In order to be successful in the increasing global working world of the future, you’ll need more than just technical knowledge of how to export. AI & robots will only accelerate the pace of change. Which are the international business skills needed to future proof your career though?
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list and it’s also subjective – most of these skills will be needed for all knowledge based work, but I’d like to apply the relevance to international business expansion. This list was inspired by Bernhard Marr’s list that you can find here.
Table of Contents
Digital competence includes the ability to learn, work and cope with everyday life in our digital world. (It’s questionable whether it’s even a “future” skill as this has been a requirement for a few decades now).
These skills include the ability to use various devices, as well as an ever increasing number of software and apps safely and confidently. People with strong digital skills can easily communicate and collaborate with digital tools. They stay abreast of new technologies and understand how they could impact their work and business.
Obviously this is a key for those of us working across borders as video meetings, facilitating hybrid meetings and also working our devices without technical support when travelling (because we’re in a different time zone on the other side of the world for example) are key skills to have.
Another reason for this to fall under “skills to future proof a career in international business” is the fact that different markets prefer to use different softwares for one and the same job. That means that you need to learn even more software and apps than your colleagues who might be working in say the domestic accounts department.
Data Literacy is a core component of your international business skills
For most companies today, data is one of the most important and valuable business assets (it’s often even referred to as the new oil). This means that organisations want to employ people who are able to use data and deal with it effectively.
In the average business context, data literacy means being able to access appropriate data and work with it securely. Cultivating data literacy involves working to extract meaning from data and sharing data-driven insights with others. With data literacy, you also need to be able to question the integrity and validity of the data you work with, rather than just blindly following the information you are given.
It’s easy to see where the challenges are here when we’re talking about international business skills needed. If you are purely working in a regional role in the province you grew up in, you have a completely different understanding of the informational landscape than an international business development manager starting out in a new market. For a start, you speak the language of your home market fluently, and secondly you probably have a better understanding of where to obtain certain types of information such as if a company is registered, who sells which kinds of products etc.
All too often in exporting, most of the time is invested into trying to establish whether or not the data is valid and reliable, leaving too little time for analysis and insights, and probably even less for developing data driven plans.
There are of course many sources of information out there both paid and free but to future proof your career in international business you need to learn to establish quickly where to obtain the data you need in adequate quality.
For sure, AI will play an increasingly important role here (be it for generating images and text, translating or accessing knowledge and market data) and knowing how to use it properly will be possibly even a skill in it’s own right.
In today’s age of fake news, social media and information overload, critical thinking has to be one of the most important skills to cultivate to be successful. Thinking critically doesn’t just mean analysing problems and situations based on evidence rather than hearsay or personal opinion. It also means being aware of typical biases and keeping an eye open for them both in yourself and others.
For example, with social media bubbles many people only actually read or hear about news items which confirm their own opinions rather than reading a balanced range of opinions across various media. It’s getting ever harder to find unbiased journalistic reporting too which of course makes it even harder when you’re working across borders to judge what is really happening.
How many times in recent years has the reporting supported by governments in European or US media turned out to be simply propaganda that suited their geopolitical aims (eg. think of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction)
You need the skill of critical thinking to question the validity of evidence and try to discover what is and isn’t true in a variety of situations. This will always be harder in markets where you don’t speak the language and don’t have so much knowledge about the integrity of sources, but hopefully your digital and data literacy skills will be able to support you here.
Sometimes of course, it’s not a question of analysing data but simply going to a market yourself to get your own picture of what is actually happening on the ground. Yes, digital will play an increasingly critical role but the old fashioned international business skills needed can really assist when we’re talking about critical thinking (& sometimes, healthy scepticism). There’s nothing quite like seeing things for yourself to get a feel for what’s really going on…
To Future Proof your Career you need Emotional & Intercultural Intelligence Skills
I debated whether I can really combine these two, but I decided that for international business they are closely intertwined with one another and go hand in hand.
Emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability to express and control our emotions. If you are emotionally intelligent, you are aware of how your emotions affect your own behaviour as well as that of those around you. At the same time and emotionally intelligent person can manage those emotions accordingly.
Empathy (= the ability to see the world from another’s perspective) is a key component of emotional intelligence and a core driver of successful international business relationships.
You can learn more about intercultural intelligence skills by reading the summary of my interview with Vivian Manasse. This is very obviously a skill needed for international business and that fact won’t change in the future.
However, in the future EVEN more people will need this skill as our workplaces become more diverse and international. Let’s face it, in the past it was often only the sales team who really worked directly face to face with international customers, channelling all the information, and the managing director or owner met them under controlled conditions a couple of times. For the future though where meetings can be virtual, then it makes sense in some circumstances for all departments to be in direct contact with their counterparts at your daughter companies or business partners. That means, that the skills of understanding the behaviours and motivators of various cultures will be needed in even more areas of your organisation, especially as organisations become more diverse and potentially have remote teams located around the globe.
If you can’t work effectively with people from different backgrounds and communicate effectively with them then you will lose the benefit of all the technological progress that’s been made!
Bernhard Marr defined creativity as “the act of turning imaginative ideas into reality”.
As the media are full of talk about how many jobs the AI revolution will take, we have to remember that creativity is one of the things that differentiates us from the machines. Creativity will be one of the most in-demand skills to future proof your career, especially as we hand off more and more routine tasks to machines.
Developing new ideas, solving problems, thinking beyond the standard solutions and implementing ideas to solve problems and make things better will be critical to the workplace of the future.
If you asked me today “what skills are needed for international business“, this would certainly be one of my top picks. Working across borders means that we are constantly being challenged to find innovative solutions because the combinations of different regulatory environments means we are faced with a huge variety of issues to solve.
Creativity will however be even more important in future as those of us in international trade have to navigate the complexities of both the digital and real “foreign” worlds. (And that’s before we even have to start thinking about how to navigate the various metaverses which are likely to spring up and impact our business).
In some ways the digital advances of the last years have made doing international business simpler. For the most part (unless perhaps in some crisis zones around the world), we are no longer restricted to booking an overseas call a week in advance where you can feel your bank account draining with every second. Instead we have cheap video calls where we can at least have something similar to an in person meeting.
However, these changes, whilst beneficial, have also brought a layer of additional complexity and that will continue to be an issue. As I mentioned above, now departments are having direct meetings where perhaps in the past they only exchanged emails and that requires a change in training and thinking.
In this changing work environment, you need to be able to collaborate and communicate effectively with a variety of colleagues, co-workers, suppliers and clients. It’s not just your customers who might now be based overseas, it could also be your departmental colleagues.
That doesn’t just bring cultural challenges but also practical ones of managing meetings across time zones.
If you struggle with being open to change then international business probably isn’t the right career for you as there is almost constant change. Think about how quickly situations evolve in your own market and then add say 10 foreign countries into the mix and you’ll see what I mean!
In the future, change will be an even more important factor than it is today & it seems likely (based on the past decades) that the pace of change will only continue to accelerate. We will constantly be confronted with new technologies, increasing automation, a rapidly developing pace of work and enormous disruptions in the business world so learning to deal with this will be key not just to success but to survival.
We all need to develop the mental resilience to thrive in times of constant change and recognise that it’s exhausting to live that way. We need to be open-minded, curious, and willing to learn new things by focusing on opportunities, not obstacles. This is a characteristic which I’ve often observed in my Asian business partners who have experienced massive changes and growth in the past decades and have learnt to adapt quickly to any new situation. Europeans who have grown up in times of more economic stability tend to be less quick to adapt.
Flexibility is like a muscle that you have to keep training whether that be by learning to use new technologies, launching new products, or solving problems that didn’t exist in the past. Finding new ways of managing the tsunami of information and integrating work into our lives in a healthy way will be important challenges for all those of us who are working across timezones and cultures.
