How Studying Abroad Makes You A Better Leader
Once upon a time, doing business abroad was unique: Berlitz and others published books on business etiquette for those venturing across the ocean, language books enabling you to order in a restaurant or to get you through a social encounter. And once upon a time, that was enough.
Today, thanks to technology and the internet, the world is global. Business is global. Nearly three-fourths of all SandP 500 companies today report some kind of international revenue. International consulting firm Egon Zehnder in its 2014 Global Board Index report shows that only 28% of SandP 500 companies generate all of their revenue in the U.S. Seventy-two percent of all SandP companies report some kind of international revenue, and international revenue as a share of total revenue is 37% – an increase of 5.5% since 2008.
But American leaders are not global. The Egon Zehnder report shows just 7.2% of companies had foreign directors (up from 6.6% in 2008), and 14.1% had directors with foreign work experience (up from 8% in 2008). The opportunities for lost business are ubiquitous - one of the biggest being the attempted take-over some 25 years ago of Honeywell by then GE CEO Jack Welch, which was finally thwarted at the EU level. Welch failed to “charm” European bureaucrats. GE immediately dispatched one of its most senior French executives to Brussels to set up an EU-oriented office.
One way to conquer this shortfall is to address it early, by studying and living abroad. Yes, I'm talking about sending your kids overseas.
"Studying and living abroad is a must,” says Alain Benichou, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in France and vice president of Strategy and Solutions at IBM in Paris. “Not just to acquire language skill, but in order to become truly bi-cultural. In a global economy even if the business is done with less boundaries the culture remains local.”
This is more than just knowing how to shake hands or which fork to use.
It is an adventure in self-discovery in which many American students do not participate. Sometimes it’s because of sports commitments – football, for example, requires students to stay on campus. Or it’s social reasons, not wanting to leave friends behind, or school programs such a pre-med that are not conducive to leaving the country. But often, the reasons for not studying abroad are more simple. “Just 10% of students study abroad, and many don’t even have passports,” points out Maritheresa Frain, excutive vice president of Study Abroad Programs at Council on International Educational Exchange, a Portland, Maine-headquartered non-profit, non-governmental tuition-supported organization created following World War II to promote understanding among countries through student travel abroad. Originally called “Council for Student Travel,” CIEE offers hundreds of study abroad programs through a network of some 350 accredited educational institutions to U.S. students age 16 and older.
“Many school degree programs do not offer an international component in the curriculum, and international study is not encouraged in general. The benefits that international study can bring to one’s career are not fully understood,” she continues. Frain herself has studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain, and worked abroad for 24 years in Lisbon, Portugal; Athens, Greece; Madrid, Spain; Moscow, Russia; Zug, Switzerland; and Seville, Spain, where she ran CIEE's Study Center for 13 years.
Not Just Finishing School
To date, the typical view of students studying abroad is still something akin to attending a finishing school, going abroad to learn to speak French – something in which only the well-placed and wealthy are interested or indeed can afford. “Kids today need something more than just good grades,” says Frain. “You need soft skills to be competitive in the work force and land a good job.”
But perhaps the biggest stumbling block to studying abroad is financial.
Participating universities offer scholarships, and so does CIEE ($3 million dollars’ worth last year alone), because no matter how you look at it, studying abroad is not cheap: a year costs something like $1,000 per week at CIEE's Global Institutes in Berlin, London, Paris and Rome. For a full 18-week semester, the tab comes to some $17,000. Even though this is an all-inclusive total, including books, lodging, most meals and cultural excursions, it’s a hefty price tag. To reduce costs and increase access to the Open Campus program, CIEE provides scholarships of up to $10,000 for students studying at multiple Global Institute locations in one semester.
But the cost amortizes sooner rather than later, say Frain and others who have been through it:
1. You learn not to “navel contemplate.” Looking outward makes you realize that there is a world outside the USA which has a lot to offer in the ways of opportunities and culture.
2. You gain insight into human behavior. You learn to recognize and appreciate other points of view.
3. You develop poise and self-confidence. You learn to be OK in situations where the outcome is not obvious. For example, in a country where the customs and language may not be familiar but you have to cope anyway.
4. You appreciate “shades of grey” in a cultural sense. What worked a home will not always work abroad.
5. You learn to listen. Really listen. Because you will be hearing different syntax, different expressions, different concepts from those you have at home.
Even though globalization and the internet have made the world smaller, and have spread Anglo-Saxon pop culture and its accompanying language world wide, there are still reasons to leave home. And that goes for Europeans coming to the U.S. for work.
“Americans and the French have a great deal of values in common,” says AmCham’s Benichou. “But when it comes to sport they live in different planets. And yet most of the non-business conversations are about sport. (Ed note: not sure if women would agree.) Imagine a French executive who masters the art of baseball. Someone who can truly discuss the statistics of his own team- for me that's the New York Yankees of course - someone who not only understands the rules but can share the excitement of the World Series. This guy has a real competitive advantage."
Or as Whitney DuBarry Hayes, a high school student from Palm Desert California, who spent a term in Paris studying international business recently:
When nothing is familiar or routine, one is able to examine, criticize, and perceive his/her surroundings wholly. A new environment allows for the creation of new ideas, which spur art and literature and thought. If one is never a foreigner and becomes comfortable in an identity, one becomes stagnant and ceases to truly live.
This article originally appeared here.