Last month I was invited to speak at the Product School about my experience doing #product marketing and product management roles #overseas. I talked about a variety of reasons but perhaps one of the biggest ones is that it enhances one’s ability to practice empathy. A skillset that I believe is critical to being a customer centric product manager. The other reasons why I would recommend a stint overseas I explain in the below article that I wrote a couple years ago. Many thanks to the product school for the invitation and also to the students that attended.
Have you ever been in a headquarter based meeting when someone says, “This marketing campaign will be impossible to localize in China?” Or when a product manager says to her engineering team, “This product schedule will miss Diwali in South Asia.” One may presume that these comments are from people who originally came from those respective regions but that is not always the case. Rather they are coming from individuals who have worked abroad for an extended period of time and returned to their home country with an incremental impact to the company’s performance and bottom-line.
In today’s international economy, having global awareness at headquarters is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for survival. A TRULY global firm must operate with a deep and sensitive awareness to stay relevant with consumers in order to ultimately have profitability at home and abroad. In most cases, this has to start at the top to cultivate a global DNA across the organization.
Nissan comes to mind as a perfect example who understood the benefits of having a global DNA at the top when Mr. Carlos Ghosn was appointed CEO of the automaker in 2001 and ultimately Chairman in 2008. Before Mr. Ghosn executed his “Nissan Revival Plan” in 2001 and his “Nissan 180 Plan” in 2002, the Yokohama based automaker was losing relevance outside of Japan. But under his unprecedented leadership, Nissan relinquished the status-quo (e.g., keiretsu) and asked employees to act globally (e.g., English is now the official language). As a result, Nissan has grown to a respectable position worldwide and has significantly increased sales worldwide, most notably China.
Some may believe that having overseas experience combined with solid performance may help accelerate one’s career. While this is not always the case it is well-known that many executives in Fortune 500 companies have done extended assignments overseas before acquiring their stripes at home. Indeed, this alone is not the only reason to take the leap abroad but for many aspiring executives it could be a compelling one.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Despite the potential for career advancement, many still refrain from seeking opportunities overseas or are not aware that the opportunity — including local hire — could be available to them. This certainly cannot be over simplified but I truly believe that exporting one’s services is a matter of timing and willingness. Timing can be out of our control but obviously the latter is not. Having the willingness to go and live abroad – regardless of location — is a combination of curiosity, desire, and courage.
Everybody’s situation is unique but if you (or your spouse) need a little help to muster the courage to go abroad, I would like to suggest some obvious and not so obvious reasons you might want to know. On the other hand, if you have no plans to go but are curious about the working-professional’s experience overseas, perhaps the below thoughts will change your mind.
New relationships that could last a lifetime: By living abroad you will be able to cement new relationships with people you normally would not meet in-person both inside and outside the office. It is my humble opinion that the connections you will make with colleagues and locals will likely enrich your experience exponentially. Many people will be intrigued by your courage to start a new chapter overseas and will want to hear your story the first time they meet you.
Enhance your resume: Showing that you have worked in a different environment and produced results demonstrates a tested business acumen and your ability to adapt to a unique environment. This is not easy to do as doing business differently or adhering to business culture can be challenging. This works to your advantage and could help you in the long-run.
Benefit from the same boat effect: If you live abroad, you and your family will have countless opportunities to meet other expats and local hires just like you from your country and elsewhere. Many of these connections could likely be with C-level executives and even dignitaries. From my experience, these relationships help expatriates navigate the good, bad, and the indifferent when living abroad.
Become a champion for your region: Regardless of your craft, during your tenure abroad you will have the opportunity to become the headquarters go-to-person for your region or country. The spotlight will naturally be on and you will inevitably be able to increase your sphere of influence and establish your credibility far and wide within the organization and have a real impact.
Learn something entirely new: From harnessing new hobbies to learning a language, the cultural experiences you gain will add a new element to your journey. Naturally, this largely depends on how open you choose to be and your priorities; the more open you are, the more willing you will be to challenge your comfort zone. If you do decide to go abroad, I highly recommend taking up a new hobby that could only be learned in that country. You will never regret it!
In my case, I can say that working abroad has been extremely rewarding because of these five reasons. But I would remiss if I did not state that a stint overseas does not mean that returning back to your home country will be easy. Unless you have a guaranteed position at the home office, getting back to the mothership will require hard work and creativity. The relationships you nurtured at the home office and your effectiveness at teaching how your new developed skills can be used are two key factors that will determine your repatriation. Naturally, these factors have to intersect with business needs. Despite this reality, I strongly believe that the positives of working abroad trump the challenges immensely.