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Essential Competencies for Leading Global DEI

One of the high points in doing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work is the opportunity to coach and mentor DEI practitioners. As I wrote in January, I am finding that now more than ever, they need support – they are exhausted, resources are slim, they are not positioned for influence and success, and they are burning out. Add to that the evolving role of the diversity practitioner and the high expectations to impact not only workforce inclusion and social justice in the community in the US, but also globally. As the demand for DEI grows outside the US, there is also a need for truly global DEI culture change – not just US models and initiatives exported globally.

I have hosted eight Learn from My Experience sessions. These are open enrolment, free sessions and we have had participants from all over the world including the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Turkey, Spain, India, Peru, France, Canada, the Netherlands and more. Companies represented have also been incredibly diverse including Google, Starbucks, UN Women, Goldman Sachs, USTA, Unilever, University of Kentucky, Hexaware, Burberry, Estee Lauder, amongst others.

At these sessions, I am finding that, with the heightened demand for DEI professionals, there are practitioners who are new to DEI and are asking for guidance. There are also a growing number of seasoned DEI leaders who are now being asked to expand their influence globally and they are struggling. They are asking, “What are the core competencies we need to develop in order to lead global DEI work?” So here’s a stab at answering their question.

Global Competencies

To be effective in a global context, DEI change agents need a global mindset – an ability to listen and learn, intellectual curiosity about local nuances and the dynamics of a complex interconnected world, and strategic implementation to be able to build relationships, bring key stakeholders along and operationalize culturally relevant initiatives.

When we move into a new area, the temptation is to replicate what has worked elsewhere. But replicating initiatives without a nuanced understanding of local dynamics and awareness of our own cultural lens often does not work. For example, when we introduced mentoring globally, I learned (the hard way!) that unlike in the US, mentoring in India could not be a mentee-led initiative. In a hierarchical society, it was just not culturally practical to expect a mentee to reach out to a mentor to share their objectives. Instead, we structured the mentoring relationship so that the mentor would assist the mentee in understanding how the mentoring relationship worked and helped them identify their goals.

In order for DEI change agents to effectively guide senior executives to go through their DEI journeys to inclusion, we must always be doing our own discovery work. At the core of global DEI competency is the willingness to expose oneself to experiences outside one’s home country to really understand the local cultures and the geo-political contexts and to do so without judgement.

In a global context the actions and words one chooses can take on different meanings in disparate cultures. It is the impact rather than intent that is of greater consequence. Cultivating global competencies can serve to close the gap between our intent or desire to effect positive change and our impact or unintended consequences. DEI change agents can minimize the intent-impact gap by cultivating a global mindset, having intellectual curiosity, and being strategic:

Global Mindset

  • Self-awareness: Awareness of your own journey is key to understanding the impact of your identity on how you approach DEI and how you are perceived. What are your core values? How do you communicate those? Are you direct or indirect? Do you believe in hierarchy or equality? These are dynamics that differ across cultures. Acknowledging and leaning into areas for growth is foundational. Societies address DEI issues differently. For example, if you are based in the US, do you approach global work with a Civil Rights mindset which might not resonate elsewhere? If you are based in Europe, do you struggle with the US focus on minority populations based on race? If you are Brazilian, do you see class as being the defining issue rather than color? Someone might be in an under-represented or oppressed group in one context, like communities of color in the US, and in a different country they can be perceived as being simply American, with all the cultural hegemonic, economic and military power that is associated with that. Are you aware of not only your intentions and your lived experience, but also of how you are being perceived outside of your own cultural context?

  • Openness to listen and learn without judgement: Rather than assuming that you know what is good for those from other countries and cultures and prescribing solutions, empower colleagues and local change agents to share so you can learn.

  • Humility to admit what you don’t know: the only way to expand one’s global literacy is to be true to yourself about what you don’t know and authentic in articulating your need for enhancing your knowledge. Rather than passing judgement about cultural practices, seek to understand the rationale behind them.

  • Challenging self: Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Expose yourself to cultural experiences. In order to learn about a country and culture you cannot limit your exposure to your hotel. Use your travel time to enjoy cultural experiences that will expand your knowledge and global agility. Walk through the streets, visit museums, go to local restaurants, and most importantly ask your hosts for ideas of what you can do to learn more about the culture, history and society. You never know – you may be invited to something that will stretch you beyond what you expected!

