There are solid reasons companies deploy their people in different countries and cultures. Of course, the most significant is to fulfill business strategy and objectives. But the other reasons are just as important as employers shape their workforces. Global experience builds cultural awareness, inspires flexibility and open-mindedness, and develops global leaders.
For many employees, these traits must be carefully cultivated, and can take years to mature. But the savvy employer can readily attract employees with a built-in global mindset to their team by hiring third culture kids, or TCKs. The term “third culture kids,” coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s, refers to people raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years.
For another group with an international perspective see “The Refugee Workforce: Resilient, Adaptable and Eager to Work”
As globalization progresses and the interconnectedness of countries and companies proliferate, more people are living and working outside of their home country and raising families along the way. Third culture kids, while usually children of expatriate workers, also can come from transnational marriages, or from attending an international school in their home country. Former President Barack Obama is perhaps the most famous TCK.
TCK parents may have learned the behaviors that make them successful and happy expatriates, but TCKs receive their beliefs and behaviors more organically. That’s why hiring managers should look closely at candidates who were raised as third culture kids. In my view, they have some amazing natural attributes:
They’re highly adaptive — TCKs have the capacity to be cultural chameleons. They can easily cross cultures, build relationships, adjust to unfamiliar places and experiences, and acclimate to a broad spectrum of personalities, cultures and environments.
They’re empathetic and communicative — Because they often develop an identity that’s rooted in people rather than places, TCKs tend to be more open-minded and sympathetic. They can have highly evolved soft skills and tend to be effective communicators. And most of them are at least bilingual.
They have “move-forward mentalities” — Their capacity to focus on where they’re going, rather than where they’ve been, means they are perfect candidates for fast-tracked career moves and for rapidly evolving, transformative environments.
They can observe and coach — After growing up and gaining hands-on experience across and between cultures, TCKs can play a unique role in a company, sharing their cultural intelligence and providing insight on employee engagement, diversity and inclusion.
They are naturally curious — Upskilling and lifelong learning is essential for the future of work, and TCKs come by this “need to know” naturally. Expect them to learn quickly and to be interested in how the business operates, to challenge the status quo by asking “why” and “what if,” and to have a fresh perspective on how their workforce or their company can function.
They make exceptional team players and leaders — Being accustomed to diversity, TCKs can often navigate and bridge culture gaps. They’re tolerant, understanding and diplomatic. They’re also able to be high performers within a team and are accustomed to finding commonalities between people, so they are often natural leaders.
They get things done — A childhood of adaptability and global experience informs the TCKs’ ability to connect resources and talent across cultural and political boundaries. In short: they focus on finding new ways to create value.
Globalization is in their DNA — Their experience with cultural transitions and their early introduction to globalization means that TCKs can thrive in an increasingly connected world and can take a move abroad for their career in stride – it’s a familiar action they can effortlessly embrace.
With a broader world view, an innate flexibility about people and places, and a sense that they are “citizens of everywhere,” TCKs have an abundance of qualities and skills that hiring managers seek and that employers need to build a more culturally proficient and globally capable workforce. Maybe it’s time to start calling them “third culture adults!”