(Content reposted from CEO Summit Journal, prepared for APEC 2019 convening) 

To discuss how companies, governments and education systems can work together to create the workforce of the future, a group of leaders from AFS China, Chile, Japan, Malaysia and USA were gathered for a roundtable conversation with AFS International Programs President and CEO, Daniel Obst.

Employers and educators identify cross-cultural understanding as a critical 21st century skill that people will need to tackle future problems. Training and developing people and organizations with skills, insights, behaviors and respect for cross-cultural differences so they can work together is more important than ever.

Global competence has become the skill set necessary for young people to address global challenges in the proper way. These are the values, attitudes and understandings that will enable people to live and work effectively in diverse societies. Global competence, diversity and inclusion are among the top priorities for CEOs today.

Daniel Obst: Why do we need global citizens in today’s world?

Akiko Kato, AFS Japan: Global competence is the most important keyword in today’s world, and much needed in all places. Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We need to create opportunities for all people to become global citizens.

Corporations and governments have to get involved. For example, the Japanese government launched the Asia Kakehashi Project with the goal of building a bridge between high school students from Japan and students from the rest of Asia. In a period of five years, 1,000 Asian high school students will spend periods of time in Japan helping to nourish the global competence of 40,000 Japanese students. And, as they live the experience of Japanese education and culture they will help develop leaders for the Asia of the future once they return home. One girl who came to Japan this year was an orphan from Sri Lanka whose dream is to become a teacher. The experience will change her life, but she will also change the Japanese people with whom she spent time. Now they know how different life can be in other Asian economies.

Rodrigo Casarejos León, AFS Chile: The workforce is changing substantially. We don’t know how jobs will look in 20, 30 years. Being able to work with others and to adapt to change are key factors for CEOs to be thinking about. The more global competence you have in your workforce, the better you are preparing your company for this unknown future.

We are learning this fast in Chile with an unexpected influx of immigration from economies like Venezuela in recent years. We were not ready to adapt to this different workforce. Not everyone who is prepared with technical skills is well adapted to lead a team with people from different backgrounds, or to go overseas to another nation. As Chile increasingly becomes more interconnected with other economies, we’ll need these skills more.

Daniel Obst: How can companies ensure that they have a pipeline of people with global skills entering the workforce?

Tara Hofmann, AFS USA: It starts in the classroom. One of the most important things that the corporate world should be doing is emphasizing and advocating for global competence in education. We see so many young people who consider themselves already a global citizen, but often the teachers themselves or the administrators and principals don’t really have the skills. They are uncomfortable with how to approach bringing global competence into their schools as a curriculum component. Building a pipeline of future leaders starts with enhancing our educational content to reflect global competence goals.

Daniel Obst: How should businesses advocate for ensuring that governments value and prioritize global competence skills?

Khalilah Mohd Talha, AFS Malaysia: We work very closely with the government and public services departments, because there is a realization that the skill sets needed for global competence are not quite there yet. They understand, for example, that the model of cultural exchanges used by AFS works, that the alumni return home very confident and can go to the marketplace and instantly get good jobs.

Ling Zhang, AFS China: The topic of global competence is very hot in China right now. We refer to it as competence for international understanding. One initiative that we have in place is virtual classroom exchanges during which Chinese students can interact with students from, for example, Colombia, Brazil or the Czech Republic. During these live virtual class exchanges, the students are exposed to cultural differences and learn how to deal with them.

Global competence is also very much related to the Belt and Road Initiative created by President Xi Jinping. The program involves infrastructure development and investments in 152 economies and international organizations in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. So, the Chinese government is trying to get the Chinese people ready for a future full of different services and cultures.

Daniel Obst: Nuance is a very important word, too. We see a lot of business projects fail, whether small projects or large investments, because of communications challenges. And I think it is that notion of being able to understand cultural nuance or differences that is so essential during projects or negotiations.

Khalilah Mohd Talha: Agreed. Because we are all in the Asia-Pacific region, you might think we share similar cultural aspects, similar values. But actually the nuances are the ones that we have to heed to. So you really have to understand the culture, you have to understand the religious sensitivities as well, before you are able to do any business expansion in another region.

Daniel Obst: How can global competence help CEOs and other leaders manage diverse teams? What role does global competence play in addressing the diversity and inclusion needs of companies?

Rodrigo Casarejos León: A great company today is a company that achieves diversity and inclusion. Diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance once you get there. CEOs have to create companies where people from different backgrounds feel comfortable. If not, they will lose talent. A good salary alone is no longer enough. People want to work for companies that believe in the same issues that they do. To have more sustainable companies, business leaders should emphasize hiring people with global competence and who can work with and manage diverse teams.

Tara Hofmann: I think that there’s perhaps this image that global competence means proactively going abroad. But I know that here in the United States, it’s dealing with the intercultural sensitivities and intercultural communication that enable diversity to really work. Whether it’s the corporate workplace or the classroom, the challenge of dealing with the multicultural impact within your own economy, or your own company, or your own school, I think these fundamental skills of global competence apply both domestically as well as internationally.

Khalilah Mohd Talha: I agree. Global competence starts at home. Malaysia, as you know, is a multiracial society and it is very important that we understand each other’s cultures not on a superficial level, but on a deeper level in order to appreciate and better be aware of nuances in our communications. CEOs and all employees need these skills to advance.

Daniel Obst: What should training programs include to enhance business leaders’ intercultural competence and global skills?

Tara Hofmann: Self-examination of what cultural norms and expectations you bring into your business environment is a critical part of it. It’s not just about learning about other cultures that you’re working with, but how your culture affects your perceptions. So we like to talk about stepping out of our own shoes, right? That sounds like a very simple thing to do. But it’s critically important if global awareness skills are really going to happen.

Rodrigo Casarejos León: Different companies are doing different things to try to get this competence into their workforce. You see a lot of big companies doing graduate programs with every new employee, making them go around different positions or cultures. I do think that is a start. But what will be key for companies is to understand the skills that define global competence and then start recruiting accordingly. They will actually be looking for previous experience from their applicants.

Akiko Kato: It is important that when we think about preparing companies for this new workforce, that we don’t talk only about gigantic multinational corporations, but also about local companies and SMEs. There is a trendy word in Japan called glocal, which means: think globally, act locally.

Khalilah Mohd Talha: We have a Malaysian proverb that says: do not be like a frog under a coconut shell. We are now globally and digitally connected. Get out of the shell, get on that platform, because the world is your oyster. If you want to succeed, get on board.