Intercultural Competence: The New #1 Ability That Employers Seek

Are you attracted to a career in the State Department or the UN? General Mills or Microsoft?  Are you interested in growing your global GPA or increasing your international IQ?  If so, then working for an organization with an international mission could be your ticket to career satisfaction.  But first, you will want to focus on developing intercultural competence and enhancing your personal brand.

What is intercultural competence?

Good question!  In fact, definitions and opinions on the term are varied.  Dr. Darla K. Deardorff, editor of The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (August 2009) and author of “Internationalization: In Search of Intercultural Competence” (International Educator, spring 2004), notes ”Nearly all definitions of intercultural competence include more than knowledge of other cultures, since knowledge alone is not enough to constitute intercultural competence.  Intercultural competence also involves the development of one’s skills and attitudes in successfully interacting with persons of diverse backgrounds.”  She provides the following definition: 

“Knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others’ values, beliefs, and behaviors; and relativizing one’s self.  Linguistic competence also plays a key role.” (Byram, 1997).

Globalization is changing the workforce

Universities are strategizing to prepare their students for careers in organizations whose business relations span borders worldwide.  This means increasing the percentage of students who participate in global education such as international internships, active citizenship, and study abroad.  In a 2003 Rand Report, New Challenges for International Leadership: Lessons from Organizations with Global Missions, 75 public, for-profit and nonprofit organizations were asked to identify key competencies for a successful career in an international organization.   One finding was the need “to create a system that shepherds a new generation of talent, providing young people with opportunities to build the broad portfolio of experience necessary to enable them to become international leaders.”  

sn308How to be an international leader

The Rand Report showed some noteworthy results.  The top five attributes (from a total of nineteen) that global-minded employers value in a successful employee are:

  1. General cognitive skills:  problem-solving, analytical ability
  2. Interpersonal and relationship skills
  3. Ambiguity tolerance, adaptivity
  4. Personal traits (character, self-reliance, dependability)
  5. Cross-cultural competence (ability to work well in different cultures and with people of different origins)

The attributes that ranked at the bottom (rankings 15-19) are also interesting:

  1. Competitiveness, drive
  2. General educational breadth
  3. Internet and information technology competency
  4. Managerial training and experience
  5. Foreign language fluency

“Ambiguity tolerance” and “cross-cultural competence”, ranked in the top five, are consistent with the findings of college student development theorists in Learning Reconsidered: a Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience which focuses on the importance of learning inside and outside of the classroom as well as finding meaning and relationship across these experiences.  Learning Reconsidered proposed the following goals for college students:

  1. Engaged citizenship; community service, social justice, and participatory involvement
  2. Career planning
  3. Ethical approaches to business, relationships, problem-solving, and conflict
  4. Practical leadership
  5. Emotional intelligence
  6. Critical thinking; evaluating sources of information
  7. Informed decision-making
  8. Working in teams and groups; conflict resolution
  9. Cultural competency and cross-cultural understanding
  10. Tolerance of ambiguity

In summary, key skills for working in global organizations match with desirable learning outcomes and achievements for today’s college students.

Isn’t traveling and studying abroad enough?

sb309Sure, these experiences are incredible- but there’s more to it. “From day one, students should be able to connect what they are learning both in and outside of the classroom to their long-term goals.” (Re-visioning Career Services for a New Economy, an Eduventures white paper published in July 2009)

In order to be successful in an international organization in the future, students need to find time now to acquire an intentional approach to their academic and co-curricular activities and to reflect on the relationship between these experiences and career goals.   In my work as a career counselor, I often meet with students who cannot say why they decided to volunteer or study abroad, what changed while they were there (their values, for example) and how the experience will impact future career decisions.  It’s my job to help students make these connections before they write a cover letter or a personal statement, or approach a job interview.

Best practices

Competing with increasing globalization, universities have recognized the need for programs where students participate in a series of experiences designed to offer opportunities to increase intercultural competence. Regional coursework, intensive language study, internships with multinational companies or INGOs (international nongovernmental organizations), service learning and study abroad are planned with the student’s interests and goals in mind.  Furthermore, lots of time is allowed for personal reflection, classroom discussion and journaling where students make connections among their experiences.

The Global Proficiency Program at Boston College is a fantastic model where students fulfill four areas: abroad experience (living, working, studying or volunteering abroad); academic requirements (language study, humanities, and social sciences/business/education); activities and service (four co-curricular activities, one must be service-oriented); and a reflection project (an essay or presentation that integrates program experiences). 

Another reputable model is the International Relations Program at Tufts University.  Many students choose Tufts because of this program option, and more than 500 students are currently enrolled.  The goals of the program are “the promotion of responsible, engaged citizenship through international education and dialogue, and the fostering of intellectual excellence through a curriculum that integrates disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences without compromising academic rigor.” 

Resources for developing intercultural competence

Undergraduate students who want to achieve intercultural competence can set their own goals with the help of tools like the Student Checklist for a Global Career, written by Nina Segal, contributing writer for Monster’s Advice column.  This checklist is useful and realistic as it spreads out goals developmentally by class year. 

For students interested in graduate school in international affairs, the website for the Association of Professional Schools in International Affairs (APSIA) spotlights member institutions.


Nicole Anderson is an Assistant Director/Career Counselor for Tufts University Career Services. With fourteen years of experience in college career services, Nicole’s expertise includes career counseling undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni from liberal arts, science, engineering, business, and education. 

Related posts:

  1. Study Abroad & Career Exploration: The Perfect Pair
  2. Help Employers See the Value of Your Study Abroad Experience
  3. 3 Interview Questions to Know How to Answer

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