  • Being willing to learn from others outside your home country: Incorporate these learnings into how you do your work. We have much to learn from each other and some countries are far more advanced in aspects of DEI work. In some parts of the world, for example, government quotas have meant that inclusion of people with disabilities is far more advanced than in the US.

  • Building authentic relationships across cultures: Assess how trust is developed across cultures and lean into it. Do you need to lead with credentials and experience? Do you need to go through a key influencer? Does it require spending informal time together where you share of yourself?

Intellectual Curiosity [1]

  • Continuously learning about the local politics, economics, laws, culture and history: These form the basis of why people behave the way they do. For example, in France it is difficult to address race directly because there are laws limiting the collection of racial demographic data and even the word “race” is abhorrent. Some DEI practitioners operating from a Civil Rights mindset might view this as a racist practice, but those with global DEI competence would educate themselves about its historical and social roots and work with local change agents to seek relevant and effective entry points to challenge racism in the society. Understanding the history and the cultural logic of each place helps with how you approach DEI in a way that will resonate in the region and allows you to advocate for change.

  • Exploring nuances around terminology: Who are the underrepresented groups, and what language is appropriate to use? For example, the term “inclusion” translates better than “diversity” in some contexts. “Minority” is not always understood the same way as in the US. In India discrimination is usually based on religion or on caste; in Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are systematically underrepresented. “People of color” does not always translate outside the US and can be an offensive term in some countries.

  • Understanding complexities of gathering data: Understand why certain data is not accessible. For example, data privacy laws in Europe make it challenging to collect personal demographic data. Insider/outsider groups are different in different regions. Seeing these dynamics through just one lens (for example race or gender) is not adequate. Local colleagues and change agents need to be a part of identifying what data is relevant.

  • Asking questions for understanding: In order to improve your knowledge, ask questions in a respectful way. Laws around maternity leave vary vastly, for example. Asking questions about the laws, practices and consequences will help you understand the impact on the advancement of women without assumptions or judgement.

  • Analyzing the hierarchy: Understanding how decisions get made and who has influence within the national culture and company culture will help you better comprehend the power dynamics, as well as position you for strategic implementation – the third broad competency. Power brokers may not be the same as in your home country. How and where decisions are made is not always obvious. Seek to understand the formal and informal power structures.

Strategic Implementation

Strategic implementation is about integrating the global mindset and intellectual curiosity into how you implement your work globally.

  • Providing solutions from outside won’t always resonate: Regardless of how effective you may think an initiative is because of its success in one part of the world, it is preferable to co-create solutions with local input to allow for ownership, impact and authenticity of these initiatives. For example, an anti-racism training addressing Black Lives Matter and Asian hate crimes may be very successful in the US. However, it may have limited relevance if implemented in the Asia Pacific Region, for example, without attention to local discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or caste.

  • Bringing the right stakeholders along: Make sure you have all the key stakeholders engaged. Ask who else needs to be involved for the success of the effort. Sometimes they may be individuals who are not obvious based on your paradigm. For example, in many parts of Europe like France and Germany, the Works Councils or Labor Unions are key stakeholders. In China, business needs to work closely with government to make progress. In India, my female colleagues encouraged me to involve their extended families in order to garner support for their career advancement.

  • Enjoying the process as it may take longer: Be patient as different cultures have different relationships with time and deadlines. Ultimately, maintaining the relationship is important so it may be better to go slow rather than to go fast to meet an arbitrary timeline.

  • Being patient with those for whom English is not their first language: It may take longer to communicate thoughts. By overlooking those who have to translate their thoughts into English, you may lose important information and creativity. Things can also get lost in translation, so clarify your understanding. Ensuring that resources and key meetings are accessible in the relevant language(s) will enhance your likelihood of including key voices for success.

  • Providing a clear global strategy framework with flexible objectives: Allow local country teams to figure out how to get to the outcomes: They know what works or does not in their cultural context.

Global DEI culture change can be incredibly gratifying, not least because you build relationships with people who are different from you. They give you a window into different world views and cultures and they broaden your exposure and experiences. To lean into global DEI work and to be effective it takes cultivating a global mindset, having intellectual curiosity, thinking and acting strategically, and integrating your self-awareness and knowledge to be globally culturally competent. For those who have done the challenging but gratifying DEI culture change work in the US, this is an incredible opportunity to develop your global DEI muscle.

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[1] Diversity and Inclusion: Global Challenges and Opportunities; The Conference Board. Council perspectives. Charles Mitchell and Stephanie J Creary. 2009, p. 5


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