The end of the year is one of my favorite times of year, because it is a time to reflect on the past and plan for the future. At the end of every year, I set both personal and professional goals, not resolutions.
What’s the difference?
Resolutions are about starting or stopping a new task or behavior, like taking up jogging or cutting back on cake. Goals are tasks or behaviors that are specific (S) and measurable (M), they are achievable (A) and relevant (R), and they are bound by time (T). In other words, they are SMART, so that you can track your progress and hold yourself accountable throughout the year. But this blog isn’t about resolutions and goals, it’s about the impact of living and working abroad.
The end of 2019 also marks the beginning of my third year living abroad in Ireland. So I’ve not only been thinking about my goals, but also on my experience so far and what’s coming next. This is my fifth extended stay abroad, and just like the others, it has come with its highs and lows, and a lot of learning. Living and working abroad has taught me so much about myself and others, and it has also helped me grow and evolve as a leader.
My lifelong passion for travel and culture was ignited by my first experience abroad, a 6 week cultural exchange program in Spain with my high school. It was such a powerful experience, not only because it was my first, but also because it afforded me my first opportunity to think about my own identity in a more complex way. Just a couple of years later, I was off to France for a college semester abroad, and it solidified my desire for travel and intercultural learning. And now, here I am, some thirty years later having lived in South Korea for a year, Canada for six, and now Ireland.
Ireland is breathtakingly beautiful, and the people have been incredibly welcoming. The Irish love a good chat, and always up for the craic (good time, good fun). The Irish way of life has taught me to be more patient and comfortable with ambiguity. I’ve learned to go with the flow and trust that things will happen. But it isn’t always been easy, there have been days, and even months when my time here wasn’t so great.
In fact, each experience abroad has had its own unique challenges that I’ve had to adjust and adapt to be happy and succeed. I attribute most of my leadership abilities to my experiences abroad. These experiences that I have had and the lessons I have learned have been truly transformative and would not likely have happened without living and working abroad.
In our organizations today, leaders are challenged by the rapid innovation and economic turbulence; it is changing how we work and lead within organizations. Leaders must be able to lead in rapidly changing and diverse conditions, it is essential. Living abroad forces one to flex new muscles, and develop a unique set of skills that leaders today need to be more effective and help their organizations maintain a competitive edge in today’s ever changing world.
Have you considered living and working abroad? Are you doing it now?
If so, here are 5 important skills I’ve learned and others can gain from living and working abroad:
#1 Agility: When you live and work abroad, each day presents a new and different experience. Simple tasks like going to the post office or bank become complex, and one must learn deal with what is in front of them, and then develop new behaviors to be effective and appropriate. Leaders are facing new and more complex challenges every day so they must be able to be more responsive, embrace change, and deal with what is and what is possible to thrive in this new era of innovation and instability.
#2 Adaptable: In a new culture, nothing is get done “the way it has always been done” everything is done in a new way so one learns very quickly to adapt. As organizations are forced to restructure, integrate new technologies, and become increasingly more diverse, leaders must be willing and able to flex their attitudes and behaviors to adapt to the needs and demands of their environment. Leaders can no longer rely on “how it’s always been done”, one has to be willing to adapt to new structures, technologies, and people who are different.
#3 Pivot: Every time I’ve lived abroad, something unexpected has happened that has forced me to shift and change my plans. When I was in Canada, I spent a year looking for work, and wasn’t even able to secure a job interview so I went to work for myself. When we try new things, there are going to be mistakes, and often even failures. Leaders must be able to shift to a new strategy and change plans to turn things around. It is (very) often said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” so we cannot expect better results from the same efforts. As leaders we have to be open and willing to make fundamental changes to increase opportunities for success
#4 Curiosity: When you live in a new country, everything is new and unfamiliar so it is critical to ones success abroad to assume you know nothing and have everything to learn. You learn to watch, observe, ask questions, and listen. You learn patience and humility, and how to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. All of which have been vital to my ability lead international and diverse teams. The desire to learn and know about anything is a powerful skill and practice for a leader today. It opens the door to understanding others, solving and analyzing problems, and finding new opportunities.
#5 Innovate-Each time I’ve lived abroad it has been an opportunity to start something new, do something new, and become someone new. I have been able to re-invent myself by pursuing a master’s degree, starting a business, making new relationships, and contributing to new communities. I have had to be creative and adventurous, and willing to explore and do something new to add value to my experience abroad, and my own personal and professional development. Living and working abroad teaches leaders to execute new ideas that address real challenges that make a difference and an impact.
So if you are currently living and working abroad, make note of the challenges you are experiencing, and how they can be used to help you grow and increase your impact as a leader. If you haven’t had the opportunity to work or live abroad then it may be a goal you want to set for the next year or two. There are a growing number of opportunities to live and work abroad, to help you increase your leadership competencies.
In today’s global world, living and working abroad may be exactly what it takes to become an effective global leader.