get ahead by going abroad

Wednesday 23 April, 2008

C. Perry Yeatman was featured @ this Chicago Council on Global Affairs event because she wrote a book of the same name. The subtitle of the book is “A woman’s guide to fast-track career success,” but Perry conceded that 70% of the book applies to men as well. For the record, I’m a huge advocate of Americans working abroad. I don’t think there are enough of these opportunities available & I’m continually disappointed @ the small numbers of people who seem to be interested in working abroad. I lived & worked in Germany for 2+ years, 6+ months in Poland, & 6+ months in Sweden. Each was a tremendous learning experience for me & benefited me unmeasurably in my career. Now that I understand you can be successful in ways that are not necessarily American, it opens up many whole new ways of thinking. Here are a few tidbits from Perry’s talk I don’t think you’ll find in her book:

-In Russia, she had to work with her laptop computer literally on her laptop, because they simply didn’t have tables & chairs, & this was for a big American firm

-with free labor mobility in the EU, Europeans are far ahead of Americans in understanding other cultures

-relatively larger American women may have difficulties in Asia where women are typically smaller, which spins out in many cultural differences

-Perry mentioned that most HR departments assume no Americans are interested in working abroad, which I find hard to believe

The only criticisms I have of her book are

-most of the interviewees are women employed by big American firms. There are great learning opportunities in working for foreign firms as well & these cases didn’t seem to be well-represented

-She didn’t mention that most opportunities seem to be with large firms as opposed to small

-She minimized the role of governments in stoutly protecting local jobs by making the process of obtaining & maintaining residence & work permits burdensomely difficult.

Finally, we differ on the importance of language skills. She mentions “There is no real consensus over the importance of possessing language skills of the country to which you’re going”-I disagree. I don’t know if there’s data which supports any consensus, but I believe if you work in a country which speaks a language other than your own, it’s incumbent on you to learn the local language & accommodate them rather than they accommodate you by speaking your language. “If the market you’re going to accommodates English speakers-like most of Europe & Asia…” -many Europeans speak superficial English they learned in elementary school to help out tourists, etc., but many with whom I worked were not comfortable speaking English on a regular basis @ work …”chances are most important transactions will be done through translators, so at a minimum, you can get by.”-She assumes you’re working @ a high level for an American firm, which is not necessarily the case for some ex-pats. Few companies are going to support the use of translators on an ongoing basis to support foreigners who don’t speak the local language. The purpose should never be to get by. If you go anywhere to work & aspire to just get by, don’t embarrass yourself & just stay home. Perry & I discussed this generally a bit & we both agreed that there are different language requirements, depending on your level in the organization, i.e., if you are managing multiple countries, it’s more reasonable to use English as a common language as a common denominator rather than be required to learn multiple languages for the countries you manage. However if you’re in the trenches working with locals, it’s much more important to learn the local language. Perry agreed to an interview with me, so hopefully we can delve into these issues more deeply.


One comment

  1. There is an alternative to using English or learninbg multiple languages – and that is Esperanto.You might be surprised to learn that Esperanto has an extensive indigenous culture and an original literature to rival that of many ethnic tongues. Naturally it didn’t start out that way, but when you have such a large community speaking a common language for such a long time, it’s probably inevitable that culture will emerge. People around the world use Esperanto every day for everything from childrearing to business to religious worship to technical manuals to erotica. A good introduction is at http://www.esperanto.net

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