I had just graduated from the University of St. Thomas and was a couple of weeks into my first real job, as an Internal Auditor with International Multifoods. Upon graduation, I made the decision to pursue private industry instead of public accounting because of my strong interest in traveling internationally.
One day during a status update meeting, our Director of Internal Audit asked our team, “Does anyone speak Spanish?” I glanced around at my new teammates and saw no one respond. We’ve all heard throughout our careers that volunteering for projects is one of the best opportunities to learn, get exposure, and advance your career. Since none of my internal audit colleagues seemed interested in volunteering and I (naively) thought my few college Spanish classes made me qualified, I cautiously raised my hand. At the time, I had no idea the impact my response would have on the direction of my career, let alone the global learning opportunities that would present themselves.
A few weeks later I was on a plane to Caracas, Venezuela. At the time, International Multifoods had major operations outside the United States in Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada. Apparently, the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors decided that, as a publically traded company, our corporate Internal Audit department should begin conducting audits of these foreign locations.
Over the next few years, I quickly became the go-to auditor for South America, and also traveled all over Mexico and Canada. Needless to say, my Spanish speaking ability improved a bit from the three classes at UST.
The internal audit role at Multifoods led to a Controller position in the International Division, getting my Masters in International Management from UST, another Controller role at a business unit for international trade, and then, a CFO role at a start-up that had substantial international operations.
I was extremely fortunate to have exceptional mentors with significant international experience along the way. I frequently traveled with these folks abroad to remote locations where I learned first-hand how to effectively conduct business and proactively avoid making costly mistakes. What you can learn from global business not only provides benefits while operating internationally, but also provides the experience and knowledge to work effectively in any environment, regardless of location.
I’ve been in executive search now for the past 15 years, helping predominantly privately-held companies find exceptional leaders. In my executive search career, the lessons learned in global business have been a true differentiator in providing value to our clients, while offering a consultative approach to our search engagements. In my opinion, the top three things you need to understand for effective global leadership are as follows:
Proceed with caution because you’ll find that, frequently, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Operating internationally significantly increases the key variables of a project.
- Cultural Diversity
Even more impactful than ethnicity and language, sensitivity to a variety of communication styles and business norms is imperative.
The globalization of business has been steadily occurring for years, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, the pace is accelerating. Whether your firm has direct operations abroad, or your international experience lies in imports and exports, understanding the three keys to successful international leadership above maximizes your probability of success abroad. Use the list of suggestions below to help you incorporate them into your behavior.
- Research, research, research.
Appropriate research prior to a commitment of economic resources is imperative and cannot be emphasized enough. A critical component of this is having an intimate understanding of business laws and regulations for the foreign country in which you’re operating. Domestic laws may also have an impact on your business dealings. You and your company should also fully understand the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), legislation that addresses corruption in the global financial system.
You don’t know what you don’t know, so prior to committing any resources, reach out to professionals within specific countries who can be utilized as subject matter experts. Local offices of Big 4 public accounting firms are easily accessible and should be brought onto the team. These professionals will have a clear understanding of local requirements, which will include what can be done, and sometimes more importantly, what can’t be done or should be avoided. For example, clearly understanding local labor laws can have an immediate impact on the structure of a project when employing or contracting with locals abroad.
- Network locally.
My foreign travels frequently brought me to fairly remote and underdeveloped locations abroad. Obtaining the guidance and services of a well-networked local was a necessary component of a successful project and dramatically impacted implementation timelines.
When working internationally, I frequently hired taxi cab drivers or concierges at hotels for weeks at a time. They quickly became invaluable in providing insight and guidance in the foreign market.
The point is to network and connect locally as quickly as possible. Whether you’re involved in international dealings or not, we’re all very busy and networking is too often overlooked as an unnecessary bother, rather than the valuable resource it can be when used appropriately.
- Partner with a local.
Partnering with a local for relevant aspects of the project can be a huge advantage, or an extreme disadvantage if not managed or communicated properly. Clear communication is crucial and contractually documenting those expectations is necessary. Relevant outside professionals need to be consulted and engaged. In-house resources should also be used, if available. The key is having the ability to develop effective working relationships with others.
- Expect the unexpected.
“Expect the unexpected” is more of a mindset than anything else. Operating internationally significantly increases the variables of a project, some anticipated and some not. Doing extensive research and partnering with locals can help you identify some of these variables and minimize the unexpected. That being said, try to keep an open mind. Unpredictable things will happen and you need to be in a position to respond and adapt quickly. Interestingly enough, the mistakes I’ve made abroad have had as much (and frequently more) of an influence on my international career than the things I’ve done perfectly.
- Be an ambassador.
Gaining the respect and trust of others is paramount to effective leadership abroad. You’re not only representing the company you work for, but you also represent your country, which carries its own baggage.
This is where humility comes into play; you’re not going to be the smartest person in the room, nor should you ever position yourself as such. As in any relationship, you get what you give. Show genuine respect to individuals as well as to their culture as a whole. You’ll find it will only serve you well in developing meaningful and trust-based relationships abroad. Expectations or status due to the position you hold or the country you’re from are virtually meaningless to others abroad and can be dangerous and counterproductive.
You can apply what you learn from global business to effective leadership abroad, as well as in your own country. Make sure you research to become a subject matter expert in your field, network, partner with others in your industry, expect the unexpected, and practice the ability to adapt. Additionally, remember at all times that you’re an ambassador representing both your company and your country. Respecting others and their culture is necessary if you want it in return. Operating internationally, and even volunteering for an overseas assignment can be a rewarding experience in leadership, as well as personal, development.