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Leadership Insights: Cultural Intelligence

In a series of articles, we discuss topical issues facing industry leaders, all through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.


In the third of our series, and with many planning to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month, which runs from 18th July to 17th August, we take this opportunity to help expand colleagues and business leader’s cultural intelligence by sharing knowledge of South Asian Culture through story telling. The first of which is by our founder, Naeema.


Made in Pakistan, adopted by Britain: The story of a first, second and third generation immigrant family


My father, a first-generation immigrant, was born in a small village in what was then India, under the British Raj, (now Pakistan) in or around 1935. His exact date of birth is unknown due to a lack of record keeping. He believes he was about 12 years old when the British rule over India came to an end and subsequently the independent states of India and Pakistan were created.


Rickshaws lined up outside our village in Pakistan


He grew up in impoverished conditions with limited opportunity to attend school. He recalls attending school, sporadically, up until the age of about 10 years old. He was the youngest of 6 boys and by the age of about 12 was working on other people’s land to earn a living for himself and his family. He lost both his parents at a young age but was resilient, ambitious and hardworking. He knew from a young age that he wanted to improve his and his family’s lives. He held a desire to be independent and successful and with that, he persuaded his older brothers to allow him to migrate to Britain with the caveat that he would make his fortune and return.


He arrived in Newcastle on 14th April 1960, with the equivalent of £5 in his pocket. He settled in Huddersfield where he worked as a labourer in a cotton mill factory for many years.


He returned to Pakistan in June 1967, when he married my mother.


My mother in contrast, came from a wealthy family, who were landowners. Her father was quite the socialite and rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty. My mother was a toddler when partition took place, and her father was involved in the ‘population transfer’ for the newly created Pakistan. My mother recalls attending and completing high school and a short spell in college but was more interested in needlework.


My mothers sewing machine from her dowry


Her embroidery skills were such that she prepared the bedding for her dowry, which to this day she is very proud of. She arrived in Britain on the 21st September 1967. Though she puts a gloss on it, her experience of life in Britain was one of isolation. She devoted the majority of her time to looking after the family. She missed the vibrant culture back home and more so, her family and friends.


Woven bread or 'roti' baskets


9 years and 6 children later, my parents moved to Scotland. They lived in a council estate in an economically deprived area for many years. They commenced their first business, a corner shop and newsagent, in August 1976. From that one small shop, they built up numerous other businesses, pre-dominantly larger convenience stores and a further 2 children were added to the family.


Today, they have 8 daughters, 18 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.


When asked their thoughts on South Asian Heritage Month and what contributions they have made to Britain, their replies are humbling. They say they had little to offer by way of education and knowledge but what they did offer was loyalty, hard work and respect for the British way of life. They admired Britain for its rules and regulations, its rigour to uphold fairness and justice, and protect hard fought for freedoms. They are alive to the painful past of colonisation and the injustice carried out in the name of the Empire but are also grateful for the many opportunities they, and their subsequent children and grandchildren were able to seize. They faced racism and challenges. They worked harder than their British born friends and colleagues and continue to encourage their children and grandchildren to do likewise in the solid belief that, that hard work will pay off. They weren’t wrong. Their mantra of ‘education, education and education’ together with ‘don’t leave what you can achieve today, to tomorrow’, which incapsulates the ethics of hard work with the perpetual need to always compete your to do list, has driven my ambition and success.


I’m a second-generation immigrant and by profession a lawyer. My experience of life in Britain runs parallel to that of my parent’s in part, but in contrast in other ways. My childhood, particularly my schooling, is a blur. I believe, in part, this is as a result of the permanent need to fit in, against the guilt of hiding, if not rejecting in part, my Pakistani identity. There were many incidents of racism, both direct and indirect and this was often overlooked in the desire to integrate and better our lives. We were encouraged to accept the system, the hierarchy and the barriers, in the hope that one day we would break them down and become the decision makers, and that the system would eventually change. In some parts it has, in others, more change is needed.


