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  • Writer's pictureRandy Weekes

The Right Stuff

Success begins with me.  Do I have what it takes to succeed on international assignments?  Research suggests that while 75% of us enjoy working abroad, only 20% of us are considered highly effective by those with whom we work.

We begin this series of articles by asking what kind of person survives and thrives on international assignments, both personally and professionally.  None of us has all of these characteristics – and it is helpful to recognize areas in which we may need to make some adjustments.  We go on to talk about very practical issues like health, packing and security.

Am I comfortable with "I don't get it!"?

In our own world we usually know what is going on.  In others’ we often don’t.

Those who succeed are curious, rather than judgmental, about the differences they encounter.  The world views of those we encounter abroad are logical to them and their ways of doing business work for them whether we understand or not.  Moving to judgement creates a wall between us.  Staying with curiosity leads to discovering ways to bridge the voids.  Curiosity trumps judgement.

In the same way, flexibility, adaptability and open-mindedness are supportive of effectiveness when abroad.

Those of us who must be certain about reservations, The Rules, and exactly what will happen and when,  get frustrated and are less effective in the long run.

Am I comfortable with “this isn’t going to get done as quickly or in the way I expected!”?

The direct route to getting the job done, in new places, may not lead to the best or most sustainable outcome.

Individuals with a strong task orientation get frustrated when they meet cultures in which work won’t get done until relationships have been developed.  A perfect technical fix or sale won’t happen if time hasn’t been invested in building commitment and ‘ownership’.  The best technical expert, without the right relationship skills, may not be the best person to send on a mission.

Getting the job done is important, of course.  It will be best done by someone who is patient yet persistent and not easily discouraged; self-reliant; confident; problem-solving in orientation as well as all of the things raised in the section above about dealing with ambiguity, particularly the point about being curious rather than judgmental.

A good starting point for working in a new cultural context is the assumption that many things are working, not that everything is screwed up.  Things that make great sense in that environment may not be immediately obvious to us.

Am I comfortable in my own skin?

Being healthy is a good starting point.  International missions are physically demanding.  Jet lag and travel fatigue, compounded with the norm of work starting the day after arrival, added to the uncertainties of new food and water, combined with uncertain access to medical support, can take a toll.  It helps to be physically resilient to begin.

A number of personality traits help as well.

A willingness to communicate in new ways is essential. Body language and signals may differ from our own culture. We may misread what others intend to communicate and send confusing signals ourselves.  Spoken language, even if everyone speaks English, will be different, as will world views. Empathy and curiosity are important.  Humility helps.  The people we will meet have been working in this context for a long time and we can learn from them.  Finally, humour:  if you can laugh at yourself and your mistakes, you will be in a healthier, more effective space.  It is important to check your ego at the door.  This isn’t about you.  It’s about helping others.

Those who do well have a strong sense of purpose and of meaning, a defined moral compass, and an optimistic, positive attitude.  They see stress as a healthy challenge and as an opportunity, and are prepared to tolerate the physical hardships that the mission may bring.  Self-reliance and self-directness, as a balance to skills in working with others, is also important.

After reading this you still feel you are the right kind of person and can adjust to the demands you will encounter.  What else should you think about?  The rest of this series talks about more practical concerns, including:

  • Take Two Aspirins (Staying healthy)

  • With Eyes Wide Open (Matters of personal security)

  • Good Things Come in Small Packings

  • Cultural issues and getting the job done

  • The Home Front (Leaving, communicating with, and returning home)

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