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One Of The Best Benefits Of An MBA: Cross-Cultural Skills

Business is international in nature. For MBAs, this means it’s ever more important to have a cross-cultural skill set for a competitive advantage.

Sebastian Reiche is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Managing People in Organizations at IESE Business School. Reiche recently authored a Financial Times piece discussing how MBAs can develop cross-cultural skills.

“Culturally diverse groups of students have many benefits, especially when it comes to solving problems creatively,” Reiche says.

In his piece, Reiche breaks down cross-cultural skills into three parts: awareness, empathy, and openness.

Awareness, Reiche says, is having the knowledge of other cultures, but also having an understanding of your own.

Empathy is the ability to find common ground amongst your team. It’s important, Reiche says, to create a “team culture that goes beyond each member’s preferences.”

In order to foster this empathy, Reiche says, you must be open about your preferences, as other people will “interpret your actions based on their own cultural background.”

Openness is based on having an open-mind regarding various approaches. The quality of openness comes in handy when you’re able to “reflect on the limits of your own assumptions and preferences.”

So how do these three qualities tie into cross-cultural skills and how are MBAs preparing future leaders to have these skills? Reiche says the traditional methods of fostering these attributes are making matters worse. He recommends a more “integrative and multi-layered approach to developing cross-cultural skills.”

There are three elements that Reiche suggests business schools should focus on if they intend to foster authentic cross-cultural skills:

1) Highly diversified small teams

MBA programs already have large international student populations. At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, over 40% of MBA students hold a passport from outside the U.S. The university takes pride in its international student population for their ability to “bring fresh perspectives, unique experiences, and vital diversity to campus.” Yet, Reiche says, MBA programs often times mistakenly assume they can foster strong cross-cultural skills simply based off of having an international student environment.

“While being in a diverse cohort helps, silently sitting in a lecture room next to someone from a different country is not useful,” Reiche says. “The key is daily, in-depth conversation and collaboration with people with different cultural perspectives.”

Business schools have the ability to encourage interaction among its students. At IESE, Reiche says students are put into “small, culturally diverse groups, with faculty acting as mentors.” The groups collaboratively work on case-study discussions and activities together. The importance in having highly diversified small teams, Reiche says, is that students are constantly “challenged and confronted by their own biases and assumptions.”

2) A cross-cultural mindset across all subjects

It’s important that schools implement a cross-cultural mindset across all subjects and not merely in a few sessions. A significant part of team building, Reiche says, is understanding how to manage cross-cultural conflict. For instance, Reiche suggests a course covering how to manage yourself. Having such a course encourages students to examine their own cultural preferences. “In this context, direct experience in other cultures, such as exchanges and international modules — even if they are short trips — makes sense, because they can build and complement everything learnt in class,” he says.

3) Reflection

Structured reflection is something all business schools need to work on if they intend on fostering authentic cross-cultural skills. Reiche says schools can promote cross-cultural skills through specific assignments that encourage reflection. “Students can write essays about cultural challenges, or describe particular elements of their own culture,” he says. “Given the chance to reflect, students are better able to make sense of cross-cultural encounters.”

Simply having an international student population isn’t enough. Offering week-long study abroad trips isn’t enough. In fact, often times, these traditional methods can potentially risk students coming away with a misplaced belief that they understand another culture, when they really don’t. By focusing on these three elements, Reiche says, MBA programs can offer a much more integrative and multi-layered approach to developing authentic cross-cultural skills.

Sources: Financial Times, Stanford Graduate School of Business

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