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Experience Abroad Bolsters Cultural Intelligence, a Key Skill for Career Success

By Mark Overmann, Vice President of External Affairs, InterExchange | Published: October 22, 2018

Consider this:

Nearly seven out of every ten international business ventures fail because of cultural differences, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That’s astounding.

It’s not surprising, then, when the Institute of International Education (IIE) tells us that 90% of executives from 68 countries cite “cultural intelligence” as their top challenge in working across borders. Employers are looking for staff who possess the skills to make those international ventures a success.

A foreign exchange student works in an office environment
Cultural intelligence creates opportunities both
for young people seeking to be  competitive in the
job market and for the employers that hire them. 

But what is cultural intelligence? And how can we encourage young people to develop it?

One broad way to think about cultural intelligence is through the lens of what Harvard Business Review calls “self-concept clarity”—defined as a clear and consistent understanding of yourself.

Higher self-concept clarity helps you to develop more self-awareness and empathy, which leads to more confidence in your ability and decision-making. The authors’ research has shown that living, working, and studying abroad increases self-concept clarity.

More specifically, we can think about cultural intelligence as “soft skills.” A second IIE report notes that “employers generally value soft skills in new employees as much or more than they value technical skills.” The specific soft skills these employers are looking for include openness, curiosity, problem-solving and decision-making skills, confidence, and tolerance towards other personal values and behaviors.

Exchange students pose before a cityscape.
From exploration to employment: studying abroad 
generates real-world skills in high demand. 

Now consider the skills students reported, in that second IIE report, that they gained while studying abroad:

“Curiosity, flexibility and adaptability, confidence, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, communication, [and] problem-solving.”

The soft skills—those of cultural intelligence—that employers are looking for are the same ones that students develop while working and studying abroad.

These skills are highly valued by employers for a reason: they’re good for business. With a culturally competent staff, a business:

  • Won’t lose out on international ventures because of cultural differences;
  • Will be able to compete more fully in emerging markets; and
  • Will be able to retain driven employees with leadership skills that cut across contexts, countries, and cultures.

A McKinsey study reports that leadership teams with significant cultural diversity are more likely, by one-third, to have returns above the national median. And because such diverse companies are high performing, those companies are better able to retain top talent, which makes them better at decision-making, which leads to “a cycle of increasing revenue.”

21st Century employers are in great need of 
culturally intelligent employees who have lived,
worked and studied outside their home countries.

A culturally intelligent staff can also give businesses a substantial advantage in the fastest growing markets. The economies of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and Turkey are expected to grow at an annual average rate of 3.4% over the next 30+ years, PwC reports. This as opposed to only 1.6% growth for Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States. Any business with a workforce possessing the cultural and linguistic skills to perform highly in these markets will have a serious leg up.

Boiled down, we can think about it like this: employers aren’t looking so much for what potential employees know, but rather what they can do, and how they do it. Cultural intelligence ultimately means knowing how to think and act in a complex environment.

No environment is more complex than a new country, culture, and language. And by immersing students and young professionals in environments abroad, we’re pushing them to build the cultural intelligence that will bolster their career success.

About the Author

A headshot of Mark Overmann

After studying abroad in France and teaching English in China, Mark Overmann was hooked on cultural exchange. He’s the Vice President of External Affairs at InterExchange, a cultural exchange organization in NYC celebrating its 50th anniversary. Previously Mark was Deputy Director at the Alliance for International Exchange in Washington, DC, and is coauthor with Sherry Mueller of Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development  (Georgetown University Press, 2014 and 2008). 

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