If I’ve learned anything over the course of my 20-plus year corporate career, it is that the willingness to take risks and the ability to connect the dots are inextricably intertwined. Playing it safe may have been the way when people stayed at the same company for 30 years, but in an age where the median tenure is less than five years, you have a fairly finite period of time to make enough of an impression to propel your career.
I am not advocating risk in a way that is maverick or irreverent, but instead in a way that focuses on capitalizing on opportunities that may not always seem to be the most obvious. This is where connecting the dots comes into play.
For the entirety of my corporate life, I worked in multinational companies with huge global footprints. When I looked at the most successful leaders in my organizations, they all had one thing in common aside from the core competencies required of all senior leaders: They all had experience living and working outside of their country of origin. Sure, there were some leaders who hadn’t, and working abroad wasn’t the only pattern, but I found that it was a pretty key differentiator in businesses that needed leaders who were at the very least bi-culturally competent.
In the global economy, one size doesn’t fit all. What applies in the U.S. doesn’t always apply in the U.K. or Brazil or Hong Kong. Getting the best from teams and forming strong client relationships isn’t always about the age-old formulas that work in your home country. It is about understanding cultural nuances that you can’t always get on a business trip.
My real “aha” moment came when I connected the dots between leadership and international experience. In hindsight, it seems obvious given the mission and footprint of the businesses that I worked in. And while this particular piece is about the benefit of working abroad, I encourage you to take a step back and connect the dots in your business. What is it that the leaders of your company have in common and what kind of risk does it involve?
I have now lived and worked in the U.S., Asia and Europe. My ascent to global C-suite executive in a Fortune 100 company is absolutely attributable to my experience abroad. In addition to adding jet fuel to my ascent, I landed in very senior roles at a relatively young age given the value attributed to my multi-country experience. Here are five things that I’ve learned about leadership and working abroad:
1. It is okay to make a lateral career move when going abroad. Moving abroad for work is exciting at first, but most people experience a range of emotions. The first days and months are a period of significant personal change. It isn’t the worst thing to be able to do your day job with your eyes closed. It will give you time to settle in without having to worry about keeping up with the responsibilities of an even bigger job.
2. Keep an open mind about where you are assigned. There are certainly things to consider when moving abroad. Schools, distance from your home country and ease of access will likely top your list, but keep an open mind. Working somewhere that may not seem the most obvious could catapult your career. Remember that this is about differentiation. At a time when being an expat is becoming more and more common, there may be places you can go which solve a problem for your employer — a real opportunity for you. Many assignments are for two years or so. Believe me, two years can fly by. The career capital this will buy you will be worth it.
3. Get to know the culture in the country you choose while you are there. I know that living in the expat community is comfortable and connects you to home, but your objective should be to get to know the local culture. You may as well be in your home city if you simply surround yourself with your fellow country-people without any cultural assimilation while abroad. If you must live in an expat area, make sure that you spend focused time on learning as much as possible about your host country from the indigenous people there.
4. If you move to a country that doesn’t speak your first language, take lessons. Many two- to three-year expats don’t gain total fluency during their assignment if their primary language at work is their native language. Considering this, take an immersion class or regular language lessons in your host country. Know enough to get around, and don’t be afraid to try to speak the local language. This will buy you huge amounts goodwill with the local community and provide the keys to unlock experiences that you won’t gain otherwise.
5. Your world will expand in ways you hadn’t imagined. The expat community is a club. Expats have a special appreciation for others who understand what it is like to take the brave step to go and live in another country. You will come back with a worldview that is much different. Doors will open at home and abroad, and you will develop a network that you will use often over the course of your business life.
Don’t be afraid to take the risk. Open up your world. Focus on connecting the dots. Look for the interesting assignments that are outside of your comfort zone that challenge you — because that’s what great leaders are made of.
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