Back to school. It’s that time of the year. And, as pretty much any parent who endured the final days of summer vacation will tell you, this is a most wonderful time of the year. I, for one, grew tired of hearing my own voice:
Walk the dog, man!
Why are there dishes in the sink, man?
Don’t stand on your sister’s head, man! (#truestory)
As fall approaches, two things are clear to me. First, I say “man” a lot. A LOT.
Second, woes of the modern parent aside, I have envied students headed back to school ever since I wore my last cap and gown. Maybe you’ve felt it, too. There’s a powerful feeling of excitement and growth that accompanies learning new facts, figures, and ways of thinking.
Luckily, no matter our level of expertise, experience or education, there is always and will always be so much more to learn. In fact, in a world driven by data, information, and connectivity, success both ensures and demands endless learning. And in an increasingly diverse world, one specific area that ensures and demands endless learning is Cultural Competence.
Cultural Competence: the ability to interact effectively across lines of difference
As we, at The Kaleidoscope Group, help executives, managers, and individual contributors to develop their cultural competence, those individuals become empowered to recruit and retain best talent, to identify and capture new markets, to launch and drive the types of diverse and inclusive teams that spawn innovation and propel profits.
The learning never stops. We may have explored primary dimensions of diversity (e.g. age, race), but not yet considered how to balance varying work styles. We may have expanded our understanding of work styles, but not yet considered how all the dimensions intersect for us and for our colleagues.
The reality of today’s business landscape is that opportunity is growing as the world is shrinking and those who possess the agility to cross lines of difference effectively will possess a, perhaps insurmountable, competitive advantage.
As I watch my kids go back to school, it strikes me that those of us who wish to gain that competitive advantage would be wise to follow the advice I gave them as they entered this new school year:
Listen to your teachers.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
– Zen proverb
So, who are our teachers? Everyone (potentially, at least).
That baby boomer with the experience and perspective to recognize a business cycle and anticipate the best next steps might be our teacher. That millennial with the new eyes to see new things might be our teacher. Our teacher might be a peer, the person to whom we report, or a person who reports to us.
Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.
Most of us could anticipate that we might learn some things about cultural competence while “doing diversity,” attending a class or participating in a workshop. However, opportunities to develop this mindset and skill set are as ubiquitous as potential teachers.
Those who will be good, in terms of cultural competence will get ready. They will engage fully in those classes and workshops. Those who will be great, in terms of cultural competence, will stay ready. They will identify the learning opportunities others miss and extract the lessons that will help them perform at an ever higher level with an ever widening group of people.
Recently, at a company retreat, the members of The Kaleidoscope Group experienced a powerful presentation delivered by consultants who focus on transgender issues in the workplace. One of the consultants was a transgender woman who shared her equally funny and powerful story with us, using her personal experience to breathe life into the facts and figures they shared.
Around the room, I noticed, my colleagues were listening intently. We took notes. We asked questions. Thoughtful pauses alternated with bursts of conversation that settled into yet more listening.
As the presentation ended, I joined a group of my colleagues who had gathered around our transgender presenter. One by one, we asked questions, dove deeper into points that had been made during the session, and in some cases, asked for resources where we could learn more.
Once you’ve listened to your teachers, it is imperative that you…
Do your homework.
You know what to do. Now, do what you know.
Whether you read books, take time to explore and capture your own thoughts or make personal contact, when you’re developing cultural competence you must do the personal work to reinforce the learning and integrate it into your behavior going forward.
My friend, “Tim,” is a transgender man. When we first met and became friends, I knew “Tim” as “Tiffany.” As luck would have it, “Tim” is a brilliant photographer and has created a stunning photo series, capturing his transition. Photo by photo we have been able able to witness changes, subtle and stark, to have this transition to who he is happen before our eyes. A true friend, he has allowed me to morph this master class into an introductory course for me, as I write him privately with questions, some of which make me cringe at my own ignorance, even as I type them. One example happened just after I learned “Tiffany” had made this momentous decision.
“So… I know you’re not going to be ‘Tiffany’ anymore, but when do I start calling you ‘Tim.’ Like, are you ‘Tim,’ now?”
He wrote back quickly. “You can call me ‘Tim.’”
“Dumb question, right?”
I chuckled at my monitor as I noted that “Tim” said it was “cool,” but never said my question wasn’t dumb. Even if it was a dumb question, he knew I wanted to get it right. And, sometimes, to “get it right” you have to be willing to get it wrong.
If we’re going to grow our cultural competence, we have to risk looking foolish once in awhile. We have to be willing to…
My latest bit of homework was a bit of a confession to “Tim.” I told him about the presentation and how impactful it had been. Then, I described what happened when it was my turn to speak to our presenter, one on one.
We had a pleasant conversation that I ended by saying, ‘Good job, man.’
Yes. That’s right. I said, ‘Good job, man.’ That is what I said to a transgender woman who just bore her soul about her journey.
The word was past my lips before I had any idea what was happening and it just floated there in the air for exactly 989 years, as I wondered why the conference room had no escape hatch. IT NEEDED AN ESCAPE HATCH!
She must have seen the horror in my eyes because I could barely explain that I meant it colloquially before she smiled and said, ‘I didn’t take it any other way.’
So… that happened.
“Tim” wrote back:
“I TOTALLY relate. I cannot seem to stop saying, “You guys” in front of every statement. I’ve almost got a handle on it verbally, but even when writing, my fingers are going faster than my brain and there I go, saying “You guys” to to a non-binary transgender friend. And not just once… but I keep flubbing it up! So, it happens to me too! Don’t feel too badly. It’s better than not using the pronouns on purpose! I can tell when someone just tripped up. Hopefully, my friend can tell when I’ve just tripped up, too.”
“Wait,” I thought, “Tim is making mistakes? He’s the one schooling me!” Then, it hit me, that I’d stumbled across the point: If we’re learning, growing, moving on to the “next grade” of who we are, we are going to make mistakes. We risk saying the wrong thing. We risk doing the wrong thing. We risk sticking our feet in our mouths, in slow motion, over 989 supremely awkward years. It’s worth it, though, if we’re able to graduate to levels of performance and degrees of success we would never have reached otherwise.
Yeah, I made a fool of myself for a moment but… I’m learning… I’m learning.
The Kaleidoscope Group