I’ve had the really good fortune of traveling internationally for a good chunk of my career. It’s been a career filled with humbling and tremendous learning, derived from surviving the potent mix of immigration/border security lines, horrific plane meals, and profound cases of jet lag. In fact, I would go so far as to say that traveling internationally has played a larger part in my growth and development as an HR professional and leader than any other training I have ever received.
Now this isn’t a diss on those who choose to live and work for domestic companies within a small geographic radius of where they live for their entire career, but rather an acknowledgment of the significant role that international travel and working for global companies has had on widening and deepening (for the better) my perspective and capabilities as a leader/HR professional.
Initially, the prospect of learning how HR/talent works in a country other than your own seems quite daunting, especially considering that I was up to my eyeballs in learning the HR best practices here in the United States. And in that “other country” within our own borders otherwise referred to as California.
But looking back, working with and leading teams all over the world has been both a privilege and blessing for me on all counts, and has taught me several important lessons which I would like to share.
So with screen time to burn while enduring a long overseas flight (the movie selections were terrible), I had the opportunity to reflect on and document a short list of the biggest and most important lessons that I have learned from working with global companies and the accompanying international travel that comes with them.
Drum roll, please…
- Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable – when I first started traveling internationally I was very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and anxious because I didn’t know what to say or do. So, being thrust into an environment of discomfort I opted to listen and watch a lot more than I talked and acted, and that ended up being a really good thing. This was especially good behavior for me (and possibly for you) as a typical bold and brash American.
- Seeing first-hand the strength that comes from diversity – I grew up in one of the most homogeneous places on the planet – Iowa. A place where there were more versions of white than you could find in the paint section at Home Depot. Traveling internationally to world cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, and yes, even New York here in the states opened my eyes to how beautiful and powerful diversity is. And how magical it can be when people from all places on earth come together to achieve a common mission.
- Reinforcing that “it’s all about relationships” – when I first started traveling internationally I realized the huge difference between how easy it was to develop a relationship face to face versus establishing a similar connection virtually. Eyeball to eyeball isn’t just the way you make sales, it’s the way people develop and forge strong relationships. No online social network in the world can compete. Travel creates an opportunity for you to get to know your colleagues so much better than through email, IM, or even an extended teleconference. And developing stronger relationships will make you a better HR pro, just like it did for me.
- Less is more, and space is a premium – I learned this lesson before my first international trip even began. While packing I was initially attracted to the thought of not having to check a bag. But then I laid out what I might need like any good boy scout and the next thing I knew I found myself at the airport gazing with envy at the person just ahead of me in line. Why? Because they managed to pack nothing more than a small duffel (like a true world traveler) while I was attempting to check and carry on the baggage equivalent of an RV without a motor. Pack light and be nimble. Trust me, your overhead bin and international hotel room won’t accommodate that monster suitcase anyway.
- Appreciation for what you have – nothing will give you an appreciation for what you have and enjoy in your home country more than hitting the road. Doesn’t matter where your home is or how exotic your travel destination might have been. When you land on home soil, drive on the right side of the road again, pull into your garage to be welcomed by your spouse, dog, and maybe even your kids, and then climb into your own bed that night – you’ll realize all those things you missed about the creature comforts of home. Even if it means shoveling the driveway.
So aside from other small lessons I could offer like “going to the bathroom isn’t always free” and “donuts for a flight snack are 10x better than pretzels” I want to leave you with the most important lesson of all. NEVER turn down any opportunity to travel abroad professionally.
Quite simply, it’s a development opportunity like no other.
Ed’s a career HR front man who’s advised business owners and the C-suite on developing great cultures and inspiring work environments since the profession was called “personnel.” Yeah, that makes him seasoned but also quick to call out the fluffy HR theoretical crap from HR strategies that actually work.
His versatility has taken him all over the world, continually acquiring knowledge of how to build a great company through innovative HR practices, learning mostly from real world experience and his own mistakes.
He’s the founder of HRO Partners, a HR consulting firm that specializes in guiding leaders on what they need and don’t need from HR for their business.