My first writing assignment for Leaderonomics. Lily Cheadh, whom our readers know and love, suggested that I write a piece on global exposure. Thanks in no small part to my family, I have been blessed to have studied, lived and worked in the United States, United Kingdom and across Asia.
To pen down the enriching experiences would take volumes, however, one of the reasons for returning home to Malaysia was precisely to bring back and share all I have learned and to contribute to building our nation’s people. I hope this brief summary on the topic of international exposure and mobility will be helpful. So let’s get down to business!
On The Move
For years, we have not only read about the growth and increasing emphasis on emerging markets, but have lived through the change it has brought right to our doorstep. With this shift has been a concurrent rise in labour mobility, and as reported by PWC in Talent Mobility: 2020 and beyond based on research of over 900 global companies, mobility level increased by 25% in the first decade of the 21st century, and is predicted to grow a further 50% by 2020.
In my sample se of one (me), my mobility level at work increased about three-fold in the past 10 years with the added benefits of a wealth of learning and lifetime connections with incredible individuals in five continents. Come to think if it, they are presently scattered over six continents as friends and colleagues have likewise been moving targets.
In Global firms in 2020, a survey of 479 senior executive, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) projects that companies and their workforces will become larger and spread over more countries as we approach 2020. Communication across continents has become ever more important and challenging, and while technology provides a multitude of solutions to keep connected, I am not the first to wonder if there is a non-tangible cost that we not quantifying adequately I admit to sanding out an email (or three) in my lifetime that didn’t quite hit the mark, or getting lost in the quagmire of three-time zone conference calls.
Most respondents of the EIU survey saw significant cultural and linguistic barriers in the search for talent. There is widespread recognition that localizing management of overseas operations can benefit from the native manager’s understanding of cultural nuances in business practices and decision-making but two points emerge:
- The leadership of overseas operations needs to develop a global outlook themselves
- Senior leadership at global headquarters would likewise need to evolve and develop a cultural intelligence when establishing and maintaining the company culture and values throughout the growing multinational organization
Making The Leap
According to the PWC report, 71% of millennials expressed the desire to work outside their home contry at some point in their career.
Before embarking on a life-changing career trajectory, as with most decisions, it might be a good idea to take a step back and consider your personal and career goals, For me, the attraction of living and travelling abroad was fueled by a desire to soak in other cultures, and to learn how people think differently. I have a vivid memory of attending a university event a while back which was an excellent example of the Chinese diaspora (before I had even heard of the term). In the same room were hundreds of people looking like they might have had the same Aunts and Uncles, but speaking with accents from all over, with the Mauritian accent being the most enchanting!
Yet at the end of the day, I discovered that many of the people I met were driven by similar goals and purpose regardless of origin or background. I qualify his statement by saying that the organizational culture of the learning institution, or company in which these culturally diverse individuals self-selected themselves to, is likely to have contributed to this.
The exposure and immersion in other countries have enriched my life both on a personal and professional level. It has truly been remarkable to see diverse people with a common goal and conviction come together to solve a problem.
What to Pack?
In the context of an environment requiring more international experience and mobility, here are some lessons I have learnt about preparing for the trip, and being deliberate in what you bring back.
1. Be in-the-known
For your chosen field and long-term aspirations, anticipate what skills companies need now and in the future by researching and keeping abreast with the developments in your industry.
With the knowledge of your needed skill set, develop and execute a plan to upgrade your skills before and during international assignments.
Keep in mind that in addition to technical skills, companies will focus on building communication skills and cultural awareness. As companies value the ability to build relationships across borders, there is an increasing emphasis on soft skills.
2. Change can be good
In the wake of skill shortages and changing business needs, companies may need to develop new froms of global mobility. Staying flexible may open up a world of unexpected career opportunities.
Better yet, seize these international assignments with vigour if you plan to become chief executive officer of a multinational company one day. Studies indicate that international exposure is widely recognized as a vital asset (Academy of Management Journal) and an integral part of career development.
