Four aspects to consider when selecting your cross-cultural consultant

When I first started as a cultural diversity consultant back in 2012, there were only a few of them around. Fast forward eight years later, there are now many others in the market with many more coming through. I believe this is a positive outcome because it means there is a need and that more businesses are aware of the importance of cultural diversity and cultural competence. However, in the space that does not have a dedicated university course or certification to clarify people’s competence, how do you select your cultural consultant?

This article intends to highlight the different types of consultants I have seen in the area and help you and your organisation find the right one for the right context.

There are 4 key areas to look for when selecting your cross-cultural consultant, including:

  1. Lived experience
  2. Diversity
  3. Evidence based
  4. Technical skills

1. Lived experience

Some cultural consultants have their lived experience as a person of culturally diverse background in the western context, or lived experience as an expat in a different country. These consultants often talk about their own personal stories and are excellent as a speaker at functions or create the most authentic cultural experiences showcasing a particular culture. Those people with lived experience may not always have an understanding of the research, so their stories may be limited and require the audience to link the inspirational story to their own work and how it may apply.

2. Diversity

Consultants can only realistically have lived experience of their own cultural heritage and the countries they have lived in and often require more than 5 years at a minimum to understand cultural nuances. However there are consultants who are more willing to explore cultures outside of their own and cultures of where they live (their location). These consultants can draw on commonalities and differences and how behaviour might appear different

For example, a cultural diversity consultant with a Chinese heritage living in Australia learns about the culture of Somalia, especially how family dynamics works. They can draw links between the Chinese culture, Australian culture and Somali culture and can explain the nuances between the collective culture in China which often involve family and some extended family and how it differs to the collective culture in Somalia which can involve a large group of the whole community.

3. Evidence based (research backed)

There are cultural consultants that have either an academic background or have done research in the area of cultural diversity. They are the consultants who can explain frameworks that are can be applied and understood in a more systematic way (an evidence based approach). These consultants may or may not have lived experience. Though I have found those only with an academic background (without lived experience) to lack contextual understanding and often miss important information, not intentionally, but cannot always seeing the theory using different perspectives. The best consultants are the ones who have the research background and lived experience combined, often they bring the data to life by providing people with stories and examples of what the theory means in a practical way.

For example, in the theories on cultural diversity, there is a power distance dimension. For researchers only has an academic understanding can only provide stories written or shared by other people rather than their own realisation. However if they also have a lived experience, they can use stories to highlight cultural nuances of how more senior people are respected and what it looks like, feels like and think like for people in a less powerful position in a given context.

4. Technical skills

Related to an evidence based approach is the actual technical skills of the consultant. Cultural diversity can be applied to all sorts of technical areas, such as program design, program delivery, evaluation, communication and messaging, training and facilitation, research, policy development, organisational audit, change management, leadership and list goes on. Depending on the skills of the consultant, an understanding of cultural diversity can be applied within a wide variety of areas. Often these can only be applied if the consultant embodies cultural diversity thinking into their work. It is important to choose your cultural consultant that has the technical skill you require.

For example, a facilitator that embed cultural diversity into their work will be able to understand that facilitating a group of Anglo-Australian audience require more space for people discuss and share their own experiences. On the other hand, facilitating an audience of Asians from Asia may require to allow for more silence and space for self reflection before sharing.

In an ideal circumstance, a cross-cultural consultant is competent in all four areas, however that is rare to find. When it is not possible, it is therefore important to find out more about their strengths, understanding and knowledge in these four areas and find the one that is suitable for you. For example if you are hosting an event and seeking an amazing speaker, then a person with lived experience will be perfect. However if you are seeking a training facilitator to help your staff to understand cultural diversity, you will need a person that understand cultural frameworks and research in the area – preferably one with lived experience.

The most complex situation is if you want to develop a HR policy or work safety policy and need to understand how a multicultural workforce might experience it or how your office in Malaysia will respond to it, it is important to find a person who has lived experience and has an understanding of the cultural frameworks and how it might apply in policy development. In the case when a person does not have all these skills, it is possible to find a team with all three skills. For many teams, what is often missing is a person with lived experience, so when their policy is developed they find that their newly developed policy is ineffective very soon.

So next time when you need to find a cross-cultural consultant, make sure you think through your needs in all these 4 areas.