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US Fortune 100 CEO’s working overseas

Friday 6 August, 2010

I caught this very interesting & encouraging article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune & US News & World Report What the resumes of top CEOs have in common What the Résumés of Top CEOs Have in Common by Liz Wolgemuth (love her name, by the way & I do wonder why it took the Tribune 2+ months to pick up the article from US News & World Report).  As you might know, I rail incessantly about American’s lack of deep & meaningful experience living & working abroad.  In a sense, this article validates the value of those out-of-country experiences.

I’m impressed that nearly 3/4 of Fortune 100 CEO’s have at least 2 years working overseas & that other C-level execs have  embraced this kind of experience (48%->71% in last 10 years) as well. They’ve really dug in & addressed some issues.  Many parachute in, do a deal, & think they know the lay of the land.  That leads to many misperceptions, but that’s not what’s happening here.  These guys have been going to the office every day dealing with local issues on an ongoing basis, all of which can be radically different from how we do it in the U.S.  I was talking with a T’bird friend who just returned from 3 years in Thailand.  His comment was, “Until you have that kind of experience, you just don’t know how different the business world is elsewhere.”

This begs many more questions.  I tried to go to the source, Healthy Companies Research Institute but there was nothing helpful there.  I want to know:  Where did they work?  English-speaking countries or did they have to learn foreign languages?  Developed or developing countries?  Does the same hold for companies smaller than Fortune 100 companies?  What did they learn from these experiences?  Would they recommend this experience earlier or later in your career?  Did they go abroad as ex-patriots or hired as a local?  Each of these different dimensions lead to different experiences, so I’d be interested to learn their takes in each direction.

I can understand where 20 years ago, a foreign assignment took you off the management track.  Communications were not nearly as cheap & easy as they are today-I had to wait until Tuesday mornings to pick up an English-speaking newspaper to get my Sunday NFL football scores when I lived in Germany 25 years ago.  I’m not so sure I believe the American HQ’s thought they had all the answers or that foreign subsidiaries became versatile & creative.  I also am skeptical of U.S. business schools ramping up partnerships with foreign business schools & then calling themselves international.  I think American firms continue to try to export their supposedly superior (& imperialistic) business methods & when others push back, there is a learning exchange that happens & both sides adjust to 1 another.  Businesses have to adjust to different business cultures while MBA schools need to adapt their curricula in every country in which they operate.

It creates hope for globalists who’ve gathered experience from the far corners of the world that companies are now supposedly seeking people with overseas experience.  I was talking with another T’bird friend awhile ago & she said, “We’re freaks.  American businesspeople don’t know what to do with our international experience.   They’re intimidated by our foreign experience & afraid that we know more about other places than they do & that threatens them.”  Frankly I haven’t seen these opportunities much yet, but if the author says it’s true, I hope it is.  As usual, they oversimplify cultural differences, but that’s what everyone seems to do.  Now if we can just get corporate boards of directors to reflect the global diversity of their demand & supply chains, we might create truly globally-aware corporations.

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