For Deloitte, international experience-whether working overseas or collaborating on cross-border projects and teams-is a “must-have”.
3. Make the most of your international exposure
In addition to first-hand knowledge you will gain from the new environment you will be living in, you may have the opportunity to be involved in key projects and access to training that you wouldn’t ordinarily have had. Stay engaged with your teammates; listen and learn.
Capitalise on the region-and industry-spe-cific exposure you have been given, and be sure to match these up with the needed set of skills you identified for yourself.
In choosing how to spend your time abroad consider also how the skills you acquire can be transferable to your job upon your return.
Whether you plan to return home, or keep traversing the globe, be prepared to articulate all the different skills you have developed from your international assignment, be it demonstrating your newfound adaptability to new cultures and fluency of a foreign language, or your readiness to embrace new ways of working and your understanding of local business practices.
4. Network of international contacts
One of the greatest gifts of having extensive global exposure is the opportunity to forge friendships and build networks. As with other networks, it may facilitate future collaboration; however with a network of international contacts, you would also have a sounding board to test business ideas in different countries and settings.
Different, different but same: Connecting with geographically distant teammates on projects, working towards a share goal or addressing a common threat has a strong unifying force, not bound by culture of language.
While some caution that cultural differences can be so important that success in business could hinge entirely upon it, I would argue that partnerships can still be cultivated when stakeholders have a shared vision and common values.
These cross-border interactions open a window into different ways of life, and threaten to stretch the notion of impossibility itself, “Nah it can’t be done”. “Sure it can!”
5. Cultural Intelligence (CQ)
Research indicates that cultural awareness and the ability to adapt to different national, ethnic and organizational settings can be measured and evaluated. Cultural intelligence, which is a natural ability for some, is important for individuals and teams to be effective in the cross-culture and cross-border operations of today.
As important as I believe international exposure to be. My father always said that lessons can be learned from anyone we connect with. Exposure and personal development can take place wherever, or at whatever stage in life we are at. Keeping an open inquiring mind, being present and engaging with people around me is what I strive to do on a daily basis and I hope you do too!
Cultural Intelligence and Performance
HAVING a regional role with significant exposure to colleagues and external stakeholders in 15 countries give or take, gave me an insight rarely enjoyed on prior short trips or vacations. The impression I had when visiting the same countries as a tourist was significantly altered when I started making connections with local counterparts.
The strong corporate culture we shared was a thread that kept discussions and decision-making aligned. This was by no means effortless, and results were conspicuously diverse depending on the cultural intelligence (CQ) of people around the table.
Martha Maznevski, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and International Management at IMD says that CQ consists of specific knowledge about different cultures, as well as general knowledge about how they work. It requires interpersonal, negotiation, listening and cross-cultural skills, whereby cultural mindfulness or an openness to new experiences, ideas and constant learning is key.
In a different cultural setting, leaders with high CQs can quickly assess the situation and make appropriate adjustments to achieve effective outcomes in cross border negotiations, develop an understanding of new markets and formulate global strategy.
Revisiting the notion of technology in facilitating cross-border communications, it is clear that CQ is vitally important especially when we do not have the luxury of attempting to interpret the subtle differences in actions, gestures and speech patterns.
I firmly believe that any kind of global exposure will at the very least open our eyes to the possibility that the same word said (or unsaid) can have an entire spectrum of meanings Interestingly, Maznevski indicates that mindfulness in virtual teams tends to be higher than it is in their face-to-face counterparts because the virtual context helps people focus on the right issues.
A high CQ does not necessarily mean having the ability to imitate another culture, which could in fact have negative connotations. Rather, the key is mutual respect without, as a Trekkie might call it, undergoing a Borg assimilation. Maznevski asserts that adapting is the responsibility of all parties who care about performance and if one person adapts, performance improves marginally; however, if everybody adapts, performance is impacted significantly.