The New Global Skill Set
Professionals from around the world weigh in on how college students can prepare for the modern global market
Although it is located far from any national border, the University of Tennessee has adopted the motto "Ready for the World." Its M.B.A. students are required to conduct a major team project abroad, and plans are underway for undergraduates to have a similar requirement. Colleges are doing more than ever to increase the global sophistication of their students.
Duke University launched DukeEngage in 2007, a program that gets students involved in service activities all around the globe. Rollins College now requires faculty members to travel abroad once every three years, to increase their knowledge of the world and, presumably, to transfer their increased global sophistication to their students in class.
Sally Blount-Lyon, dean of the NYU Stern School of Business Undergraduate College, recently wrote a much-noticed editorial for the Web site Inside Higher Ed, making her argument clear with the title "International Study Shouldn't Be Elective." According to the Forum on Education Abroad, 75 percent of member institutions are actively trying to increase the number of students they send abroad, in spite of the economic downturn.
So what are these students supposed to be gaining from this exposure to other cultures? Some ability to be effective in the new world economy, an economy driven by technology and borderless organizations, one may presume. In this generation, even workers who never leave Peoria, Ill., may have colleagues in the Philippines or Singapore or Peru with whom they have to work on a daily basis.
These new workers will need a more global skill set than the one required by their predecessors. In an attempt to learn exactly what that skill set might look like, I went out and found people who have been successful in assignments all over the world, and asked their opinion.
First, these new workers have to let go of their preconceptions of the place and culture they are going to visit, says Bradley A. Feuling, CEO of Kong and Allan, a logistics consulting firm with offices in the U.S. and Shanghai.
"I see that many people from more developed countries still see international work as bringing their lifestyle abroad, as opposed to allowing their lifestyle to be influenced by their abroad surroundings," says Feuling, who chooses to be based in China.
He recommends that individuals set aside expectations and find a strong local partner and teacher to help them learn about the new culture and its business practices. "I would argue that a new skill set is developing, which is cross-cultural and multigeographical project management. This applies to global managers who are overseeing functions in multiple parts of the world. Here a complexity is added, that makes a person's adaptability and flexibility more dynamic." He continues, "These individuals must have strong project management skills and diverse cultural knowledge."
Michael D. Babbitt concurs. About to leave on assignment to Asia with a multinational bank, he has worked in Spain, Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Panama, Thailand, Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands in stints lasting from one week to two years. He cautions that social protocols can get subtle, and may be counterintuitive.
"There definitely are nuances, things you do differently," Babbitt says. "For example, you don't bow to someone outside of Asia, even when meeting an Asian, unless you know them and have a history with them, in which case you may exchange bows. It gets complicated."
Babbitt believes the days when Americans could ignore local customs and fail to prepare for international travel are over. "America is great," he says, "but the rest of the world is catching up, and if you want to do business with other people, you have to speak and interact in a respectful way."
While working for an international bank, Babbitt spent three weeks preparing for each one-week trip. "If you are calling on them in their country, you are expected to know something about their culture and how things are done ... it was more than just cultural preparation. I was getting ready to build relationships."
Language skills are also key, says Babbitt, who became fluent in Spanish, and taught himself some local words and phrases wherever he was assigned.
Language, language, language
Samir Prakash Sahoo also believes languages are the ultimate key to international success. Now an M.B.A. student in the Midwest, he was most recently a marine engineer for Chevron's international tanker fleet. Aboard the ship, with a crew of primarily Indian and Filipino citizens, and an even broader international representation amongst the officers, Sahoo learned much about the value of being multilingual.
"There were always a lot of languages on the boat, but English was the official language, even for the crew," he says. In spite of that, languages were critical for success off the boat. Sahoo had to engage with suppliers, engineers and technical consultants in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa, where conversations might start in English and then veer off into any of a dozen languages.
"You can do business anywhere in the world." says Sahoo. He stresses that learning at least Spanish and Chinese will get you far, "and maybe French." Some might add Arabic and Japanese to this list.
"Obviously you have to be fluent in English. Apart from that, you should be tolerant of different cultures and have a strong curiosity to learn. ... I think you have to read about other cultures, have a foundation of how people live and think in different areas of the world."
So how would you get started building a global skill set? First, you need to become business proficient in a market language. Take two or more years of foreign language. Study abroad for a full semester, not just a short "exposure" experience. Get an internship abroad, if you can at all, and then try very, very hard to get an offshore assignment for your first job out of college.
A search on "internships abroad" will turn up over half a million opportunities. To learn about transnational opportunities and foreign hiring practices, the best place to go is goinglobal.com, a Web site run by Mary Anne Thompson, who is also the author of "The Global Resume and CV Guide" and a companion series, "Going Global Career Guides."
Also, to find the U.S. headquarters of foreign companies, use the "Directory of Foreign Firms Operating in the United States." To find the offshore headquarters of U.S.-based multinationals, use the "Directory of American Firms Operating in Foreign Countries."
It's a brave new world out there, and your best future may be borderless.