Traveling for Work? Here’s How to Make the Most of your Cross-Cultural Career Experiences

Is your company sending you on a trip abroad? Whether it’s a long term assignment or a quick business travel, these tips from Drew Valentine, IBM Systems VP for People and Culture, will help you make the most of the experience.

The leadership series is a collection of stories written by IBM leaders showcasing key insights about their area of expertise, their take on the trends in the industry and technology they are working on and expressing how IBM presented an environment for them to explore their passion, develop their skills and knowledge, become experts in their field, and build their career. Read on and explore the worlds of our leaders.


By Drew Valentine

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”- Mark Twain

DV Portrait WoW valentine_drew_t80 smI’ve had many friends comment on the diversity of opportunity I’ve had during my career at IBM. While many of them have changed companies to gain new professional experiences, I’ve been able to fulfill so many of my professional and life goals here at IBM. During my career I have had the opportunity to work in 27 IBM countries and have built relationships in so many more. It has been a truly international career for an African American kid from the middle of the United States.

While each location provided its own adventure, the thing I remember most, is the people I’ve worked with in each place. In the US we think of diversity primarily along the lines of gender and race. For example, here I am seen as an African American male. However, in the global enterprise that is IBM, culture and nationality matters far more than gender or race. When I travel I’m known more as the tall, friendly westerner that is interested in local things. Exchanging ideas, understanding cultural differences, and finding a common goal is the foundation of any successful career. Cultural awareness is critically important.

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Whether it’s a long term job assignment or short term business travel, to make the most of your experiences, it’s imperative to understand and appreciate cultural differences. With that, I’ve listed a couple of tips and suggestions to make the most of your experiences:

  1. Know where you’re going. Curiosity enhances opportunity. Do some pre-work on the location and team you are meeting with. This will allow you to maximize your interactions. “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “Thank you” — even if pronounced horribly — is appreciated and shows you are open to the experience. IBM’s Country Navigator is a great place to find info on your destination.
  2. Let the locals lead. Trust your colleagues to assist with your agenda and connect you in the geography. Particularly if you are a global leader or SME. Your visit is important and a special opportunity for them as well. Take time to have a one on one career conversation with your host. Also, offer to do a talk or round table on a subject of interest with their mentees or network. This builds your brand and their status as a leader amongst their peers.
  3. Hit the ground running. Show your resilience by being prepared physically and mentally when you arrive. Don’t let jet lag derail your trip. Take a supplement like Airborne and take OTC meds along for common ailments. There are many resources available to ensure you’re ready to perform at your best. Be a role model of the global IBMer, people notice resilient leaders. See Dr. Vicki Flaherty, IBM leadership coach, latest blog post on Leading with Intention.
  4. Lots of bottled water. Stay hydrated for energy and clarity. Dr Jacqueline Lee, IBM’s performance trainer, published a great blog on the connection between hydration and performance.
  1. Try the local cuisine. Why have an American burger when Singapore chili crab goes so well with their local beer? Your hosts will want to go to a place you’re most comfortable. Ask to go to a local place you can recommend to others. It’s pretty impressive when you can tip your VP on a “can’t miss” spot to eat in another country. Also, there is nothing more bonding to a relationship like a great meal and conversation.
  2. Check off your bucket list. Take at least one afternoon to visit something special. You haven’t really visited a country if all you saw was the airport, the hotel and the IBM office. I feel blessed to have prayed in some of the most wonderful holy places in the world. Pick a place and make the time to go. Consider paying for a guide and let your host tag along if they like. I was surprised how many times my host didn’t know the history of the place we visited.
  3. Finally, don’t let your visit become the only result of the experience. Maintain your connections that were meaningful. Mentorship goes both ways and can be a professional advantage for both colleagues. I have many friends around the world that “quickly” respond to my info requests, in large part because they know I will do the same. “Let me call my guy on the ground for the facts” gets attention. A global network of followers and friends will be the most valuable asset in your corporate portfolio.

Well, that’s my story. As they say “your results may vary”, but remember you control the impact of your travels and the opportunities that await. Make the most of them. I look forward to your comments.


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6 thoughts

  1. Wow. Awesome post! Thank you for sharing your global experiences. I think it is important to immerse yourself within the culture you are traveling to. This has been my motto even with personal travel. This mindset creates global citizens who can become change agents in their communities and on their jobs!

  2. Excellent advice, Drew. Thank you for your insights. I am a big fan of embracing the local cuisine when traveling. It certainly enhances the experience.

  3. Hi Drew, great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Like you, I’ve had a very “global” career with IBM — lots of international travel and a few longer term assignments in Europe and Asia. One thing I love about IBM is the company offers so many opportunities to see and experience different parts of the world.

    All seven of your tips are great. Very useful suggestions to me as an experienced traveler and especially useful to anyone starting their career with a global company like ours.

    One item I would add based on my own experience is: “don’t be afraid to question the status quo.” Sometimes we hear, “that’s just how we do it here.” But often the traditional approach is not delivering the outcome that the country team is working hard to achieve. An outsider can be very effective as a change agent, by guiding the team to consider and follow a path that may deviate from local business practices. Clearly, this needs to be approached with sensitivity and respect. When it’s done effectively, the countries that I’ve worked in have been quick to embrace change… especially if it leads to new and better ways of doing things!

    And of course, the learning and change go both ways. My view of business, management, and leadership have all been shaped by the countries where I have lived and worked.

    Thanks for all the great insights (and photos!).

    Sam Ladah

  4. Drew, thank you for your insight and perspective on how to successfully navigate both personally and businesswise in this space. Cultural awareness, international experiences and global relationships are arenas I value and look forward to maneuvering in.

  5. Great article! Drew you always give good sound advice and I appreciate you sharing your international travel advice so widely. I agree with all that you have said and I have benefited in my travel by tasting the culture … thanks also for sharing these beautiful pictures …

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