One of my targets for this year is to do regular LinkedIn/YouTube lives with a variety of international professionals so I was really honoured that Leonardo Marra agreed to be my inaugural guest on “International Expansion Explained” to discuss the challenges experienced by an international business development manager.

A quick intro of Leonardo Marra

Leonardo Marra (an international business development manager) in a business suit

Leonardo Marra, or Leo, describes himself as ” Roman at birth, Londoner following graduation, and Shanghainese since 2018.”

He’s a sales management professional with a background in cross-functional and cross-cultural relationships.   

Right now he’s managing the Asia Pacific region for Istituto Marangoni and Domus Academy, global education pillars for professional and creative learning in the Fashion, Art and Design fields.   

Leonardo is also the founder and host of the International Business Podcast, a weekly show where he interviews professionals from around the globe. If you work across time zones, cultures and borders, this is the show for you.

You can find the episode where Leo interviews me here.

How does the scope of tasks for International Business Development Professionals compare to domestic sales teams?

Working in international sales involves a much broader range of skills than working purely as a sales rep in a domestic market.

As I’ve mentioned before, you are not only responsible for sales, but have to also think about marketing, budgeting, administration and often logistics or product registrations as well. It’s not simply a case of taking what works in your home market and using your foreign language skills.

When you talk to people outside of international business development then they often underestimate the range of tasks which are involved. There are many specific pieces of knowledge involved in international trade which all have to be learnt if you are to be successful in the long term.

What are the key skills that an International Business Development Manager needs?

You just need to have good English, go to a few trade shows in exotic locations & exchange business cards right? Then it’s off for cocktails or sightseeing, isn’t it?…er no.

Whilst that would be extremely cool there’s a lot more to it if you want to be successful as an international sales professional.

Flexibility & the ability to adapt

Markets change, priorities change, volcanoes erupt, trains get cancelled, pandemics break out… (well hopefully no more pandemics in the next years but you get what we mean). It’s tough working in just one market but when you have say 30 on your list the problems increase exponentially.

girl doing a handstand firing a bow & arrow
Image by JL G from Pixabay

You can’t generalise about any country but you need to be able to continually adapt to differing circumstances and challenges. At one stage in my career I was spending a lot of time in Serbia due to an issue we had there but also making regular trips to China. The contrast was huge between “robust” discussions where everyone got pretty loud (shouted) in Serbia and the kind of face saving smiling discussions that took place equally ruthlessly across the conference table in China.

Learn to ask great questions

If you can learn to question everything, then you will already be a cut above the rest. By asking the right questions in a culturally appropriate empathetic way you can find out what business problems your potential partners really have and provide them with advice and suitable solutions. You become a strategic partner, rather than just “a sales guy”.

Say sorry when you mess up

It might sound cliched but saying sorry when you make a mistake (& meaning it) can really make a difference. Admitting that you were wrong about something & making sure you don’t repeat that mistake will differentiate you from most international business development professionals out there.

Especially when you’re working in an international context, you often don’t realise what you don’t know until it’s too late…

Embrace the complexity & develop resiliency

Working with distributors is complex and differs from one country to the next. This makes it hard to manage the teams you are working with as not only do you have cultural questions that have to be solved, but you are also not directly their line manager.

Embrace the complexity Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Learn about the culture

Ideally you should arrange some professional support on this topic, but at the very least you need to educate yourself, especially if you are going to live in another country.

When Leo arrived in Shanghai he was the only foreigner in his company. That means that he had to work out how he needed to adapt in order to be accepted. Having worked mainly with Europe and the US before he arrived in China, Leo was often seen as being too direct in his requests, which was perceived as being rude. He even had problems with colleagues simply ignoring his requests because they felt they were unreasonably direct. He had to learn how and when to adapt.

Enjoy the ride!

If you don’t enjoy the challenges and tasks that come with being an international business development manager then you’re not going to be successful in the long term.

Changes during the Pandemic

For Leo the start of the pandemic was the opportunity he needed to start his podcast. Originally it was a fun hobby to connect with like-minded international professionals, but it’s now grown into something more (at least more time-consuming ? ).

In this period, Leo also changed roles and now for the first time has an Italian employer (he is responsible for the APAC region) & is looking for business partners for them in Asia. However in this role, he has never left China but has conducted all the business online. This was a completely new situation for him (like for all of us), meaning that he again had to adapt himself to the rapidly changing circumstances.

An international business development manager who only travels via the internet? Yes, the skills are still needed, perhaps even more so than before.

It wasn’t so much sink or swim, as swim or brutally drown.

Leonardo Marra

It’s harder to build solid relationships in a purely virtual environment, especially when you’re working in such a high context environment as Asia, however with persistence it’s possible. Obviously the social element that you would have with face to face business trips is missing to a large extent – dinners, karaoke etc. Online drinks are just not the same & you simply spend less time with partners than if you were visiting their home territory.

Our prediction is that there will be less trade fairs in future, although probably of higher quality. If the larger expo venues want to continue to attract huge numbers of visitors then they will have to improve their hybrid options by offering new solutions.

international business development manager

Advice for young professionals starting out in their careers

These are Leo’s top tips:

  1. Look out for suitable mentors who teach and coach through stories of real life experience.
    Leo was lucky enough that his father was also an international business professional so he not only grew up with these kinds of stories, but also received support from him whilst starting out. It needs a little bit of luck to find the right ones (Leo has been blessed with 3 in total).
    If you are interested in support in this field, I offer paid coaching – just reach out to arrange a chat & I’ll be happy to discuss the options.
  2. Say yes to opportunities that come your way. Don’t say no to something just because you feel you don’t know everything about it. You’ll be learning your entire professional career so just say yes if it sounds intriguing and figure it out later.
  3. Sometimes you just need to be the right person in the right place at the right time – don’t imagine you can plan out everything. Luck plays a big role in success too, although you can do many things to tip the scales in your balance…
  4. Learn to communicate well. The ability to have a good conversation and always be curious and ask questions will bring you a long way.
    Probably under this point, we’d both add the advice of considering learning an additional language – we both wish we’d started learning Mandarin earlier!
  5. Be adaptable – this is the key to long term success
  6. Resiliency is really important. If you want to make a career in sales, you have to be able to cope with ups & downs. Frequent overseas travel can also be lonely so you need to be a strong personality to enjoy this & also self discipline to maintain your health.

If you want to hear how being able to hold a decent conversation in English and saying yes to an unexpected opportunity lead to Leo’s first job in international sales then watch the full interview below.

You can find another post about the skills needed to future proof your international business career here.

Full video

You can watch the full interview here. Sorry that the sound quality isn’t perfect – we had some issues but I’m quite proud that we managed to livestream to both LinkedIn & YouTube from Austria & China. How wonderful is modern tech?

Please subscribe to my YouTube channel too so you also get notified about all of my shorter form content.

Thinking that working with a consultant would accelerate your international expansion?

If you’d like to learn more about working with me for support on your internationalisation projects or personal export knowledge, you can book a 30 minute international clarity call here.

If you haven’t already signed up for my free e-book about how to select which international market to enter next, you can do so here, or using the form below.

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