July 7, 2016
Business Management  |  11 min read

Are You sure you are Globally Intelligent?

by Clare Kirlin

Your small business is global. Whether you realize it or not, you work for a global business. Even if you are not actively pursuing business across borders, global interactions have found their way into everyday life for small businesses. Consider these scenarios: 

  • International customers want to buy from you. Example: A bed-and-breakfast owner in Costa Rica finds that her property is suddenly in high demand among visitors from Canada.
  • A global competitor is targeting your customers. Example: A local restaurant in France is losing customers to a rapidly expanding U.S.-based fast food chain.
  • You’re working with global vendors, employees, or investors: Example: An automotive shop in Jordan needs to start stocking parts from Korea, as more imported cars need maintenance and repairs.                                                            

These stories have obvious international plots, but global interactions can be more subtle. Think about the last time you spoke with a customer service rep in a different region, tried to read product instructions translated from another language, or saw traffic on your website from another country.

There are global opportunities everywhere you look; American businesses in particular may be surprised to hear that nearly 96 percent of consumers live outside the United States, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The map below shows that MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises—businesses with fewer than 250 employees) are not limited to just one region.

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(Source: International Finance Corporation

Avoiding global blunders

In the past, “global” was the concern of big multinational corporations. No more. Our connected age demands that small businesses take on a more a global perspective. Ignoring globalization can have negative consequences, ranging from lost business opportunities to interpersonal communication challenges. 

In a previous life, I taught admission test preparation courses to students from diverse global backgrounds. My own global narrow-mindedness led to one extremely mortifying situation.

An international student was struggling with the reading comprehension section of an admissions test, and came to me for help. Assuming that she was facing a language barrier, I suggested English language courses to improve her comprehension. She gave me a totally baffled look, followed by an awkward pause. “But… I have a Master’s degree in English literature,” she said.

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Ouch. Because she spoke a dialect different from my own American English, I assumed that English was her second language. In fact, she was a native speaker from another region, with different pronunciation and vocabulary. Even though I had lived abroad and considered myself globally aware, I made a wrong assumption that led to profound embarrassment for both of us. 

Seizing global opportunity

A good way to start expanding your global perspective is with the cultural intelligence model (also called “cultural quotient” or “CQ”). Cultural intelligence is your ability to work effectively with individuals from diverse backgrounds—location, religion, and even age group are key factors. Global cultural intelligence specifically refers to how you manage interactions with people from other countries.

Good news—anyone can become more globally intelligent. You don’t need to learn a new language, travel the world, or hold an executive title in order to develop global cultural intelligence. Dr. David Livermore, President of the Cultural Intelligence Center, identifies four aspects of cultural intelligence that apply to all of us: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action.

Expanding your global intelligence

Using the cultural intelligence model, you can expand your global perspective and improve your success when interacting with people in other global regions.

One important disclaimer: We are all individuals. Sensitivity to individual differences is just as important as global awareness as you seek to deepen your global understanding.

Drive: What motivates your desire for a global perspective?

Determine why, and how much, you want to increase your global awareness. Your reasons could be economic (attracting customers in new markets, finding more vendors) or personal (expanding your social network, improving your personal brand). Global intelligence has been shown to drive success, but identifying your motivations can focus your priorities and increase your confidence as you move toward your goal. List the benefits you or your business will obtain by increasing your global intelligence, so you can measure your success.

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Case study: Maya owns a trendy New York bakery. It is well-known for its brightly colored frosting. One morning, Maya’s food dye supplier calls to inform her that there is a shortage of pink food dye (the bakery’s most requested color). The supplier can’t restock for 12 weeks. After some online searching, Maya finds a supplier in Mexico who can fulfill her order that month. The supplier’s website is in Spanish, which Maya doesn’t speak. Fortunately, her pastry chef does. Maya relies on him to help her solve the problem. Thinking about the situation later, she decides to improve her global intelligence for two reasons: (1) to diversify her supply chain (economic motivator) and (2) to form a deeper connection with the employee who helped her (personal motivator).

Knowledge: Are you aware of global similarities and differences?

