writing assignment for Leaderonomics. Lily Cheadh, whom
our readers know and love, suggested that I write a
piece on global exposure. Thanks in no small part to my
family, I have been blessed to have studied, lived and
worked in the United States, United Kingdom and across
To pen down the enriching experiences would take
volumes, however, one of the reasons for returning home
to Malaysia was precisely to bring back and share all I
have learned and to contribute to building our nation’s
people. I hope this brief summary on the topic of
international exposure and mobility will be helpful. So
let’s get down to business!
On The Move
For years, we have not only read about the growth and
increasing emphasis on emerging markets, but have lived
through the change it has brought right to our doorstep.
With this shift has been a concurrent rise in labour
mobility, and as reported by PWC in Talent Mobility:
2020 and beyond based on research of over 900 global
companies, mobility level increased by 25% in the first
decade of the 21st century, and is predicted to grow a
further 50% by 2020.
In my sample se of one (me), my mobility level at work
increased about three-fold in the past 10 years with the
added benefits of a wealth of learning and lifetime
connections with incredible individuals in five
continents. Come to think if it, they are presently
scattered over six continents as friends and colleagues
have likewise been moving targets.
In Global firms in 2020, a survey of 479 senior
executive, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)
projects that companies and their workforces will become
larger and spread over more countries as we approach
2020. Communication across continents has become ever
more important and challenging, and while technology
provides a multitude of solutions to keep connected, I
am not the first to wonder if there is a non-tangible
cost that we not quantifying adequately I admit to
sanding out an email (or three) in my lifetime that
didn’t quite hit the mark, or getting lost in the
quagmire of three-time zone conference calls.
Most respondents of the EIU survey saw significant
cultural and linguistic barriers in the search for
talent. There is widespread recognition that localizing
management of overseas operations can benefit from the
native manager’s understanding of cultural nuances in
business practices and decision-making but two points
leadership of overseas operations needs to develop a
global outlook themselves
leadership at global headquarters would likewise
need to evolve and develop a cultural intelligence
when establishing and maintaining the company
culture and values throughout the growing
Making The Leap
According to the PWC report, 71% of millennials
expressed the desire to work outside their home contry
at some point in their career.
Before embarking on a life-changing career trajectory,
as with most decisions, it might be a good idea to take
a step back and consider your personal and career goals,
For me, the attraction of living and travelling abroad
was fueled by a desire to soak in other cultures, and to
learn how people think differently. I have a vivid
memory of attending a university event a while back
which was an excellent example of the Chinese diaspora
(before I had even heard of the term). In the same room
were hundreds of people looking like they might have had
the same Aunts and Uncles, but speaking with accents
from all over, with the Mauritian accent being the most
Yet at the end of the day, I discovered that many of the
people I met were driven by similar goals and purpose
regardless of origin or background. I qualify his
statement by saying that the organizational culture of
the learning institution, or company in which these
culturally diverse individuals self-selected themselves
to, is likely to have contributed to this.
The exposure and immersion in other countries have
enriched my life both on a personal and professional
level. It has truly been remarkable to see diverse
people with a common goal and conviction come together
to solve a problem.
What To Pack?
In the context of an environment requiring more
international experience and mobility, here are some
lessons I have learnt about preparing for the trip, and
being deliberate in what you bring back.
For your chosen field and long-term aspirations,
anticipate what skills companies need now and in the
future by researching and keeping abreast with the
developments in your industry.
With the knowledge of your needed skill set, develop and
execute a plan to upgrade your skills before and during
Keep in mind that in addition to technical skills,
companies will focus on building communication skills
and cultural awareness. As companies value the ability
to build relationships across borders, there is an
increasing emphasis on soft skills.
Change can be good
In the wake of skill shortages and changing business
needs, companies may need to develop new froms of global
mobility. Staying flexible may open up a world of
unexpected career opportunities.
Better yet, seize these international assignments with
vigour if you plan to become chief executive officer of
a multinational company one day. Studies indicate that
international exposure is widely recognized as a vital
asset (Academy of Management Journal) and an integral
part of career development.
