Cultural gear-shifting – making leadership work today

By Kimberly A. Farrell
CEO, Unlimited Performance Training, Inc.

Sizing up new leadership opportunities
A few years ago, I was asked to join the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) of America. After I was initiated, I was working in north Chicago and was approached by the founder of the BGC chapter to inquire about what project I would like to lead in my new role. Given my previous athletic coaching work with kids in basketball, I chose to run a basketball clinic that summer. Now I needed to find a leading NBA or WNBA player to be the chairman of the event. I knew I was a neighbor of a legendary five-time world champion NBA basketball player, so I arranged to meet with him to see if he would be the honorary chair of the clinic.  Enthusiastically, he agreed. 

After our first meeting, I followed up with this NBA All-Star via email with attachments outlining his preferences for the clinic, and our agreements based on our discussions during the meeting. I heard nothing back from him. A week went by, two weeks went by… and then, I ran into him at a local restaurant one night. I asked him if he received the follow-up email. He said, no, he doesn’t read his email. So I regrouped in the moment and asked how he preferred to communicate with me. He said via “text message.”  Text message? I thought. Well, that was a big ‘ah-ha’ moment for me.  Then he said that since he is often in the gym working out the NBA players, looking down and reading and responding to a short message on his phone works best for him. Oh, that made a lot of sense to me.

So with this new information, I knew I needed to adapt my style when working with him. I suddenly realized, that before I could make the switch from email to texting about updates on the project, I needed to truncate my messages and ask for what I needed quickly. My quick adaption with my communication style was very successful. The next four years we built a great annual clinic for the boys and girls at the BGC of America.

Leadership style should be adapted based on cultural norms
Too many times as leaders we lead according to us. To our nature, our strengths, our skillsets. But then something happens and we don’t understand the communication or relationship disconnect. This is where developing adaptive leadership skills will help develop today’s successful leaders.

Gone are the days that leaders react to situations with only their preferences considered regardless of the preferences of those around them. The adaptive leader of today is one who takes situations, culture of the company, cultural styles of individuals and communication preferences under consideration when communicating in business.

There are a lot of benefits for adapting leadership style to suit co-worker and team members. Some of these benefits include:

  • Making the communication style easy and comfortable for others
  • Increasing the quality of the conversations and receptiveness to ideas based on the platform of mutual respect that is established
  • Creating an environment where others can perform their jobs at their best because they feel valued for their differences

Analyzing where to shift-gears as a leader
Adaptive leaders should take the opportunity to ‘step back’ and first analyze what the unique cultural influences are for their own background and think about how their unique cultural experiences have created some ‘bias’ for them. Next, adaptive leaders should consider the cultural differences between themselves and their team members across the matrix. Once that analysis has been made, making adjustments in style of leading and communicating with others is key to finding the most successful culturally competent leadership style that will be most effective when leading different types of people.

Pam Lin, senior brand trainer, virology for Genentech, shares a situation where cultural adaptation was necessary not just with team members, but with the culture of the new company she joined. 

“After being with one company for over 11 years, I found it jarring to join a new company with such a different company vision and culture. The new company had a great reputation with people engagement and I was excited to be a part of that. However, I quickly realized, I had no idea how that translated into the everyday work and work-life I would be experiencing. At first, I was intimidated, confused and overwhelmed. I decided that rather than ignoring the situation, I would seek out my manager and team members; ask for feedback on what I could do better, do differently, and how to best engage with the organization.  This turned out to be a great strategy for me. Not only were there a lot of people willing to coach and mentor me, I believe that I built credibility with my colleagues because I cared enough to ask, listen and then try to incorporate their ideas. This was a great lesson for me- that great company cultures can mean very different things to different people and that success depends on how well a person reads the culture and adapts him or herself to fit the corporate style of the business.”

Take time to plan your encounter
Leaders should think about cultural differences when preparing to meet someone with a different cultural background and prepare a plan for business interactions. Some key questions to consider include:

  • Thinking about the person’s worldviews and how that may impact the way they work
  • Considering the type of company they worked for in the past and how the culture of the current company may be different
  • Understanding any unique gender, ethnicity, age or educational differences that may impact interactions and adapt accordingly
  • Discern the history and reputation of the individual and how the new manager-direct report relationship might feel to that individual
  • Think about when and where to set up a private conversation that may confirm or negate the considerations above and ask questions to identify working preferences and adapt where practical

The new adaptive leader is culturally self-aware and able to make adjustments to their own leadership style by utilizing the concepts around cultural-gear-shifting. This adaptive style of leadership occurs consistently when a leader has strong intercultural competency. The rewards of becoming more culturally competent as a leader often include a) greater harmony in the work place; b) open and engaged relationships, and c) collaborative team members with which to produce the best possible work results. It’s time to get moving and “shift-gears” for cultural success.

Please feel free to send questions or comments about this article.

Additional resources: 
Minority Health Surveillance
Minority Women’s Health
The Office of Minority Health, Cultural Competency
Culture, Language and Health Literacy

Kimberly A. Farrell is the CEO and president of Unlimited Performance Training, Inc. She has over 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries holding positions with increasing levels of responsibility including leading commercial sales, training, trade relations, human resources and sales.  Her work on leadership and learning and development competencies has been published over 100 times in industry journals. A highly sought out keynote speaker, she had delivered dozens of top level as keynotes for academic, business and healthcare conferences. Her most recent leadership talk was a TEDx talk for the City of Los Angeles. Ms. Farrell is the founder of the HBA Chicago chapter, a 2004 HBA STAR award winner and the mentor of the board for the HBA San Francisco chapter. You can reach her at or