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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

I’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.

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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