I had just graduated from the University of St. Thomas and was a couple of weeks into my first job as an internal auditor for International Multifoods when, during a status update meeting, our director of internal audit asked, “Does anyone speak Spanish?”
I glanced around at my new teammates. I’d heard that volunteering for projects is one of the best opportunities to learn, get exposure and advance a career. I also thought that my few college Spanish classes qualified me, so I raised my hand. At the time, I had no idea how this would impact the direction of my career and my opportunities for global business experience.
A few weeks later I was on a plane to Caracas, Venezuela. At the time, International Multifoods had major operations outside the United States in Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and Canada. The audit committee of the board of directors had decided that, as a publicly-traded company, our corporate internal audit department should begin conducting audits of these foreign locations.
Over the next few years, I quickly became the go-to auditor for South America, and also traveled all over Mexico and Canada. Needless to say, my Spanish improved a quite bit since my three classes at St. Thomas. Eventually, I took a position as a controller in the international division and also earned my masters in international management from St. Thomas. This led to another controller role at a business unit for international trade and then to a CFO role at a start-up that had substantial international operations.
I’ve now been in the executive search industry for 15 years, helping predominantly privately-held companies find exceptional leaders. The globalization of business has been steadily occurring for years, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, the pace is accelerating. Whether your firm has direct operations abroad, or your international experience lies in imports and exports, understanding five tactics of successful international leadership will maximize your probability of success abroad.
1. Research, research, research
Appropriate research prior to a commitment of economic resources is imperative and cannot be emphasized enough. A critical component of this is having an intimate understanding of business laws and regulations for the foreign country in which you’re operating.
Domestic laws may also have an impact on your business dealings. You and your company should also fully understand the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), legislation that addresses corruption in the global financial system.
Before committing any resources, reach out to professionals within specific countries who can be utilized as subject matter experts. They will have a clear understanding of local requirements, which will include what can be done and, sometimes more importantly, what can’t be done or should be avoided.
2. Network locally
My foreign travels frequently brought me to fairly remote and underdeveloped locations abroad. Obtaining the guidance and services of a well-networked local was a necessary component of a successful project and dramatically impacted implementation timelines.
When working internationally, I frequently hired taxi cab drivers or concierges at hotels for weeks at a time. They quickly became invaluable in providing insight and guidance in the foreign market.
3. Partner with a local
Partnering with a local for relevant aspects of the project can either be a huge advantage or an extreme disadvantage if not managed or communicated properly. Clear communication is crucial and contractually documenting those expectations is necessary.
Relevant outside professionals need to be consulted and engaged. In-house resources should also be used, if available. The key is having the ability to develop effective working relationships with others.
4. Expect the unexpected
This is a mindset more than anything else. Operating internationally significantly increases the variables of a project, some anticipated and some not. Doing extensive research and partnering with locals can help you identify some of these variables and minimize the unexpected. That being said, try to keep an open mind.
Unpredictable things will happen and you need to be in a position to respond and adapt quickly. Interestingly enough, the mistakes I’ve made abroad have had as much (and frequently more) of an influence on my international career than the things I’ve done perfectly.
5. Be an ambassador
Gaining the respect and trust of others is paramount to effective leadership abroad. You’re not only representing the company you work for, but you also represent your country, which carries its own baggage.
This is where humility comes into play; you’re not going to be the smartest person in the room, nor should you ever position yourself as such. As in any relationship, you get what you give.
Show genuine respect to individuals as well as to their culture as a whole. You’ll find it will only serve you well to develop meaningful and trust-based relationships abroad. Expectations or status due to the position you hold or the country you’re from are virtually meaningless to others abroad and can be dangerous and counterproductive.
Joe Reardon '78, '93 M.I.M., is the managing director of both Finance & Accounting Search and Executive Retained Search at Versique. After working in international finance leadership roles for more than 20 years, Joe transitioned to executive recruiting to place senior-level professionals in their next great opportunities. To learn more about how Joe helps companies of all types hire critically important senior leadership, contact him at email@example.com.