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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  David A. Thomas: Stretch assignments help executives grow

David A. Thomas: Stretch assignments help executives grow

The difference between cultural sensitivity and cultural competence, and how to spot potential

David A. Thomas. Photo: James KegleyPremium
David A. Thomas. Photo: James Kegley


As someone who specializes in organizational behaviour and strategic human resource management, David A. Thomas, dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, US, has always focused on executive development, cultural diversity in companies, and organizational change. Even while teaching. “I want the students to...leave feeling as if they were transformed," says Thomas, who has co-authored two books—Breaking Through: The Making Of Minority Executives In Corporate America and Leading For Equity: The Pursuit Of Excellence In Montgomery County Public Schools.

In an email interview, Thomas discusses ways to identify potential leaders, and the difference between “cultural sensitivity" and “cultural competence". Edited excerpts:

What’s the best method for executive development—job rotation, coaching, committee assignments or the classroom approach?

Nothing facilitates the development of an individual leader better than “stretch assignments", coupled with reflecting upon and drawing lessons from the experience. Coaching and classroom activities can facilitate the opportunity for reflection. Stretch assignments are those that require a leader to use new skills that previously have not been required but are key to success at the next level.

When organizations are undertaking a major change that requires its managers to engage in new behaviours and work in new configurations, a combination of classroom activities, coupled with simulations and project work, is very effective. In this situation, the organization does have the time to customize the developmental approach to each manager. The classroom activity serves as an intervention designed to catalyse cultural change and create a common language and understanding for moving the change process forward.

How do you identify potential leaders in an organization?

First, you hire for leadership potential as well as technical competence. You then evaluate junior talent on technical and leadership criteria. And you create opportunities for people to demonstrate their leadership potential. Once we think someone has leadership potential, we should let them know and tell them what we are looking for in our future leaders. Finally, we need to expose future leaders to the strategic issues of the business as early as possible.

What is the difference between “cultural sensitivity" and “cultural competence"?

Cultural sensitivity is an awareness that I could hurt your feelings if I say something insensitive because of ignorance. With that awareness, I will generally avoid topics about which I am not sure how you might react. For example, I will avoid talking about differences and focus on our commonality.

Cultural competence is the ability to engage differences so that I might learn from them and respond to you in a way that is appropriate to our relationship, but allows me to connect to you in a deeper and more effective way.

How do you create a culturally diverse organization?

This is the challenge of the 21st century. Globalization is making diversity a reality of the workplace. Creating a diverse and effective organization starts with the attitude and perspective of the leadership. Diversity is most likely to become a positive organizational attribute when the leadership sees diversity as important because of the different perspectives people bring to the work. When they have this view, demographic diversity is necessary but not sufficient. We also have to create an environment so those differences can surface and be explored. This means creating an environment of inclusion.

How is technology affecting organizational behaviour?

Technology is transforming the way we think about the employee-company relationship. It is allowing for more flexible work relationships. The company will no longer own employees’ time in the format of a 9-5 day. Instead, the employee-company relationship will be organized around outputs, customers reached, sales and timeliness of job completion.

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Published: 05 Apr 2015, 05:41 PM IST
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