Studying did not come easy to me, despite my parents’ efforts to instil its worth. I left school at the age of 17 with poor results. I got married and I suspect that was the catalyst that spurred me on to study and pursue a career. There was a deep, burning desire to do something that would give me worth. I studied law while having children and pursued a successful career. But what did that mean for my Pakistani heritage? Whilst my mother lived a life of isolation, I lived a life of separation. Neither my personal nor professional lives should mix. My Eastern heritage and Western identity should remain apart. Reflecting back, I see the injustice I did both to myself and my profession. I didn’t fit in either of the worlds, as a result of which both my worlds are less enriched by the sharing of cultural intelligence. Had I been brave enough then, and shared what I share now, I’d have added more to the British values of fairness, justice and freedom. When I am asked my thoughts on South Asian Heritage Month and what contributions I have made to Britain, my answer is simply, less than those of my parents. They are the true champions of South Asian Culture and its integration into British life. They overcame hardships to start building a path for our generation to walk. Our role was to maintain that path and start building bridges to help close the gaps that remained.


Whilst the first generation of South Asian immigrants in my family were the labourers, we are the engineers and the third generation, I hope, will be the innovators.


My children are third-generation immigrants and in my view the more comfortable in their Pakistani/British heritage. Some may question their lack of connection to their Pakistani heritage whilst others, question their loyalty to Britain. I feel they have a healthy balance of both.

In October last year my son suggested we visit Pakistan. I was ecstatic. He’s in his 20’s and had never really shown an interest before. He’s well-travelled but Pakistan had never featured on his bucket list. I, on the other hand, despite being born in the UK, feel a strong affiliation to Pakistan: both my parents and my husband were born and raised there, I’ve travelled there many times and enjoyed the hospitality of family and friends, I’m fluent in the language and I was immersed in its culture from a young age. My son, however, has not had such benefits, and I played a part in what I see now as a disadvantage to him, his lack of cultural knowledge and connection. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. For him it was a journey with purpose: an opportunity to learn about his ancestral roots, to meet family he’d never met, to see a culture he’d heard about but not experienced for himself, but most importantly to learn about his fathers, grandparents and great grandparents life’s. To see for himself where they grew up, learn about their childhood, the challenges they faced and the hardships they endured, which inevitably led them to leave and start a new life in Britain; And in the case of his paternal grandmother, who lived with us for many years, to visit her final resting place. I was apprehensive about what he’d think about a country and culture I held close to my heart, but also sadly one which, in the pursuit of trying to belong to another culture and a demanding profession, I had neglected. To my surprise, he took it all in his stride. He barely speaks the language nor is he familiar with the nuances of the culture, but he had a level of awareness and respect that helped him adapt and relate to those around him. Towards the end of our journey, we found a few treasures. One of those was the discovery of my maternal grandfathers passport.


My grandfathers passport: rare in those days


I never had the good fortune to meet my grandfather; one of the sad realities of economic immigrants of the 1960’s was that they simply didn’t have the resources to travel back home. I've never seen a photograph of my paternal grandparents. My father doubts one was ever taken. Something I was acutely aware of when growing up was my parents anguish at losing loved ones and not being able to return home, my mother in particular, who lost both her parents while she lived in the UK, but was unable to return home for their funerals.

I often ask my parents what our grandparents would make of us and our children? The word ‘proud’ always comes up. In particular my parents tell me that the fact we have all at some point performed some sort of public service, given something back to the country we now call our home, would have been a source of joy and pride to them.

More recently, while helping my mother tidy up, we came across an oil painting of my grandfather. My mother gave it to me, and my son has decided to have it framed and put up in our home. He explained to me that he has friends who have paintings of their ancestors, some of whom worked in India during the British reign. It did occur to me that the separation I created, he is bringing to an end. He is more comfortable in his heritage and the benefits it brings to his life in Britain then I am. For that reason alone, his generation are the innovators.





What has all this to do with cultural intelligence? Cultural intelligence, also known by the shorthand CQ for cultural quotient, refers to our ability to relate, live and work effectively in culturally diverse situations. It’s the capability to cross boundaries and prosper in multiple cultures. It goes beyond our existing knowledge of cultural sensitivity and awareness by highlighting certain skillsets and capabilities needed to successfully realise your objectives in culturally diverse settings. An individual possessing cultural intelligence is not just aware of different cultures, they are able to culturally adapt and effectively work and relate with people across a variety of cultural contexts.


With our workplaces becoming increasingly diverse, cultural intelligence is a business must have. If you are planning to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month in your workplace, keep in mind your objective in doing so and invest a little time and effort in evaluating your cultural intelligence.


If you’d like assistance with planning your SAHM event, meeting your cultural intelligence objectives or to discuss your D, E & I ambition, please contact us using this link:



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