Language, social institutions, and values vary depending on location—and they can even vary within a single region (consider a diverse city like London). Think about the customs, nonverbal communication rules, language patterns, and beliefs of those you interact with, as well as your own. You can begin by remembering the last time you were part of a global exchange. It can be something as simple as dining at an international restaurant. How did your global similarities or differences affect the situation? How could a deeper knowledge of other cultures have improved communication?

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Case study: Paul, a German entrepreneur, is launching an adventure tour company. After researching the market, he discovers that tourists from China are a big part of his potential customer base. Paul decides to hire a tour guide who is fluent in Mandarin. He finds some potential candidates based in China via LinkedIn and sends them friendly emails inviting them to apply for the position. Nobody responds, even after multiple follow-up messages. Paul is confused since he’s presenting what he thinks of as a great job opportunity. He asks a friend from China what he did wrong, and the friend explains that a stranger in Germany with no mutual connections approaching a candidate in China is culturally out of tune. Paul realizes that he could have improved his outcome if he had known more about Chinese hiring and management practices.

Strategy: What is your plan for navigating global issues?

This is where you can start planning for the future. Anticipate the next time you’ll interact with someone outside of your own global context. It might be direct (such as speaking with a supplier in another country) or indirect (such as serving your website content to visitors outside your home country). How will you engage with these people more effectively? What assumptions do you bring to the situation, and how accurate are they? Anticipate as many global interactions as you can, and think about what knowledge would help create a more successful outcome for you, and whoever you’re relating to. 


Case study: An artist collective based in South Africa decides to sell their goods online to collectors around in the world. As they look into creating a website, they realize that that translating into multiple languages would be too expensive. The artists decide to launch with an English-only version of the site to attract buyers in the United States, U.K, Australia, and elsewhere. But buyers in each of those regions speak slightly different English dialects (with unique spelling and phrases), use different currencies, and have different e-commerce processes. In the end, the collective decides to use South African English on the website for the sake of authenticity and to create special sub-pages that detail the purchasing process for buyers in each of its target markets.

Action: How will you adapt your behavior for a global context?   

Increasing your global intelligence requires ongoing flexibility and awareness. Every interaction is a chance to apply what you’ve learned, and learn something new. How can adjust your actions during future global interactions? This will change depending the global context of whoever you’re interacting with. For direct face-to-face communication, you may need to modify the way you speak, dress, or shake hands. For indirect communication, you may need to change the way you write an email, consider the photos you put on your website or emphasize different product features depending on global use case. The more you’re willing to adapt, the more successful you will be.  

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Case study: Matias runs a small marketing agency. Clients love Dave, his top salesperson, for his friendly, outgoing, and casual demeanor. When the agency is invited to meet with a family-run Japanese restaurant to discuss a possible project, Matias realizes that Dave will need some coaching. He asks Dave to do read up on Japanese business practices. During the meeting, which takes place at the restaurant, Dave makes a stellar impression on the client by following Japanese cultural expectations for etiquette, dining, dress, and negotiations. The client takes note. Afterward, the client calls Matias to thank him for putting in the extra effort and refers him to another local restaurant looking for help with their marketing.

Going global for good

Now is the time to set up your small business for global success. What global challenges and opportunities are coming your way? Are you prepared to meet them? 

Nobody can become a “global genius” overnight; it’s an ongoing process. But everyone has the potential to expand global intelligence. As you start to approach every professional (and personal) interaction with global intelligence, your success will multiply.

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Special thanks to Gary Covert of Alpha Performance Coaching and the Arizona Technology Council for bringing a global perspective to our small business community.  

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Clare is the associate copy director at Infusionsoft, where she works to craft meaningful messaging for a worldwide audience of small business superheroes. Her 10-year marketing career has deep roots in content strategy, with an emphasis on B2B technology. Outside the office, Clare can usually be found indulging her passion for language as a creative writer, prolific reader, and inexorable chatterbox. She is a proud parent of one daughter and self-nominated captain of Team Oxford Comma. Connect with Clare on Twitter @clarekirlin.

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