Enhance Your Overseas Experience

This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.


As the world becomes increasingly global, the need for true global citizens to lead organizations in business, nonprofits, and government is far greater than in decades past. Global citizens who understand the importance of cultural nuances are able to bring people together across organizational boundaries and are more effective working and collaborating anywhere in the world.

 

Becoming a global citizen requires that aspiring leaders spend time living in different countries early in life, so they can appreciate cultural differences, incorporate what they learn into their work lives, and build networks of global relationships. A key to the success of IBM's Sam Palmisano, for example, was the understanding he gained by living in Japan that enabled him to create IBM's "globally integrated enterprise" in 2006.

Corporations seek leaders who are comfortable in many cultures; they want those who can speak multiple languages and understand the nuances of doing business outside their home regions. In fact, many global companies have formal international rotation programs to build such global leaders. German consumer company Henkel requires its leaders to work in at least two countries to be considered for promotion.

But the benefits aren't just organizational. Living in different countries and cultures can lead to a rounder, more fulfilling life. Take our experiences, for example. Bill had formative experiences living with his family in Belgium in the early 1980s and in Switzerland ten years ago. Leading global businesses since the early 1970s and serving as a board member of two European companies, Bill's travels throughout the world shaped his ideas for developing global leaders. John found working abroad in Europe and the Middle East not only improved his understanding of the importance of cultural and regional differences, but also helped him build a global network of friends and colleagues and lasting memories of the places he visited.

For aspiring leaders who want to become global citizens and increase their global fluency, here are some suggestions to get started:

1. Target at least one fundamentally different culture. While it may be tempting to live in a culture similar to your own — for example, Americans working in Great Britain — the most compelling learning experiences come from living in cultures that are sharply differently from your own. Chinese professionals working in South Africa, for example, will find their existing cultural assumptions challenged as they gain increased humility by learning local languages and coping with different norms.

2. Spend time studying overseas. Studying in different cultures enables young leaders to understand cultural nuances and become actively engaged with global organizations. Harvard Business School now sends all 900 MBAs to work overseas in its Global Immersion Program. Global organizations prefer candidates who have studied abroad because these early experiences will broaden your perspective about seeking fascinating global opportunities throughout your life. Look for opportunities, and if you're already out of school, ask if your organization offers programs to give you experience abroad.

3. Learn the local language. As English becomes the language of business, it is tempting to get by with limited knowledge of local languages. That's a mistake. Learning local languages enables you to appreciate cultural nuances and develop more personal relationships. Being fluent in multiple languages makes it easier to learn new ones and opens up career opportunities.

4. Don't judge cultural differences or local people. When your new environment is sharply different from prior experiences, it's tempting to make snap judgments about your experiences and stay attached to your own culture. Resist that temptation by observing, listening, learning, and understanding rather than judging. Use your insights to improve local ways of operating, but don't rush to criticize.

5. Share international experiences with your family. Living in new countries brings your family much closer together and will be a time for growth, bonding, and learning as a family. Hold parties for your local neighbors, join a local church, and get involved in your children's school. Host regular visits from parents and close friends. Balance breadth and depth in your travels to explore many different areas and countries, and spend time talking with local people. But don't travel so much that you fail to get deeply involved in your new community and explore its richness.

The coming decades will belong to those global citizens who are comfortable operating anywhere in the world and who can collaborate with people of different cultures to develop solutions to the world's most pressing problems. Organizations filled with these global citizens will not only survive but thrive and grow. For you, life will be richer and more fulfilling.