How to Accelerate Cultural Intelligence – Tips to Succeed on International Assignments

Is your company sending you on a work assignment abroad? Are you ready to experience a totally different culture? International assignments not only develop the individual leadership skills and business acumen, but also increase the diversity and inclusiveness in the workforce. Today’s Leadership Series article focuses on such assignments and Varun Gupta, IBM Watson HR Director, gives great advice on “Cultural Intelligence” to help you succeed on your international assignment.

The leadership series is a collection of stories written by IBM leaders showcasing key insights about their area of expertise, their take on the trends in the industry and technology they are working on and expressing how IBM presented an environment for them to explore their passion, develop their skills and knowledge, become experts in their field, and build their career.

By Varun Gupta
VarunAdapting to change, especially cultural change, can be tougher than it seems. That’s because cultural understanding can never be accomplished at the surface level. It is nuanced and complex, and it takes time and experience to grasp it. However, the expectations from individuals who move on international assignments are hinged on their ability to deliver quickly, and the runway for them to adapt to cultural change is very short. Even a shared corporate culture isn’t sufficient! That’s where “cultural intelligence” comes in. I would describe “cultural intelligence” as the ability to understand and work within a new cultural environment, yet maintaining the individuality and ethos that define you. Simply put, none of us can change overnight, but we can surely appreciate and assimilate the nuances of culture around us and get to successful outcomes.

Having recently relocated to the US to work at IBM’s corporate headquarters, I’ve experienced this first hand. Based on my personal learning and coming off interactions with peers who’ve undergone similar experiences, here are my top 5 tips to accelerate your “cultural intelligence”:

  1. Complement, not replace: If you are moving to another country, location or organization, you’re being selected to complement and enhance the skills and depth of the team, and not simply replace the skills or individuals. It’s important to have the mind set to collaborate and improve, and know that you bring a unique perspective to the table. Build on it, and enjoy the process of collaborating. You are unique, and so is everyone else!
  2. Anchor yourself to stay afloat: You need to find your anchor, and by anchor I mean things that keep you grounded and sane. It could be simple things – you love cooking, or you like to vent steam at the bar on a Friday, or find happiness in your family, or with your dog or just eating out. In my case, I took to running, and started enjoying running to keep my head clear. It’s important that you find the anchors that give you happiness and help you remain sane; they could be the simplest of things and unique to you.
  3. Resilience, not resistance: I cannot emphasize enough the value of resilience, the value of grinding it out with hard work, and the value of continuing to walk the course till the end. There will be times when you will fall, you will feel alone and you will feel defeated. Shake it off and stand up again! That’s the only way forward. Be resilient in learning and growing yourself, not resistant or reluctant to change. Remember, holding on to the past when you’re building on your future isn’t the smartest thing to do. The future is most beautiful when you create it!
  4. “Experiences” matter, observe and reach out: Look around you – your peers, your friends, just the folks sitting next to you in the restaurant, on the streets and in your fitness center. You’ll see threads of culture all around you. Learn to pick those threads. Don’t just mimic them, understand and appreciate them – these are your biggest learnings to understanding culture. And when you feel you need help, reach out! Remember, you’re not the first one going through such a change. And that brings me to my last tip.

    (Pic credit: Damir Kotoric at Unsplash)
  5. Be humble, but never lose self-respect: And as you learn, observe, and grow, you will see your confidence develop and your credibility increase. That’s good only till you don’t let it become your undoing. Humility isn’t a trait or an attribute, humility is about what success really means to you, and how much you’ve had to go through to achieve what you have. Remember that, and remain grounded – staying successful is different than becoming successful. Remain humble, remain hungry to grow, and do it with self-respect.

The bottom line is that it all needs to be meaningful for you. Find your purpose, the onus of succeeding in the new environment is on you. All the best!

I look forward to hearing your feedback


Stay tuned for more blogs on our leadership series and drop a comment below if you have any questions. Feel free to share about your own leadership experiences, what works for you, or ways you’ve managed to optimize leadership.

If you want to learn more about how IBM promotes diversity and inclusion, follow our campaign #InclusiveIBM and be sure to read other cool stories about  diversity at IBM.

To keep up to date with our career opportunities and other IBM facts, connect with us on Facebook, TwitterLinkedIn, Youtube and Instagram

Discover what you can do at IBM: #WhyIBM

This article was first shared on LinkedIn Pulse.

3 thoughts

  1. Excellent article, I liked all your points. Adaptability is key and sometimes people require extensive experience with other cultures in order to adapt quickly.
    In my experience, being humble can never be overstated and I have more than often seen people move to a different country and resist to adapt to the local culture, thinking that they would become something different or that people should somehow make room for them.
    I have lived in Japan, South America and North America. In all these very diverse places I have seen people who lived there for over 10 years and did not speak the local language and I have seen people from extremely different cultures that you would not believe they were not natives. Guess who could better make a difference in their new world?
    When you adapt, it is key to be yourself IN the new culture, not a complete stranger making an effort to stand out by staying distant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.