Hiring for Cultural Intelligence

“Leveraging the opportunities of the 21st-century world requires a strategy for assessing and developing cultural intelligence.” –David Livermore


As an executive recruiter, I have the privilege of walking alongside senior leaders in nonprofit and ministry settings who are considering “cultural intelligence” as a must-have soft skill for their new hires. In a recent conversation with an international mission organization, the CEO lit up when I said, “So what you are looking for is someone who has the capacity to function effectively in a multicultural environment?” But just as often, I see hiring managers with a blank stare, overwhelmed at adding yet another “must have” competency to an already crowded competency list. How can ministry and nonprofit leaders best hire for cultural intelligence without creating a search for an omni-capable “golden unicorn” candidate?


An important step in hiring for cultural intelligence is to use a 360-degree assessment of your team when outlining the position requirements. Clearly, it is important to know what “the boss” wants… hiring managers typically draw up the position description, seek approval to fund the new role, and shape the search. In my experience, this leaves a wealth of insights untapped. Whenever I hire a for a new role, I meet with the supervisors first to gain insight on goals and formal relationships. Then I meet with peers or colleagues to the position. In this capacity, I might ask, “What would a valuable, competent teammate look like for you in this new role? What attributes do you hope they have? What skills would make your work easier?” And finally, I meet with direct reports to get the real scoop! People “down” the org chart often have the most poignant observations and wisdom about the cultural and emotional intelligence that excellent candidates will possess. An important side benefit of inviting feedback from subordinates in the organization is that this can bring in the perspectives of younger workers, who are more likely to have experience navigating cultural differences with ease and respect.


Once you’ve developed a profile for the position you wish to fill with candidates that possess cultural intelligence, you’ve only crossed the first hurdle to adding cultural intelligence. Managers share a tendency to make hiring decisions based on perceptions shaped by desire rather than fact. Psychologists call this tendency “confirmation bias,” and it can be a huge barrier in adding cultural intelligence to your team. The truth is, we don’t perceive facts objectively; instead, we select the factors that confirm already held beliefs. When presented with someone from a different nationality or ethnic group, we tend to act on prejudice rather than fact. I remember the horror I felt when having presented a candidate that introduced diversity to an organization, and hearing a leader say, “I just don’t see them attracting the people we are trying to reach.” Meaning, “people like us.” Many managers still hire by “gut instinct.” This may work well to pick a lunch spot after a staff meeting, but serves as a poor guide to select diverse teammates with differing perspectives and vital competencies that can lift your organization out of the ordinary. Suggest that your HR team or executive recruiter intentionally provide diverse slates of candidates in any new hire process to avoid confirmation bias traps.


Ministries, and especially multi-national nonprofits, need cultural intelligence more than ever before as our culture becomes more fragmented and more tribal in its approach to politics and public discourse. The answer has to go beyond a diverse candidate pool, however. The Christian higher education community has long led in best practices of diversity hiring, but Livermore’s work in cultural intelligence has shown that diverse teams do not automatically create more innovative solutions… true innovation requires diversity plus high cultural intelligence. Because those competencies are relatively new for most organizations, the responsibility to improve the organization’s cultural intelligence adds a new step to the recruiting and new hire process. Ministries need to work hard to intentionally onboard those skills.


One technique Slingshot Group consultants use to develop curiosity across cultures is “Story Mining.” This IMPROVleadership technique opens up team members through curiosity to learn one another’s stories. Taking time to ask team members questions like, “When you were a child what did you do to receive applause?” or, “Who was your best friend growing up?” opens doors to perspective taking… a key component of cultural drive. Story Mining represents the ability to ask great questions at the right time. By encouraging managers to ask perspective-changing questions, we encourage a conversation rather than a monologue in the workplace.  Anyone who has sat through a virtual team meeting (common in today’s global workplace) knows that it’s easier to tune out than tune in when a leader is making a presentation—who hasn’t caught up on email and social media off-screen while nodding their head to your boss’s important updates? Story Mining pulls us back into another’s perspective, which exponentially increases strategic potential.


Of course, questions already form a powerful part of most interviews. Make sure you add questions for your candidates that reflect CQ competencies. “Tell us about a time that you learned something new from a culture not your own,” or, “Tell us about a time that you had a cultural faux pas at work.” Or even, “Tell us about a time that you worked powerfully with someone from a different culture than you.” When we give candidates space to describe in their own words a time they believe they demonstrated cross-cultural skills, it gives us a sense of what they would actually be like on our teams. Make sure to ask detailed questions about what the individual was thinking and feeling at the time of the interactions, to truly unpack the values that underlie surface actions. Cultural values and objectives will impact the way your candidate functions on the team when they are hired. For instance, one church desiring cultural intelligence in their candidates asked, “Tell us about the background of your current leadership team.” If the answer didn’t include “women” or “other nationalities,” then they weren’t the right candidate for that multi-ethnic church in the city.


Ours is not the first generation to need cultural intelligence to accomplish our mission. The first-century church started essentially as a Jewish sect… but before a decade passed, they came in contact with the complex urban environment of the Roman empire. We see the apostles in Acts 6 collide with a growth-arresting cultural conundrum when the Greek-speaking widows resented the Hebrew-speaking widows for getting a disproportionate share of resources. Rather than retreating to their homogenous communities, the leaders of this entrepreneurial mission analyzed the problem, appointed a special task force comprised of individuals with cultural connections to the “problem” group. All the first deacons named in Acts 6 have Greek names! In their wisdom, these executives recognized cultural intelligence was critical in placing new leaders. The result was organizational health and growth, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly…” (Acts 6:7 NIV). Since the first days of the Christian movement, bringing onboard key leaders with cultural intelligence has released explosive growth.

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