For Deloitte, international experience-whether working
overseas or collaborating on cross-border projects and
teams-is a “must-have”.
Make the most of your international exposure
In addition to first-hand knowledge you will gain from
the new environment you will be living in, you may have
the opportunity to be involved in key projects and
access to training that you wouldn’t ordinarily have
had. Stay engaged with your teammates; listen and learn.
Capitalise on the region-and industry-spe-cific exposure
you have been given, and be sure to match these up with
the needed set of skills you identified for yourself.
In choosing how to spend your time abroad consider also
how the skills you acquire can be transferable to your
job upon your return.
Whether you plan to return home, or keep traversing the
globe, be prepared to articulate all the different
skills you have developed from your international
assignment, be it demonstrating your newfound
adaptability to new cultures and fluency of a foreign
language, or your readiness to embrace new ways of
working and your understanding of local business
Network of international contacts
One of the greatest gifts of having extensive global
exposure is the opportunity to forge friendships and
build networks. As with other networks, it may
facilitate future collaboration; however with a network
of international contacts, you would also have a
sounding board to test business ideas in different
countries and settings.
Different, different but same: Connecting with
geographically distant teammates on projects, working
towards a share goal or addressing a common threat has a
strong unifying force, not bound by culture of language.
While some caution that cultural differences can be so
important that success in business could hinge entirely
upon it, I would argue that partnerships can still be
cultivated when stakeholders have a shared vision and
These cross-border interactions open a window into
different ways of life, and threaten to stretch the
notion of impossibility itself, “Nah it can’t be donel”.
“Sure it can!”
Cultural Intelligence (CQ):
indicates that cultural awareness and the ability to
adapt to different national, ethnic and organizational
settings can be measured and evaluated. Cultural
intelligence, which is a natural ability for some, is
important for individuals and teams to be effective in
the cross-culture and cross-border operations of today.
As important as I believe international exposure to be.
My father always said that lessons can be learned from
anyone we connect with. Exposure and personal
development can take place wherever, or at whatever
stage in life we are at. Keeping an open inquiring mind,
being present and engaging with people around me is what
I strive to do on a daily basis and I hope you do too!
Cultural Intelligence and Performance
HAVING a regional role with significant exposure to
colleagues and external stakeholders in 15 countries
give or take, gave me an insight rarely enjoyed on prior
short trips or vacations. The impression I had when
visiting the same countries as a tourist was
significantly altered when I started making connections
with local counterparts.
The strong corporate culture we shared was a thread that
kept discussions and decision-making aligned. This was
by no means effortless, and results were conspicuously
diverse depending on the cultural intelligence (CQ) of
people around the table.
Martha Maznevski, Professor of Organisational Behaviour
and International Management at IMD says that CQ
consists of specific knowledge about different cultures,
as well as general knowledge about how they work. It
requires interpersonal, negotiation, listening and
cross-cultural skills, whereby cultural mindfulness or
an openness to new experiences, ideas and constant
learning is key.
In a different cultural setting, leaders with high CQs
can quickly assess the situation and make appropriate
adjustments to achieve effective outcomes in cross
border negotiations, develop an understanding of new
markets and formulate global strategy.
Revisiting the notion of technology in facilitating
cross-border communications, it is clear that CQ is
vitally important especially when we do not have the
luxury of attempting to interpret the subtle differences
in actions, gestures and speech patterns.
I firmly believe that any kind of global exposure will
at the very least open our eyes to the possibility that
the same word said (or unsaid) can have an entire
spectrum of meanings Interestingly, Maznevski indicates
that mindfulness in virtual teams tends to be higher
than it is in their face-to-face counterparts because
the virtual context helps people focus on the right
A high CQ does not necessarily mean having the ability
to imitate another culture, which could in fact have
negative connotations. Rather, the key is mutual respect
without, as a Trekkie might call it, undergoing a Borg
assimilation. Maznevski asserts that adapting is the
responsibility of all parties who care about performance
and if one person adapts, performance improves
marginally; however, if everybody adapts, performance is