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Inside Track: Helping employers develop culturally competent employees
Ten years after graduating from Calvin College, Kristin Ekkens founded C3 Consulting LLC to help businesses raise their CQ.
When she was a student at Grand Rapids Christian High School, Kristin Ekkens physically resembled many of her classmates: white, blond, blue-eyed, and pretty much from the same socioeconomic background as her classmates.
Inwardly, however, she felt worlds apart.
“I had a different experience from my friends,” said Ekkens. “I felt like an outsider — every school has its cliques.
“I feel my role is to bring people together, to be inclusive no matter what. I feel what is really important is not what we have, but how we are involved in the community, making sure to include all people. That’s what’s been ingrained in me.”
“Inclusive” took on a deeper meaning when, in 2012, Ekkens, a certified cultural intelligence facilitator, founded C3 Consulting LLC, which is dedicated to developing a culturally competent workforce by bridging cultural and linguistic gaps, developing inclusive leaders, uniting global teams, and retaining diverse talent via online or in-person cultural awareness workshops.
CQ takes time and a concerted effort to think outside one’s comfort zone and culture, according to Ekkens.
“We have stereotypes and make judgments,” said Ekkens. “I want to help people not to act on those. We don’t need to be exclusive because of them.”
People do, however, need to understand what those cultural differences entail, she added.
“Often the U.S. is a task-based culture, and other countries are relationship-based,” she said. “By speaking their cultural language, we connect with an effective business strategy and become more culturally intelligent.”
Local clients of Ekkens include Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, Spectrum Health, Ferris State University, Coldwell Banker Schmidt, National Nail Corp., Lacks Enterprises, The Right Place Inc., Fifth Reformed Church and Dan Vos Construction.
In April 2013, Ekkens traveled to Liverpool, England, for the British Council-sponsored International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language to instruct teachers and administrators from around the world.
“The demand is there — especially in Europe — for business English,” said Ekkens. “I have a high level of respect for people who are learning English as their sixth or seventh language. If we can become more culturally intelligent and reach out and bridge the gap, it would solve a lot of the challenges we have.”
The payoff of having a workforce with a higher cultural intelligence includes employees who are better negotiators, networkers, innovators and effective leaders of multicultural teams.
“My focus, more now than before, has been on leadership development,” said Ekkens. “Research shows that leaders who are culturally intelligent are able to really hone in and include others to be culturally intelligent. It’s about seeing multiple perspectives and being more globally minded, and being able to help others do the same thing to help drive new business initiatives.”
How do companies get there?
According to the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, where Ekkens received her CQ facilitator certification, the answer, in part, includes a four-step model:
- CQ drive. What’s my level of interest, confidence and drive to adapt cross culturally?
- CQ knowledge. Distinguish the level of understanding about how cultures are similar and different.
- CQ strategy. Determine how to make sense of culturally diverse experiences.
- CQ action. Determine which verbal and nonverbal actions need to change when interacting cross-culturally.
Ekkens earned a double major in Spanish and applied linguistics at Calvin College in 2002 and a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages in 2007 at Michigan State University, where she earned a 4.0 grade point average while holding down a full-time job. In addition to being certified by the Cultural Intelligence Center, she holds certifications from Third Wave Workforce and Learning for Results.
During her freshman and sophomore years at Calvin, Ekkens chose to live on the “Mosaic Floor,” a multi-cultural experience that included Cambodians, African-Americans, Koreans and Latinas.
“It was a group of individuals who were international students different than myself,” Ekkens said. “They’re still my closest friends.”
Ekkens credits her globally minded parents for planting the seeds of CQ early in her life. She also credits an open mind and studying abroad in Costa Rica, Mexico and Spain, which achieved much more than just learning to speak more fluent Spanish.
“A seed was planted that I was always going to (want) more of that, to learn and understand. My family, my parents, were a big influence by teaching me values, to be open, to always want to learn — always seeking to understand more.”
She wants to cultivate the same cultural intelligence in her sons, Luke and William. “Young people don’t have the same strong biases,” she said. “It’s very important to start with youth.”
In 2001, while a Calvin student, she traveled to Atenas, Costa Rica, to bolster her Spanish skills, but her time there became more than that because of her experiences at Hogar de Vida (House of Life), a center for abused and neglected children from newborn to age 8.
Ekkens recalls working with a 3-year-old boy who had been abused.
“He already showed signs of aggression,” she said. “He was already angry at life. My focus was to love a 3-year-old. By the time I left, he was completely turned around. You could tell something had changed. There sure was a lot of spiritual warfare. It shaped who I am as a Christian.”
In 2002, after graduating from Calvin, she became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and then a volunteer for the Literacy Council of West Michigan, which developed into a staff position from 2003-2010, first as a coordinator and then as program director for customized workplace English.
From 2010-2011, she was a senior consultant for Third Wave Workforce, a multicultural corporate training provider. In2012, before founding C3 Consulting, she was executive director and president of National CRC (Career Readiness Certificate) Advocates.
Ekkens said her work is about diversity and inclusion: “You can be a very diverse company, but if you don’t have inclusiveness, it will be more of a challenge. That’s a mistake I think many companies make. Inclusion is when you have individuals working as a team who are able to see different styles of communication and perceptions and come up with a solution in making innovative products and services.”
Growing up, Ekkens had her sights set on becoming a missionary in Africa.
“I had a very strong passion for that,” she said. “It was connecting with different people. I’m passionate about being a Christian, as well.”
Goals still on her radar include joining the National Speakers Bureau and writing a book on global leadership.
“Everything I do, I’m giving resources to people. The goal is to change behavior, and the only way to get to that is experiential learning.”
As for other goals, she said: “I’m an achiever. I want to do my best. If I can help impact our community and the global community, and help my kids be resourceful, I will be successful at the end of life.”