Help! Save My Career! by Donald Asher, America’s Job Search Guru (this article originally appeared in USAirways Magazine)
Dear Guru Don:
Help! My boss wants me to work abroad, and I’ve never been out of Michigan! Well, I’ve been to Chicago and Indiana, but that’s about it. Here’s the deal: I am a design engineer for interior air quality systems. Mainly we do particulate control for factory floor environments. We also do some work on toxic sensor systems used to monitor industrial processes, and related alarm systems. Anywhere humans are breathing compromised air, that’s a business opportunity for us.
We are restructuring our sales model. We used to sell systems abroad as a package, and only salespeople had to travel. For the first time we’re going to be designing custom solutions for clients on a case-by-case basis. Now, I will be working abroad as much as one week a month, some of the time by myself. I’m not that comfortable with customers here. How am I going to be successful abroad, when I don’t even speak the language?
I am not going to lie to you. I am terrified by this. I’ve heard some horror stories from the sales staff. I want to keep my job, but I don’t know how to do this. I’m open to new things, but I don’t have a lot of experience. Any advice?
Reluctant Young Traveler
You are not alone. Read the following letter from another passenger, and I’ll answer both of your queries together.
Dear Guru Don:
I fly USAirways weekly, and I’ve noticed that your advice is worthwhile. Maybe you can help me succeed in my next transition. I’ve been blessed by rapid advancement in my company. To get to the next level, though, I will soon be traveling to Latin America and Asia. I consider myself a worldly person, but most of my international travel has been to all-inclusive resorts. Fly in, Fly out. That’s not exactly the same thing as doing business. Plus, I’m a woman. I am assuming that I will be dealing with some very different cultures when it comes to gender issues.
My goal is an officer-level assignment, if not with this company then with the next. I’ve noticed that everyone at those levels has had a successful overseas assignment, either long-term or at least key relationship management with an offshore client, customer, or production facility. I start traveling this summer, and I’m planning ahead for success. Any tips for me?
Future Global Negotiator
Doing business abroad? Check out these resources:
Get Ahead by Going Abroad: A Woman’s Guide to Fast-Track Career Success
--C. Perry Yeatman & Stacie N. Berdan Collins
Developing Intercultural Awareness: A Cross Cultural Training Handbook
--L. Robert Kohls & John M. Knight
Figuring Foreigners Out: A Practical Guide
Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries
--Terri Morrison & Wayne A. Conaway
Global Smarts: The Art of Communicating and Deal Making Anywhere in the World
Dear Global Travelers:
In the old days, multinationals sent employees abroad for long periods of time, usually two to three years. That gave the worker ample opportunity to ascertain the nuances of another culture, and to develop passing proficiency in the local language. The employee’s family also went on the adventure. Now, for myriad reasons, the trend is toward sending employees abroad on short-term assignments on an as-needed basis. Hong Kong one week, Singapore the next, then to Peru, followed by maybe a month back at HQ in Peoria. A worker needs the ability to be an internationalist, rather than the ability to be bicultural.
One unexpected advantage for women is that a visiting woman is just considered an American business executive, whereas if the same woman were to become a local resident, she would have to fit into local mores for gender roles. This fact has been a real boon to American women on assignment abroad.
On the other hand, this new model opens the door for many, many more opportunities to make mistakes abroad. Here is one simple example, out of thousands I could offer for this article:
My wife and I were out to dinner with a Taiwanese executive. He gave us both his business card. My wife, who is Swiss, was unfamiliar with Asian business practices, and placed his card on the table next to her water glass. The ice in the water was causing condensation to form on the glass, and it began to drip down the side and pool on the tabletop, which was also glass. This business executive was more and more distracted by this, and began to stare at his business card, as this water got closer and closer to touching his card. He was getting actually agitated, but wouldn’t dream of saying anything.
I finally had to reach over, take his card, and place it carefully in my shirt pocket. Only then did he relax. A business card, in almost all of Asia, is a proxy for the honor of the person who offers it to you. It is figuratively an extension of their body. Anything that happens to that card, happens to them. You should take it in two hands, look at it for more than a brief moment, say, “Very impressive,” then put it in a secure pocket, never your wallet (you don’t want to sit on it!), as if it were the most important document you have touched this year. And you have to do all this smoothly, without looking like you have read a book about how to do it.
Here’s my advice for going abroad on business:
1. There are companies that specialize in global business etiquette. If this is a critical assignment, such as negotiating a multimillion-dollar, multiyear agreement, get your company to pay for this level of preparation. If it’s not that big an assignment, use the books in the box next to this article.
2. If you are selling or negotiating abroad, hire a translator/interpreter/driver/guide wherever you go, even if you are conducting business in English. And tip them well to gain their allegiance. That way you can learn what people are saying in sidebar conversations in the local language, which is critical to your endeavors!
3. Never tell your host, “Your English is very good.” This is almost universally considered rude. Of course an educated person’s English would be good.
4. Be quieter. Americans abroad are often too loud, brash, pushy and bold. Take your cues from the people around you.
5. Skip the night life unless you go out with a fairly large group. A visitor almost never knows the limits of proper behavior in another country, late at night, and especially if alcohol is involved.
6. Relax. As a visitor you can make mistakes. If you ask a European executive about his family, or stand taller than a Buddha in Thailand, or take offense at a joke in Australia, or blow your nose in public in Japan, your host will forgive you. The first time.
BIO: Donald Asher is a nationally known writer and speaker on careers and higher education. He is the author of eleven books, including Cracking the Hidden Job Market; How to Get Any Job: Life Launch and Re-Launch for Everyone Under 30; Graduate Admissions Essays, the best-selling guide to the graduate admissions process; Asher’s Bible of Executive Resumes; Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different; and Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why (named Business Book of the Year 2008 by national career columnist Joyce Lain Kennedy). Asher speaks over 100 days a year from coast to coast, to college and corporate audiences. He is eager to hear your career emergency.