CIOs, students disagree on value of multicultural skills

Many business students in the U.S. believe multicultural skills are their ticket to the top. But some of those already on top don't quite agree.

Offshore outsourcing isn't just changing the IT industry, it's changing the way business students think. Some might say it's even clouding their thinking.

Multicultural skills are a byproduct of a good leader.
Jane Willis
Director of Career ManagementUniversity of South Carolina Moore School of Business

In a recent survey of more than 300 business students in the United States, nearly half (44%) said that the ability to work with different cultures and international markets will be the key to being a successful executive during the next five years.

Thirty-eight percent named the ability to motivate people as the key ingredient to success in the C-suite, and 13% cited the ability to do more with less.

Clark Consulting Inc., a compensation and benefits consulting firm based in North Barrington, Ill., conducted the survey. Tom Wamberg, Clark Consulting chairman and CEO, said the student responses are a collective response to the realities of globalization and the offshore outsourcing trend.

"A CIO can't go to a meeting these days where outsourcing isn't on the agenda," Wamberg said. "And I think a student who is bent on an IT career would be well-served to get international experience in college.

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"It's not a panacea, but to ignore what's going on is not very smart."

It's nice to have that worldly sense, but to call it the most important asset an executive wannabe can have is off target – a misconception that spotlights a generation gap, according to Jane Willis, Director of Graduate Career Management at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business. The school specializes in international business.

"One of the things that our Generation Y students feel they do well is have a sense of cultural awareness. They think they're more enlightened in that way than the baby boomers who're running the companies," she said.

"But only about 30% of recruiters we talk to think that's a valuable skill. Most of them are looking for leadership skills."

Willis said that worldly awareness should be part of a total leadership package, which includes strategic thinking, interpersonal and communication skills.

"It all boils down to a student who is genuinely self-aware," she said, adding "Multicultural skills are a byproduct of a good leader."

At least two IT leaders would agree.

Frank Giannantonio, CIO of Land's End Inc., Dodgeville, Wis., has worked all over the world and thinks that his experiences overseas and exposure to different cultures and disciplines have made him a better executive. But would he count global awareness as the top priority of a successful executive?

"No. It's not at the top of the list," he said. "It really depends on your business and who your customers are."

"Certainly my role has been impacted by the need to adapt to an increasingly global, multicultural environment," said Bob Best, CIO of insurance firm UnumProvident Corp., based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"[Multicultural skills are] a consideration -- as part of a total package -- when hiring certain IT positions at UnumProvident, but it is certainly not at the top of the list," he said.

Best said given the fact that globalization isn't slowing down, U.S.-based executives should make tolerance and understanding of cultural diversity part of their leadership strategy, especially if the success of the business is tied to a worldly view.

"Certainly, having the competency to comprehend and effectively lead in a multicultural environment is a plus and probably says more about the executive's management style and the ability to lead than how well he or she knows the details of a particular culture," he said.

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