My career has taken me all over the world. Not just working on different markets for a global company, but actually living in half a dozen countries, including Russia, Uzbekistan, Hungary, Malaysia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and now the United States.
And I’m a huge advocate for getting that kind of global exposure. Granted, I don’t think anyone needs to travel at quite the scale that I have, but working in different cultures or markets offers incredible opportunities for you to grow in so many ways – including professionally, as a leader and on a personal level.
It’s easy to think about the professional angle first, considering we’re talking about careers first and foremost. When you go from one market to another, you get exposure to different business contexts and that can really broaden your perspective. Moving across developed markets, emerging markets or markets your company wants to enter are all very different challenges. Each will require different thinking and strategy from you.
Learning first-hand how to adjust the tactics you already know to new situations can really deepen your skill set. It can help you to stay engaged in your career – I’ve had so many new opportunities in new places dealing with new obstacles, I’ve never gotten bored. And that can continue to accelerate your own learning curve – the more you’re accustomed to being in unfamiliar situations, the better you’re able to adapt quickly.
That directly leads in to how it can help you evolve as a leader. The talent base in different locations can be very different – with varying skills, backgrounds and ways of thinking. Stepping into a new environment and developing a goal plan is one thing, but you have to understand that your new team could go about accomplishing those objectives in a way that’s dramatically foreign to you. You ultimately have to learn to trust the knowledge of the people who have already been on the ground because the same plan executed in two different organizations can land very differently. The input of those who understand and have lived in that specific social context, history and way of life is essential. Having said that, to drive the step change and elevate the team further – you also need to find the right balance of challenge, stretch and support, figure out what ignites their hearts and minds.
What’s the best way to gain the kind of cultural understanding you need to bridge the gap? It’s like learning a language – to become fluent in it, it’s best if you’re deeply invested in that culture. You need to work side-by-side with this new team, giving yourself opportunities to learn from them just as much as they learn from you. It’s really about building trust with your broader organization and being proactive with expanding your network. As leaders, we need to listen to people with different perspectives, hear their reactions to what’s going on within our companies and build upon the ideas that stand out.
And while the experience of diving into a culture can certainly be very demanding, it’s also very refreshing. You get exposed to new ways of thinking, fresh perspectives on challenges and a better understanding of how to bring out the best in people. Everyone, no matter where they live, wants their leaders to help them do more and be more – that’s something we all share.
And the last (but certainly not least) way international careers can help us is how we grow personally. It’s an opportunity to develop as an individual on a massive scale. You get into a position where you have to be very thoughtful in the face of a new culture about who you are, what you do and what kind of person you want to be. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, it can be quite eye opening (and even if it doesn’t inspire revolutionary changes in yourself, it can certainly inspire evolutionary ones).
When you’re in a new place with few friends or family, it helps you to not take things for granted because you start realizing what you’re really missing. And that gives you focus on where you want to invest time into building new relationships and maintaining old ones. Who do you need to connect with regularly? What kind of companion will help make this new location feel like home? The answers will be different for everyone.
When I joined this organization twenty years ago, I thought it would offer me some great experience before another company would present my next opportunity. But little did I know that British American Tobacco and Reynolds American would instead present me adventure-after-adventure within the same organization, each giving me new challenges to overcome and new ways to grow. They’ve brought me all over the world and that experience has helped make me the person I am today. And I’m forever grateful.
Anna Dolgikh – SVP & Chief Human Resources and Inclusion Officer