According to consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of employees working on international assignment outside their home country has grown by 25 percent in the last decade and by 2020 they predict an additional 50 percent increase.
Global consultant Michelle Randall, author of “Cultural Profit: Vastly Accelerating Bottom Line Results for High Growth Global Companies,” reflects the consensus of talent managers when she notes that “employees at every level within an organization (need) cross-cultural fluency.” She notes that cross-cultural competency isn’t just important for employees working for multinationals. “Go to your local Target and you’ll find that there is a culturally plural work force speaking at least two languages. This has huge hiring, work force and management implications.”
Whether you are at the start of you career, mid-career or looking for a second career, cultural competency is essential.
Business is becoming increasingly global. International trade, overseas assignments and multicultural work forces create a demand for individuals that have developed the ability to deal effectively with individuals from other cultures.
What are the keys to cross-cultural fluency? Ken Belanger, director of Global Leadership Training for Berlitz, a provider of language training and cross-cultural services, points to the following elements: “One is an open attitude. Curiosity is a pre-requisite for engaging in the continuous learning process of developing cross-cultural effectiveness. From there it’s important to become self-aware, which is the ability to recognize one’s own cultural values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. You must also become aware of others, which is the ability to observe and identify the roles, behaviors, attitudes and cultural orientations of our counterparts. The fourth component of the Berlitz model is having cultural knowledge, specific and general knowledge about a given social and business culture.” Cultural competence, according to Belanger, requires not only learning these skills but also seeking opportunities to put them into practice.
To that end Berlitz has developed the “Cultural Navigator,” an online tool to help executives increase their ability to effectively interact with individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
Lauren Supraner, president of CAL Learning, an intercultural communications training company, points out that “understanding that not everyone views the world as you do is the first step to developing cross-cultural competence. Look. Listen, and lastly talk (not easy for Americans, who prefer the reverse order).”
Understanding your own culture is also important she adds, because it is “the filter through which you view people and events.”
Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern’s D’Amore McKim School of Business, points out that when she was in China recently it was “striking how many of the leaders of the multinational companies had experience working for multiple international companies and had strong language skills.” To lead global companies, there is an increasing demand for leaders with experience in many countries. Knowledge of the business challenges, culture and language enable these managers to be more effective and successful as they assume more leadership responsibilities.
For individuals interested in gaining international experience, Sarikas suggests the following:
• Build Your Value. Gain experience and build your knowledge of the company and how to get things done at headquarters first so you bring that value to the other locations in a future assignment. Do what you do very well so you will stand out as a candidate for a broader experience.
• Don’t Wait Too Long. I’ve seen people keep putting off the international assignment for various reasons. It is easier to relocate before you have a family or before your children start school.
• Be Prepared. Before starting an overseas assignment, do your homework. Learn as much as you can about the company and customers in that location. Review business customers. Learn at least common phrases in the local language. Talk to employees currently working there or those who recently worked there. Seek their input on ensuring a smooth transition.
• Seize the Opportunity. Make the most of the assignment. Learn as much as you can while you are there. Take advantage of being there to see the sights, learn the history, and interact with the locals when possible. Do your work well and learn as much as possible about the unique aspects of the business in that location as well as the challenges of working with corporate from afar. This perspective will change how you think about challenges in the future.
Berlitz’s Belanger offers the following career advice to individuals seeking to succeed in today’s global economy. “Get out there and experience the world. Take a curriculum that has a global perspective, look for internships with companies that operate internationally and focus your job search on global companies. One thing leads to another.”
A veteran human resources executive, Lee E. Miller is a career coach and the author of “UP: Influence Power and the U Perspective — The Art of Getting What You Want.”