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The Joys of Working Overseas

Posted by on February 12, 2015
Peter Stromquist

Cape Town, RSA

I’ve been fairly lucky to have had a long, internationally-facing career, having resided in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, and having touched down on business in sixty countries. I’m sure I learned more than I “taught,” and that’s perfectly OK with me.

My assignment with the largest and most challenging responsibilities included being responsible for hundreds of full and part time employees, stretched across two and one half continents, conducting business in dozens of languages with just as many cultural nuances.

The first company I worked for (US ownership initially) had operated internationally for 80 years or so, and had a certain comfort level in doing so. Acquired by a Middle Eastern investor during my tenure provided an even greater ease of dealing with many different cultures during the business day. At our London headquarters, we probably had colleagues from two dozen different cultures, and, with their assistance, dealing with the many different cultural aspects of the job in the field, provided me with support and understanding when/if difficulties arose in the territory.

My second international employer, a US company, was dipping their toes in the water for the first time, and thus they decided a joint venture with a local company might present less risk. They named me CEO of the venture. One would think that having a local partner might be an advantage to understanding the way business is conducted in a country, but that’s only true if one chooses to listen and take the advice of the partner. Unfortunately, my US employer believed they were impressive enough on their own, and my basic mandate was to do it “our way or the highway,” and if they would have told me that during the interview process, I probably would have passed on the position. They saw no reason why we couldn’t sell their off-the-shelf, designed for the American public, products and services to anyone, anywhere. (If they were successful in the US, why wouldn’t they be in China, Turkey, or South Africa)? They also figured if they were in the office in New York, we should be in the office at the same time, even twelve time zones away. I quickly came to dread the phone ringing in the middle of the night.

After that, it was on to a French multinational, a division of a very large industrialist who had been doing business all over the globe, in many different business segments, for years. They were the easiest. They completely understood localization, as well as the time/investment it would take to open a new territory. The board of directors could be impatient for profit from time to time, but the business head I reported to in Paris was really great at running interference when needed.

In addition to having so many opportunities to explore other cultures and their ways of doing business, I think being an expat for a long period of time made me a more tolerant and patient leader (and person) when I returned to the U.S.

One thing I was not prepared for upon my re-entry was a bit of difficulty in the reverse transition; when you live and work in emerging economies, the one thing you might miss is “choice,” and when you get back to the US, you are overwhelmed with choices, in every aspect of your life. It can be a little heady at times.

At some point during my career, we really did become “one world,” and if you’re just starting out, it’s pretty much essential that an international stint be part of your early career. Even if the initial position is beneath your level of education or experience, in the long run, the time spent abroad will be a huge asset on your resume.

And learn a language or two. Arabic or Mandarin would be good choices.

If you think you’ll get lonely or feel disconnected, rest assured, there will be lots of other expats in most locals that you can reconnoiter with, as well as US government employees. Embassies and consulates have some pretty great parties, especially around American holidays and events.

“Go west young man.” Or East, South, or North. Just go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Stromquist

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