For many people, taking your career international sounds like a dream job, although it’s not all exciting travel and exotic food. What are the attributes for global success that are needed to future proof your career in international business?
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An intro to Michael Maeder – my discussion partner for this post on getting started in an international career
Michael Maeder is the epitome of a global citizen. Born in Macao (China), he’s German by origin and has worked in 6 different countries spread over 2 continents.
Michael is Partner of August Leadership and Cofounder of IOT ONE, a global IoT consulting practice.
Michael has over 15 years’ experience in executive search. He initially focused on Asian markets while based in Shanghai and later moved into a global role based in Munich covering C-suite, general management, regional and country heads, as well as functional head positions for clients in the consulting, industrial, technology, consumer and life sciences sectors.
He studied international business at Maastricht University and has an MSc in international management from Rotterdam School of Management. Michael began his career in supply-chain consulting before founding two award-winning consulting and professional services companies in China, focusing on clients in the industrial and technology sectors. He later co-founded IoT ONE, the market leader for structured market intelligence for industrial IoT (internet of things). He is the co-author of “Human Resources in China”.
Michael is a China Ambassador for the German Chancellor fellowship of the renowned Humboldt Foundation. He also served on the Board of Directors of the German Chamber of Commerce in China and has co-founded the German Young Leaders Organization in Shanghai.
What skills does a young person need when thinking how to get an international job?
20 years ago the bar was much lower for anyone who was looking to get into an international career. Often times people were more relaxed about the skills need and would start out teaching English in whichever foreign country they wanted to work in in the future. If you’re thinking about taking your career international, this can still be an option, however generally the requirements are higher these days.
The complexity of running an international business has really increased during that time, which means that general expectations have also been increased. So maybe in the past, language skills, were one of the few abilities that were really needed whereas additionally, these days technical expertise and digital skills are also more highly valued.
When I was offered my first job in exports, one of the prime reasons for taking me was that I spoke fluent French. My export qualifications were an added bonus, but those skills could be taught more easily than the language ability (the company had been bought out by a French company not long before). My English skills (thanks, parents!) were also what differentiated me from my colleagues when I was offered the opportunity to take care of the Asian markets at a later company. Not that the others didn’t speak English, but as a native speaker mine was better ????
In addition to that, the average education levels in many countries have improved, so there’s no longer quite the same motivation to employ an expat who might require special packages and pay or other conditions which are better than the usual ones in that particular country.
What are the attributes for global success?
Realistically speaking, anybody who wants to set out on an international career needs to have a healthy dose of curiosity and also a thick skin to accept that not everything is going to go their way & to deal with the inevitable setbacks. Having the right mindset and being able and willing to continuously learn new things is also key.
If you also have the ability to not only accept differences, and to realise that the world is not painted in black and white colours, but to also embrace those differences and to really enjoy them, then this could be a good foundation for a strong international career.
Sometimes it might seem like it’s easier for extroverts, but that is not necessarily the case, it’s really mostly down to having the right attitude. As an introvert myself (or ambivert at best) I can confirm this!
You really have to have a genuine interest in the countries that you are likely to be working with and the people who you’re meeting there though. It shouldn’t be something that you just tick off your list because you learned that you should ask a couple of questions to show your interest.
If you’re not authentic in your curiosity about the people who live in that place, and their culture, then they will notice that and judge accordingly.
So far more than the hard skills that you need, the mindset has become much more important as this can’t be taught easily.
Also your hard skills have an ever reducing half life. So for any company who is looking to employ someone in an international position, they have to look to see whether the candidate has suitable attitudes and values, far more than their technical ability to do the job. Lifelong learning is something we all have to embrace & it’s certainly among the skills to future proof a career in international business.
Languages (other than English) are not an absolute must have although for sure they will bring you greater opportunities and make life easier! Just being able to read basic signs in countries with different alphabets can be a great skill!
Where should you begin when thinking of taking your career international?
When I started out the main route to an overseas posting was to join a large company in your home market and work towards getting that lucrative expat role. That’s still an option today, but not the only one.
There are of course more ways of having an international career than to go live abroad, as you can also work in an international role in your home country and travel to your export markets, as I have for most of my career. Although, I was living the life of what could be called a “Flexpat” – based abroad, but working not for a British company, but instead for a local Austrian organisation.
