Updated: Sep 23
An international business experience can take a variety of forms. In some cases, companies are well set up to guide employees through the transition. In other instances, individuals have to figure out logistics, such as work authorization and housing, on their own. Arranging all the pieces can be a lot to manage. And then there’s the role itself. What does it take to be successful? Mike Hoer has spent over 30 years living in and working in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In doing so, he has held both consulting and management positions in global firms, such as Schlumberger and Continental Grain. From his experience, he outlines three keys to success in global careers. Perhaps surprisingly, they are soft rather than hard skills.
Many professionals obtain their education and initial training in their home country. Consequently, a foreign assignment necessitates some adjustment for individuals to understand and successfully conduct business in other countries and cultures. According to Hoer:
You really have to have an attitude that people are doing things a different way for a good reason. Nobody does anything anywhere in the world because they are stupid. They do it because they have a good reason, and it’s up to us to find out what that good reason is and understand it.
Refusing to accept and adjust to others’ business practices can earn professionals a reputation as hardheaded and difficult to work with. Furthermore, it can make accomplishing international objectives more challenging and stressful. As a result, Hoer concludes, “you have to have a flexible mindset. You have to have an open mind or else you aren’t going to do well overseas.”
Similar to being flexible, the ability to communicate significantly improves the level of success achieved by international professionals. Beyond the technical skill of speaking the language of business counterparts, Hoer highlights the significance of developing softer communication sensitivities. He says, “communication is a lot about listening and trying to understand, and then of course being able to express yourself in a clear, concise way.” Whether this is accomplished with the help of translators or through professionals’ own fluencies, being able to understand, analyze, and respond intelligently are important when engaging in global business dealings. Conveying the need for this skill among those working abroad, Hoer says, “communication would be a trait that I think is almost indispensable.”
Business can be tricky. International business can be even trickier. Professionals seeking to work internationally must be mentally prepared to face both foreseen and unforeseen challenges. Hoer explains, “things are much tougher in many cases when you don’t speak the language, when you don’t know what’s going on… [consequently,] you’ve got to have this never say die attitude where you are going to find a way to get things done.” One common difficulty in international business comes from different cultures using different business methods. For example, Hoer recalls having to teach his American managers in China that if they were initially denied a proposal’s possibility by a Chinese counterpart, that was just the beginning—not the end—of the negotiation. Being unprepared for such differences and difficulties could lead some professionals to give up on their international pursuits. Maintaining a “never give up” attitude will help global leaders succeed regardless of whether or not they have foreseen their challenges.
Flexibility, communication, and a “never say die” attitude are important in a traditional career route, but working overseas makes these skills even more salient. The stakes are amplified as international business involves crossing cultural and political boundaries. Bridging language barriers alone adds a level of complexity, especially in light of the fact that native speakers frequently miscommunicate with one another.
Even under normal circumstance, promising strategies, plans, and products fail because the leaders behind them are unable to apply these three principles. Compounding that with unfamiliar and sometimes confusing business practices underscores the need to focus on flexibility, communication, and attitude. Embracing these soft skills will improve professionals’ chances of success and, importantly, increase satisfaction with their assignment as they navigate the international environment.
To learn more from Mike Hoer on the different aspects of international careers, view his Global Perspectives Summit 2020 presentation here.