I have been in the process of working with an individual in an organisation on a project that she would like to take up within the organisation. She’s not the decision maker, she’s actually an influencer. I’ve had a number of meetings with her in terms of trying to scope the project, come up with a few suggestions on how we may approach it, and also, come up with a price range, just as an idea. They are considering three suppliers.

Last week, I had a meeting with the decision maker. I was sitting in the room, and the decision maker walks in, says, ‘Hi, good to meet you,’ shakes hands, sits down, and says, ‘So, are you the expert in cultural intelligence?’ I had a momentary pause, because I actually didn’t know how to respond to the question. The reason why I didn’t know how to respond to the question is actually to do with the definition of an expert. One of the definitions that I have in my mind of an expert, and it’s a play really, is an expert, ex is somebody who’s a has-been, historical, and pert is somebody who just spurts things from their mouth. So, somebody who’s a has-been who spurts things. Of course, I don’t hold myself in that category. I think of myself as being very pragmatic and adding value.

It’s similar to when people ask, ‘Are you a consultant?’ You say, ‘yes,’ you are a consultant. Many of you would have heard the definition of the consultant. A consultant is somebody when you ask them for the time, will borrow your watch, tell you the time, and charge you a fee for that. Again, there are all kinds of little jokes within the industry. After the meeting, I actually reflected on the question. I reflected on my hesitation in responding to that question, but I did respond to the question. I said that I had been working in the area for a long time, had a strong level of interest in it, and, of course, had a tremendous amount of depth in the area of cultural intelligence, which I suppose made me an expert in the area.

On reflection, what was highlighted for me was that I was torn. I was torn by how to respond to the question which is to do with my own cultural background. Coming from an eastern philosophy, an eastern upbringing, it’s important within the eastern philosophy to have a level of humility. In other words, you don’t want to brag. You don’t want to be the person who just mouths off all the time. It’s actually better for other people to speak about how good you are. Although I’ve been living in the west for a long time, that question completely took me off guard. I just found it difficult to respond to, whereas, if I had been thinking in a western way, I would have just said, ‘Yes, I am.’ In the western way of thinking, we want to be able to assert ourselves, act with confidence, demonstrate that this is my domain, and this is why I own the space.

It made me also reflect, as somebody who’s been working and interested in the field for a long time and someone who teaches and works with people on this, how even I get caught up in the cross-cultural interactions. It made me conscious of how we present ourselves. It got me thinking about how as global leaders, when you are interviewing people from different cultures, how you need to be conscious of the type of questions you’re asking. It’s important to consider how people articulate the answers, and be conscious that sometimes people from certain cultural backgrounds find it really difficult to self-promote, because it is not within their cultural framework. It’s not tacit for them, so unless they learn about it, it becomes really difficult for them to do that.

Fundamentally, it’s useful to remember that culture, our cultural upbringing, influences our thinking. It influences our behaviour, and it influences our world view. It’s important for us to be cognisant of our own cultural background, so that we can be appreciative of how we present out to the world. At the same time, it helps us appreciate the cultural backgrounds that other people are coming from. It was a useful learning experience for me. I was able, in fact, to share that reflection point with my client the next day, because that is the project that we’re looking at – how to improve the cultural intelligence of the people in the organisation. I was able to use the example and say, ‘here you go, this is what occurred for me.’

I think, it’s important for us as leaders to demonstrate the fact that we are always learning, none of us are perfect, we make mistakes. The idea is to stand up, dust yourself off, and get back up.

Here’s my reflection point for you. Take a moment, and think about how you would respond to the question, ‘Are you the expert in this area?’