Cultural Competency

In this episode, Chris McLean, a Master Facilitator at The Center for Leadership Studies, interviews Dr. Rengen Li of the Coca-Cola Company about Cultural Competency.

Episode Transcript


Welcome to The Center for Leadership Studies podcast, an exploration of contemporary leadership issues with experts from a variety of fields and leadership backgrounds. In this episode, Chris McLean, a master facilitator at The Center for Leadership Studies, interviews Dr. Rankin Lee of the Coca-Cola Company about cultural competency.

Chris McLean

Dr. Lee, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Rankin Lee

Thank you.

Chris McLean

As our organization is working with leaders and working more and more with global organizations, it seems like we’re spending a lot of time talking about cultural competencies. Why are we talking more about those today?

Dr. Rankin Lee

Well, Chris, today’s world is very different. It is really a globalized village right now. Everybody’s impacted by the globalized supply chains, any kind of industry you’re in. So we deal with people who have different cultural heritages every day. Doesn’t matter if you’re a small company or a bigger company or whatever kind of industry you’re in. We deal with people who are from China, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and Latin America every day. So that’s why this kind of dynamics presents challenges to leaders. How do you lead people who are different from us and among themselves? That’s a big challenge. That’s why people started talking about cultural competencies.

Chris McLean

What is your definition of or what are some examples of cultural competencies?

Dr. Rankin Lee

Well, let’s talk about what the competency is first. The guy named David McLeland defined it as something or capabilities that are directly linked to people’s performance. So what I look at is the capability that enables us to perform on the job effectively. When we look at cultural competency, that means how I can function effectively in any culture. So, that’s how I look at cultural competency. I define they also have a parameter; there are four main things about cultural competency or four cultural competencies.

The first one is agility. Agile means nimble, easy, flexible, et cetera. So what I’m looking at here is that an agile, culturally agile person, he will be very open-minded, have a drive, want to learn new things, value risk-taking, and be willing to work with anybody. These kinds of people who have a very positive outlook on the people’s future. next is going to be better than today. So positive outlook. So that’s our defined agility. And if you want to be culturally competent, you have to be willing to take risks. You have to try out different things. So that’s number one.

Number two is fluency. Fluency means, for example, if I’m fluent in Chinese, that means I can speak that language, I can process information in that language, and also I can think in that language. I use that term for cultural competency is that how I am fluent in dealing with or interacting with people in different situations in that different culture. How do I behave according to that norm? So that involves knowledge. How much do I know about that particular culture, history, legal system, educational system, business practices, et cetera?

Also, including these skills, how do people practice business? That’s a skill. For example, in the U.S., we trust the social or government institutions. We trust our legal systems. But in some other places, people may not trust that much about government institutions. They have more trust in their personal relationships. How do I build up this kind of personal relationship? That’s a skill. We do that in the States one way and somewhere else different. So that’s a skill side of it. So you need to be fluent in both ways.

The third component would be adaption. Because I believe things differently from my partner in a different culture, sometimes I have to change. I have to change those things how they do. If you go to China, people give you a business card with both hands. So, I at least need to do that.

When I say adaption is really more than simply, okay, change the way I handle the business card. A lot more than that. Sometimes you may not want to change, or you cannot change. When the practice violates your personal beliefs or company values, you don’t want to change. Unfortunately, today there are some places where bribery is a norm. But for an American company, you cannot do that. So, there are challenges. If you are competent in this area, you know when and how or what to adapt. When you are not going to adapt.

Then, that involves a fourth component called conversation. You need to have the ability to have a cultural conversation with your partner. Say, hey, understand how you do things here. Here’s why you do that. But because of certain reasons, I cannot do that.

So if you do the conversation right, creativity, problem-solving, and synergy will come out of that. So, that is a dialogue or conversation. You have to explain things. And also, part of the dialogue is you understand the other person’s perspective. The how and why. That way, you can understand better, and also help you to build up creative solutions to resolve the issues. That is also how we can produce better business results from better cultural competencies.

Sam Shriver

So fluency is about having knowledge so that I can adjust to other cultures. So, another question I have is, what are some of the differences between Eastern and Western leadership styles?

Dr. Rankin Lee

Many, many years ago, somebody asked me the question, what is Eastern management? What is Western Management? What’s the difference? My take on that, Chris, is that I believe there’s no such thing as east or west leadership. There is effective leadership and ineffective leadership. The principle is the same. However, when you execute and apply that principle, it will be very different based on your different cultural heritage or cultural situation there. For example, a good leader is always a good communicator. You communicate with people, your visions, your missions, or you want to communicate with people to mobilize and motivate them. How you communicate would be different.

In the U.S., you do it one way, a more direct, straightforward way. In some other cultures, may be different ways. Another thing about performance management, right? In the U.S., we tell people that you praise people in public, you give them corrective feedback in private settings.

In some other places, you don’t praise people in public either because you are embarrassing them. You single one person out of the group and give the impression that she or he did all the work. In reality, in her mind, the person who’s being praised, in her mind, this is the whole teamwork. So, when you praise me in public, it makes me feel embarrassed among my peers or my coworkers. So how you do that would be very different. Across cultures, the principle of the need to communicate and recognize people should be the same. Just how they execute the thing is very different culturally.

Sam Shriver

Dr. Lee, one last question. If an organization is not a global company, do they still need to consider cultural competencies?

Dr. Rankin Lee

Yes. As I said earlier, Chris, small companies also deal with people who are different. In the U.S., white European Americans will gradually become a minority in the next 20-30 years. On the other hand, if globally, if your supply chain is most likely globalized, you have people for your center part. You have affiliates everywhere else, right? You have maybe a branch office or maybe an affiliate in different countries who are very different from you. So, small companies also need to look at culture competencies there.

Sam Shriver

Dr. Lee, we really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for your insights and for spending the time with us today.

Dr. Rankin Lee

Thank you. I enjoyed it.


Dr. Rankin Lee is the director of Global Leadership Development at the Coca-Cola Company. He is responsible for company-wide executive coaching, leadership assessments, and the development of middle and frontline leaders on a global scale. In addition, he focuses on developing local leadership, talent, and functional competencies in franchise leadership and commercial and customer leadership for the Pacific Group. Prior to his current role, Dr. Lee was a global supplier and diversity manager. In that capacity, he mentored and coached ethnic minority and women-owned enterprises and prepared them to do business with major corporations in both China and the U.S. From 1995 to 2000, and he was director of training for Coca-Cola in China. Prior to joining the Coca-Cola Company, he worked for Quickstart, an agency of the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education, leading their instructional design and multimedia-based training development group.

Dr. Lee is a popular facilitator, presenter, and panelist at conferences on cultural competence development, global leadership development, supply chain diversity, and minority and women-owned business development. He is an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University for Intercultural Communication and a regular guest lecturer and career coach for Georgia State University’s Global MBA programs. Dr. Lee has received many accolades, including Top 50 Asian Americans in Business by the Asian American Business Development Center in New York, 100 Men Impacting Supplier Diversity by Minority Business News Civil Rights and Diversity Award from the Dallas Fort Worth Asian American Citizens Council, Advocate of the Year from the Georgia Minority Supplier Development Council and the US. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Based in Washington, D-C-A native of China, Dr. Lee received his MBA from Georgia State University, an MS from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in instructional systems from Florida State University.

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