Commentary By Alan Bub, Head of Business IT, Farmers Insurance®
As a native South African growing up during the fall of apartheid, I had a close-up view of just how changeable the world can be. After going through undergraduate and graduate studies in electrical engineering in South Africa, I decided it was important to travel and see what other world-views and opportunities I could find.
This eventually brought me to the United States, where I started my career as a technology consultant at a small startup. My job sent me traveling throughout Asia and Europe; I even lived for a few years in Hong Kong and New Zealand. And during my time abroad, the company I worked for grew from nine people to over 800 employees. As my responsibilities grew, I had to learn not only to deal with employees from many different cultures, but also how to lead a team that was rapidly growing.
My early experience working in varied and constantly changing environments shaped my personality and taught me adaptability and diversity of thought. From my time abroad, I learned the value of these three skills:
1. How to reorient yourself
Living and traveling overseas forced me to deal with situations I would never have encountered back home, from language barriers to different dining customs. Personality and team conflicts, which always emerge when people work closely together, also had to be handled differently. As a leader, you are constantly being asked to reorient yourself. You have to adapt to changes at all levels, whether it's integrating a new team member or responding to a complete leadership overhaul. Living abroad teaches you how to understand, manage and welcome change.
2. How to succeed outside your comfort zone
Whenever you are thrown into a foreign culture, you have to establish new connections and develop new resources. I had to find the tools, both personal and professional, to lead my team no matter where I was. It's one thing to succeed within the comfortable walls of your organization, but it can be a lot more challenging to do so in an unfamiliar environment. Leaving my comfort zone taught me the importance of leading in a way that inspires confidence in my team members. And when you learn that, it's much easier to remind others of how well equipped they are to step out of their own comfort zones.
3. How to find opportunity in diverse settings
While abroad, I made it a point to eat in non-English speaking restaurants. It was often hard to decipher the menus and customs, but it helped me to better understand the customers we were trying to capture. Living in different countries brought me experiences that translated into business growth opportunities. It also helped me to better appreciate diversity of thought. For example, different cultures have their own approaches to solving business problems. Experiencing how many different ways there are to accomplish the same task helped me open my mind to new ways of thinking. I believe this gave me an edge once I became a leader within a large organization.
Whether you live abroad or simply travel on business, take advantage of every opportunity to experience different ways of living and working. Gaining a perspective on life and business in different countries and cultures will help you to think more creatively, adapt to change more quickly and efficiently, and respond more effectively to the challenges of our ever-more diverse world.