What do rock-eating organisms have to do with the importance of international business experience? You might be surprised.
I recently learned about lithotrophs, a type of microbe that feed off of the metal ions in rocks. Through a chemical process that admittedly is still somewhat of a mystery to me, lithotrophs intake carbon dioxide and slowly cause the rocks to decompose.
During my recent geology lesson, I couldn’t help but marvel about the importance of microbial diversity. Diversity is part of what makes bacteria so integral to our environment. In fact, it’s estimated that over 1,000 species of bacteria coexist in our digestive system, always working to protect us against pathogens and help us digest food. Outside of our bodies, bacteria assist in everything from producing pickles to cleaning up oil spills to, yes, eating rocks. And if you can break down a rock, you can pretty much do anything, right? Well, at least as far as bacteria are concerned.
Anyway, the point is that just as the diversity of organisms helps our environment successfully sustain itself, nurturing diverse talent makes companies more successful. And those with international business experience tend to offer a wellspring of diverse experiences and perspectives.
The Importance of Diversity, Inclusion, and International Business Experience
The benefits of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) are well-documented in reports such as RW3’s Global Mindset Index Study, which found that the vast majority of high-performing companies believe that Global Inclusion training positively impacts talent acquisition, engagement, and retention.
One key component of working successfully and inclusively with diverse groups—especially on a global scale—is international experience. More than 85% of respondents in the GMI reported that the international component of their company’s business was very important. This value is liable to increase as marketplaces continue to be more globalized and companies begin emphasizing stronger D&I policies.
Given the significance of international business in global companies, it’s important to consider employees with international experience as a valuable asset to high business performance. Consider some of the following reasons that recruiting for international experiences can benefit an organization:
1. Diversity Builds on Itself
D&I has become an increasingly valuable investment for a lot of companies, in part because the more you do it, the better you get at it. Not only does recruiting candidates with international experience diversify your employee base, but it also makes your company more appealing to more diverse folks. Likewise, international talent will be more attracted to your organization if it can demonstrate that it values and follows through on inclusion.
2. International Business Experience Increases Intercultural Communication Skills
People around the world have varied communication styles, and these styles can often clash in unpleasant or unproductive ways. Employees with international experience tend to be more adept at identifying differences in communication styles because they have lived in an environment where people, language, and non-verbal cues are at least somewhat of a departure from their norm. For example, it is often considered inappropriate to say “no” in cultures with a more indirect communication style. If you come from a direct communication culture, you may not understand how or if you offended a colleague, whereas someone with international experience would probably recognize their mistake because they are accustomed to observing these kinds of cross-cultural differences.
People who speak multiple languages or have had experience conducting business across languages also have the advantage of understanding communication in a completely different way. Speaking another language is valuable not only for communicating with coworkers, clients, or customers in that language, but also for understanding the subtleties of intercultural communication.
3. Diversity of Experiences Leads to Flexibility and Adaptability
In order to build a life in a new country—personally or professionally—it’s necessary to deal with a certain amount of discomfort. Upon arrival, you have to spend time learning about your surroundings, such as where to find a pharmacy, grocery store, or bus station. Even after several weeks or months, you may find yourself continually puzzled by more nuanced challenges, such as adhering to local etiquette or interpreting slang expressions.
For that reason, employees with international experience are often both flexible enough to feel comfortable with diverse situations and people, as well as adaptable enough to modify their behavior and expectations when necessary. The GMI indicates the value of adaptability in its finding that 84% of high-performing companies recognize and adapt to cross-cultural differences (as opposed to only 22% of lower performing companies). Flexibility and adaptability are invaluable throughout a person’s career—when adjusting to a new position, supervising a team, and preparing for business trips or international assignments.
4. International Experience Increases the Skills Needed to Lead in a Globalized Environment
Respondents to the GMI reported that their company spends more than half of its time on international business. Respondents also reported that employees with international experience are more likely to get promoted. In an increasingly globalized business environment, it makes sense that companies would promote the employees who have the most relevant experience operating in different types of environments.
But beyond relevant experience, it’s also important to note that the qualities I describe above (inclusivity, intercultural communication, flexibility, and adaptability) are all desirable traits for people in leadership positions. In other words, the qualities that international experience develops in employees are the same ones that make leaders successful across cultures.
As I indicated with my bacteria metaphor, diversity (and inclusion) is a powerful tool because it enables people of different backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets to contribute in a secure and productive space. Whether an employee identifies more with rock-eating lithotrophs or this bacteria with the “Midas Touch”, it’s good business to place equitable value on what each member brings to the table. Ultimately, employees with international experience are particularly well-suited to foster diversity and inclusion, connect with people across cultures, and become role models for leadership in global business.