Niger.
He has a young wife with three children.
12. What are Cameroon’s major industries?
Agriculture is the major industry (cocoa and coffee mainly but also vegetables and fruit).
The country also produces oil and gas.
13. How do people spend their free time?
In cities, people spend time in their homes with occasional visits to friends or family and trips to Limbe and Kribi over week-ends during the sunny season. Whilst in the rural areas, people spend time chatting about politics and many other topics over a bottle of white wine or locally made spirit. People like gossiping – we call it kongossa in Cameroon.
14. What do people drink?
What people drink in Cameroon depends on their pockets. The majority go for locally made drinks like white wine made from palm tree (matango) or locally made spirits (odontol, arki). Meanwhile those who can afford it drink beer – some favourites are Guinness, Heineken and Kadji. South African wines are also quite popular.
15. What is a popular local dish?
It is very difficult to pinpoint one popular dish in Cameroon. Each region may have one or two popular dishes. However, Poisson Braisé/Roasted Fish seems to be a dish found nationwide.


And the very popular breakfast of Beignets Haricots/Puff Puff & Beans (Puff Puff or Pof Pof are fried balls made mainly from flour and yeast and they are yummy)



16. What do you pay for? (Euro 1 = XAF 655)
In a restaurant… A cup of coffee – 1,5 euros , a Coca Cola – 2 euros
A 2-Course meal for 2 people – nothing extravagant – 15 euros
At a shop… A loaf of bread – 0.2 euros, a local newspaper – 0.8 euros Milk from 2 to 5 euros
17. Security – in general?
People visiting the far north, north Adamoua and eastern regions of Cameroon should be mindful of their safety. The Boko Haram group and rebel groups from the Central African Republic have made these areas unstable. The rest of Cameroon, however, is generally relatively safe and the main cities, Douala and Yaoundé are very lively with people enjoying going out at night. The surrounding cities like Kribi, Limbe, where people like go to relax and enjoy the sea are also safe.

** Meaning: From the highest authority. From the source.
Origin: In horse racing circles tips on which horse is a likely winner circulate amongst punters. The most trusted authorities are considered to be those in closest touch with the recent form of the horse, that is, stable lads, trainers etc. The notional ‘from the horse’s mouth’ is supposed to indicate one step better than even that inner circle, that is, the horse itself