There are huge opportunities for remote work in today’s world so even in roles not traditionally regarded as international you can work in a different country to your employer or clients (although that can bring tax headaches to companies if you’re an employee and not a freelancer).
Additionally there are job boards and agencies specialised on international postings and start ups especially are used to the idea of recruiting from wherever they can get the best people for the task in hand.
Getting started in an international career
Internships are great for fresh graduates
If you are just starting out, internships, especially with one of the chambers of commerce can be a great way to gather experience although you might not always be able to choose the destination. Working for your national chamber of commerce in a foreign country is a great way to see how a wide range of business models work as well as the pitfalls of doing business in a certain country.
It can be hard just starting out, as there are so many options that you almost drown in the possibilities – you need to find a way of narrowing this down.
Once you have a certain level of experience, you might need to get more creative about taking your career international. For example you could leverage your own organisation for overseas opportunities or pitch a project based assignment to a company.
Professional sub-culture communities (eg start up founders or yoga specialists) can be a way to find the right contacts to help you get started.
It’s often harder for Senior Executives
Senior executives have more to lose if they make “the wrong choice” when going abroad, they also usually have a family who has to be considered. Their experience can become somewhat of a liability because they see things in a very linear way and are more risk averse. eg I’ve always worked in semi-conductors.
In such a case it’s better to go up to a more “abstract” level and look at transferable skills including strengths, affinities and drivers. What energises you? What are the broader market trends that could fit with your interests?
Also, the further into your career you are, the more courage it takes to take the leap and make a big change, so anything that helps you to become more open minded also helps to train that muscle.
Is it only large companies who can offer you an international career path?
As with any other aspect of business there are however trends and cycles – right now we’re in a cycle which tends towards deglobalisation & this may have made some companies wary of hiring internationally. However it’s likely just a phase and there are still plenty of opportunities out there.
For large multi-national companies (MNCs) it’s their daily business to take a global approach to hiring, although they also go through cycles of hiring locally for specific jobs.
Many SMEs like the idea of having global teams, but often find it hard to manage the logistics of actually doing so (it can be a tax nightmare) or simply lack the policies to implement such an approach. Sometimes SMEs prefer to have local people for local roles as they trust that they will best understand the consumer requirements.
Startups these days are often born global. These might not be the opportunities with the most job security, but hiring the best talent internationally is 2nd nature to them.
Local companies in market (eg Korean companies in Korea) will typically hire international staff to take over specifically defined roles such as international business development. It may be harder though to find a position in say the marketing team and chances are you’ll need good language skills.
What are the mistakes that companies make when looking for international team members?
Probably the biggest one is hiring for hard skills rather than mindset. Far too many companies take the approach of looking in the rear view mirror and writing a job description entirely based on what the last person in that role did. Of course you can hire in this way, but in most cases it only produces mediocre results.
Looking ahead and taking a more people centric approach would be a better idea. This more holistic approach would mean hiring for values, strengths and affinity rather than purely on a skill set that will probably be irrelevant in a couple of years anyway. How can you create opportunities to release the true potential of the people on your teams?
Recognising that looking at things through a more multidimensional lens, especially for more senior roles where requirements are simply more multi-faceted would be a great step forward. Of course certain levels of technical, functional and managerial competence are necessary but it’s essential not to forget mindset, values and other soft skills such as adaptability.
The attributes for global success in the workplace change over time
Seeing as “life is change” it seems reasonable to assume that an international career will remain an enriching experience, even though both requirements and expectations will evolve.
You don’t have to just choose between immersion in a foreign business environment and flying in for short trips, but have options also as a remote worker or digital nomad. Whichever way, it can be really intense so regular self-reflection on your learnings and reevaluating your position is a good idea. For sure you will be out of your comfort zone much of the time & away from your original support network.
Additionally to the hard skills needed for your particular industry, language skills, digital affinity and cultural skills will remain important. Being intellectually curious and open to change as well as learning new skills will all get you a long way. Learning agility is more important than ever before as the international environment becomes increasingly unpredictable.
You have to remember that all the skills needed for various roles will evolve over time, and even though certain skills will remain important, their weighting in the mix of attributes for global success will change. Employees with international experience are still scarce in many countries so it is certainly one way to future proof your career!
You can find the full discussion here – don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel.
You can find more about Michael here:
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