How Intercultural Competency Boosts a Career in Global Business

Academics have many terms for it: intercultural agility, intercultural communicative competence, global competence, interactional communicative competence, and intercultural awareness. Whatever we call it, experts in international business education worldwide agree: knowing how to operate and communicate within and across cultures is essential to success in the global marketplace.

At the Lauder Institute, we know that among those who stand to benefit most from developing this skill set are highly talented MBA and JD candidates preparing for international business careers and challenging leadership positions – like those in the Lauder Institute’s joint MBA/MA and JD/MA programs at the University of Pennsylvania. Lauder students develop intercultural competency through courses in international studies, language, and culture. The Institute instills these skills which we see in our highly successful alumni. Our graduates are:

 1) Better decision makers

Nothing is more important in the skill set of an emerging executive than the ability to make strategic decisions in a timely fashion. Lauder students hone that ability through the study of second and third languages. Investing the time and effort to learn a language at the professional level involves considering issues and problems from multiple perspectives, a necessary skill for international business leaders. According to a 2012 study by Professor Boaz Kaysar and colleagues, leaders who have that skill are better positioned to make crucial and time-sensitive decisions. The use of foreign languages, the study asserts, provides greater cognitive and emotional distance, allowing decision-makers to think critically and clearly about the problem at hand and determine the best possible courses of action. At Lauder, a student body of bilingual and multilingual students, most of whom study a language as part of their Lauder Institute joint-degree program, develop and leverage the benefits of multiple languages and cultural perspectives on critical thinking and decision making.

 2) Effective communicators

Thinking in a non-native language develops soft skills like intercultural communicative competence, cultural awareness and appropriateness, historical knowledge, and emotional intelligence. Beyond the ability to communicate in a second or third language, having a depth of knowledge of a culture’s history and practices is critical to building intercultural understanding and, as a result, forming strong working relationships in global business contexts. Lauder students push themselves to think and communicate in their language of study not only in the classroom but also through field projects and immersions around the world. The 24-month joint-degree program kicks off with a two-month Summer Immersion program, and students also participate in Lauder Intercultural Ventures focused on academic themes related to religion, economics, human consumption, natural resources, history, and politics. The program wraps up with research abroad to inform a collaborative, capstone work of publishable quality, called the Global Knowledge Lab.

 3) Thoughtful leaders

Managers and executives face considerable demands to operate successfully in contexts where uncertainty is a constant. Global markets are ever in flux, adding a level of complexity to decision-making. Those conditions require managers and leaders to take risks. For business leaders with backgrounds in broad international issues and foreign language fluency, considering risks in international contexts and being aware of cultural biases becomes second nature. Using a foreign language promotes deliberation and mitigates the effect of assumptions and quick solutions – which we tend toward when we think and make decisions only in our native language. When Lauder graduates work with virtual teams, new technologies, and complex supply chains, for example, they are well positioned to lead, knowing how to account for diverse perspectives and taking an inclusive approach to teamwork and strategy.

The first – and still the best – program of its kind, the Lauder Institute’s joint MBA/MA and JD/MA degree program combines the strengths of the Wharton School of Business, Penn Law, and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania to provide students with the strongest possible foundation in business and international studies. Alumni have achieved their career aspirations in sectors from private equity to telecommunications to social entrepreneurship. Our graduates do exceptionally well because they come out of a program that, since its founding in 1983, has embraced and answered the call to prepare business students to communicate effectively within and across cultures.


Kenric Tsethlikai is Managing Director of the Lauder Institute and is author of “Integrating Business and Foreign Languages” in Transforming Postsecondary Foreign Language Teaching in the United States.