How to Make Your Leaders Culturally Competent

The Freudenberg Group, a German conglomerate of companies, is bringing diversity to the forefront of its human capital management. In North America, Freudenberg is piloting its first Culturally Competent Leadership Development Program, making sure that a diverse pool of future company executives has the leadership skills necessary to fully embrace regional and global demographic trends. With Freudenberg expecting to hire 200 professionals this year, it is even more important to focus on embracing demographic change and maintaining and strengthening a culture of inclusion.

Since becoming regional vice president of human resources for Freudenberg, Sarah O’Hare has led the charge for excellence in leadership diversity across the organization.

O’Hare recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What is the Culturally Competent Leadership Development Program?

The aim is to implement a holistic leadership program that will, within the group, resulting in gender, racial and ethnic diversity in our executive teams.

The Culturally Competent Leadership Development Program systematically prepares current female and minority managers in North America for future opportunities of broader responsibilities within Freudenberg. In addition, the program experience ensures that they understand and embrace diversity as one of the major imperatives and they actively promote it in their future leadership roles.

What qualifies someone for the program?

Participants are nominated by individual Freudenberg businesses in North America. The program steering committee put together a short list of qualifying requirements:

Salaried exempt associate.

Talent management rating of potential or higher upward mobility to within two levels of regional senior management documented career plan.

Five years of career experience.

Ability and willingness to travel.

Willingness to relocate.

Strong English speaking and writing skills.

What leadership skills do company executives need to develop to fully embrace regional and global demographic trends?

For our first leadership program we identified eight skills that we felt are important for leading diverse teams:

1. Visioning, modeling and influencing.

2. Managing through invisible barriers.

3. Building business acumen.

4. Developing high-performing teams.

5. Communication for effective leadership.

6. Coaching, mentoring and developing others.

7. Accountability and execution.

8. Fostering creativity and innovation.

Why is embracing demographic change such a priority at Freudenberg?

Diverse teams possess a collection of individual experiences, backgrounds and cultures that can view problems and challenges from a wide variety of lenses. That is why companies that foster gender, experience and ethnic diversity in their workforce have a competitive advantage.

Available data supports the notion that companies that have diverse management teams are more innovative, compete more effectively globally, are able to recruit and retain the best talent and generally show strong financial performance.

Freudenberg companies in North America are either slightly above or very close to industry averages on diversity, but that can only be a good starting point. If we want to make sure that our future workforce truly reflects the demographics of our region, the global nature of our company and fully utilizes our potentials, we need to do more.

In your mind, what is the best way to increase diversity?

The best way to increase diversity is to have current leaders that are aware of the organization’s demographics and then believe in the value-add proposition. Simultaneously, it is critical to ensure diversity candidates are on the interview schedule. While we will only hire the best candidate for a position, if diversity candidates do not even get on the list of consideration it is a futile effort.

What are the challenges with managing a diverse workforce?

Managers in a diverse workforce have a task of helping individuals of various cultures and backgrounds integrate and feel at home within an organization. Diverse organizations increase a need for integration training for newcomers, cross-cultural competency training for existing staff members, conflict management assistance and English language training for those who would benefit. Mentorship programs play an even more important role in diversified organizations.

What is your goal for diversity within Freudenberg’s workforce in the future?

The goal for diversity in the professional segment of the organization is to improve it. First, I would implement a goal to ensure a diversity candidate is considered for all open positions. I would not currently accept a quota in the organization, however — if we cannot organically raise awareness in the next two years and match the diverse demographics in the areas we operate, then more prescriptive actions should be considered.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at