This was the message from participants of a recent panel discussion, “Global Competencies for the 21st Century Workplace,” earlier this month at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. The panelists – all in leadership positions with international firms – had advice for students ready to hit the international job market. So what does a candidate seeking an international career really need?
1. Cultural curiosity. Daniella Taveau, global regulatory and trade strategist for law firm King & Spalding, said candidates should “come to the table being multicultural,” because there are certain skills employers will not teach you. Taveau says that means showing a genuine interest in other cultures and demonstrating that “we’re not the ‘ugly Americans.’ Show people you care about where they come from,” Taveau said.
2. Language skills. One big way to demonstrate cultural awareness is by taking the time to learn another language, said Taveau, who speaks six languages. Knowing another language will differentiate you from your colleagues and the cognitive benefits are also quite good, said panelist Kirsten Brecht Baker, chief executive of search firm Global Professional Search. Lisa K. Hunt, executive vice president of international services and special business development at Charles Schwab & Co., conceded that not speaking Mandarin has impaired her ability to build relationships with partners in China. “If you have language skills and understand your firm’s business, that makes you invaluable,” Hunt said. “Even if you just learn a couple of key words and phrases to use in social situations, it goes a long way.”
3. Adaptability. This means being up for any global adventure, especially at the start of your career. “As you ascend in your career, you might get there in a way you didn’t expect,” said panelist Marc Melkonian, a business development manager for the defense and security business line within Bechtel’s Nuclear, Security and Environmental global business unit. He says his – and other large multinational firms – are looking for people who are flexible. “In large multibillion-dollar companies, you often don’t get to jump in as a project manager. We value people who are highly mobile and willing to go to sometimes remote locations to start their careers.”
4. Soft skills. Companies are looking for candidates predisposed to what is now referred to as “power” skills – such as resiliency, adaptability, flexibility, a tolerance for ambiguity, innate intellectual curiosity, said Brecht Baker. “Candidates who have spent time in immersion environments and in other cultures, either overseas or here in domestic heritage culture situations are exponentially more likely to have the top power skills that employers are looking for,” she said.
5. Passion for diversity. This can be achieved through past exposure to other cultures, says Baker, whether through study abroad programs, volunteering, or work experience. “An understanding of how to behave adapt when you walk into a room of people who aren’t just like you goes a long way to relationship-building .” Smaller efforts can reap larger rewards. Just learning how to say “please” and “thank-you” before you get off the airplane in another country, and researching the various signs of respect ahead of time will go a long way towards developing relationships in another culture. This cultural savvy is critical when working domestically, too, she says. “Your ability to work in other cultures and to apply the knowledge and perspective that you’ve acquired in other cultures to your current work environment injects a new level of creativity and diversity of thinking into your domestic workplace right here in the United States,” she said. “Employers are placing increasing value on the workplace diversity achieved by hiring employees who have worked or studied in other cultures, even it was a two-week experience in a different environment where they’ve been around people who think differently than they do – and who perhaps share different political or social values. But, they had to learn how to respect and navigate that difference. Those are the fundamental building blocks for teamwork and leadership.”
6. Self-awareness and humility. Navigating global business can sometimes be complicated. “I always tell people, it’s OK if you’re not an expert, but do know what you don’t know and seek input and advice in these areas because they are very tricky,” said Taveau. Panelist Rick Callaway, global supply chain manager for Austrailia at Northrop Grumman, said he has had a lot of success in his career operating with that kind of humility: “I understand my limitations and I understand that I will make assumptions that are wrong. I work very hard to understand where my customers and suppliers are coming from.”
The bottom line: Developing your global mindset through language skills and an understanding history and politics, and other cultural factors, can boost your job prospects and further your career trajectory – whether you are looking for your next position at home or abroad.
Rebecca L. Bellinger is managing director of the Office of Global Initiatives and CIBER, the Center for International Business Education and Research at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.