Good leadership is about bringing out the best in other people and enabling them to thrive, and if you think that leadership skills are necessary only for departmental leaders or higher, then think again… Working in an international role means that you probably have to effectively lead the teams of your distributors or other partners to do what your company wants. That is potentially even harder than being the line manager for a group of people as you have no direct authority to tell them what to do, but have to negotiate everything.
Factors such as distributed teams, increasing diversity, and more fluid organisational structures mean that leadership skills are important for everyone across the organisation – whether they lead a project, a team, or an entire department. If you are used to managing distributors then this could potentially give you a head start as you already have the experience of doing this (across cultures as well!).
Wherever you work from or whether you are employed or run your own company the ability to manage your time effectively both enables you to be more productive at work and have more time for yourself.
It’s about working smarter, not harder. People who manage their time well don’t have to work overtime every day. They know when they are most productive and use that time wisely by reserving their less productive hours for other tasks. Of course, this isn’t quite so cut & dry if you are employed & therefore not fully in charge of your schedule, but it’s essential to remember that at the heart of time management is energy management.
If you know that you have a slump after lunch then if possible either plan a meeting at that time (when you will be kept awake) or use the time for emails, standard report writing or other routine tasks. Use the times when you feel more energised for preparing projects, doing complicated calculations or preparing business trips.
If you are making international business trips, it’s also good to be aware of the pockets of “dead time” in your day: in taxis, at airports, on planes and to use those wisely. Eg writing reports, making phone calls or just sleeping (for me on planes I’m usually either sleeping, eating or working…).
However, if you are working across time zones, that also plays a huge role in your time management – for me based in Europe I have to do any Asian or ANZ meetings I might want first thing in the morning and reserve the afternoon for Europe and the Americas and Africa.
Effective time management is also important for your mental health as you have to be able to switch off and recharge. When you manage your time effectively, you create a better work-life balance so you have space in your life for the things that matter most to you. Learning to be “present” at all times is a great step forward in this. Don’t fall into the trap, especially on business trips, of being so engrossed in the bazillions of emails coming in on your phone that you are not focusing on being in the moment with your business partners.
Curiosity and continuous learning
Without inherent curiosity you’ll find it hard to work for a long time in international business. Curiosity is what helps you be genuinely interested in the business partners you meet and the cultures of the countries that they live and work in.
Regardless of your age or industry specialisation, an attitude of constant learning is critical to thriving in the coming years. Curiosity and constant learning help you stay flexible and embrace change, and they help you keep your skills up to date so you can keep up with today’s big changes.
Do you want to remain relevant to employers and give yourself the best chance to future proof your career? Adopt a growth mindset and inspire a desire to learn.
If I think back to the start of my career, mobile phones were around but not even my boss had one for business trips so the weekly call to the office from a hotel or the office of a business partner was an expensive brief affair. We didn’t actually have a PC in the department for the first 6 months I was there and believe me, preparing letter of credit documentation on a typewriter was horrible.
I mean it’s not like I’m even nearing retirement age and the pace of digital change has been picking up the whole time. If I didn’t invest time and money into continuous learning I would be effectively losing ground and I have no expectation of that changing.
International Business Skills needed to succeed in the coming years
Overall, the most in-demand skills in international business over the next decade are likely to be those that enable professionals to navigate the complex and constantly changing global landscape, while also embracing digitalisation, sustainability, and cross-cultural communication.
The flexibility to continuously adapt to an ever more complex environment and learn new skills will be essential, as the information overload is likely to increase exponentially. Whereas 30 years ago one of the main problems in international business was not being able to get any data on certain markets or industries, these days the problem is that there is such a flood of information available. The ability to sift through that and establish what’s relevant and reliable, as well as derive insights to help move your business forward will help you also to stay relevant.
In fact being able to celebrate changes whilst at the same time also managing your own physical and mental wellbeing will be key to remaining fulfilled in the workplace of 10 years from now. The business world is likely to become even more complex and volatile so remaining open minded will help you to thrive no matter what challenges life brings.
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