This short essay has a different take on the importance – or non-importance – of international experience.

Those who work for businesses involved in international trade, including outsourcing services and production to other countries, are more likely to rely on international knowledge than a strictly local business.

A local retail or service business within a city in the U.S. might not see much business advantage to having international knowledge and skills – because their business is strictly local. They might not even purchase or use products or services from abroad, and if they do, they may not even realize they are engaged in international trade.

The counterpoint to that is my own field – software product development. Our products and services have global markets, global customers, and often rely on outsourcing work to other countries – or purchasing products or components from teams in other countries. Development often involves working in collaboration with other teams, other companies, and international standards groups. Our work crosses borders in all directions. Compare that to a local business: the “global skill” requirements are clearly different.

Learning to Think “Big”

A related issue is that in some industries (software being a reasonable example), thinking “big” is an important attribute. People who “think big” can see grand scale business opportunities, often global opportunities that are huge.

By comparison, I tended to see only the domestic market and not the international market – because I had little vision or insight extending beyond our domestic borders.

International experience delivers knowledge and skills that, I suspect, lead to seeing “big picture” opportunities better than those who do not have that background. Indeed, this is likely why, in my field, 100% of my colleagues who moved up had international skillsets. They saw the bigger picture and the larger opportunities.

Whether or not this skillset is important to you depends upon

  • What type of business are you in? Some businesses really are local businesses and do not have a need to be in international market. In fact, time spent developing international skills might even be a waste of time with no pay off. Those developing products or services capable of remote delivery with international expansion opportunities, on the other hand, may find global thinking as an essential requirement.
  • What is your role in the business? Even within a multi-national operation, your own role may be limited to functions in the local office. At first glance, this suggests you may not need global skills. But – what if you wish to advance in that organization? Then you will need a global mindset.

Expanding our World View

I did not earn an M.B.A. degree until I was 41 years old. Whether you earn a degree in law, nursing, medicine, engineering, business – you are trained to “think like a lawyer”, “think like a nurse”, “think like a doctor”, “think like an engineer”, “think like an MBA”.

I had been taught to think like a computer or software engineer – and you begin to believe that everything in life can be solved with more software! Literally, everything in your view becomes a software problem! Sort of like the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail! So true!

When I earned the M.B.A., I learned how see different kinds of opportunities and that some problems are not software problems at all! This may sound funny, but this is typical of many professionals who are highly trained within their own field – everything is colored by how they view the world around them. The M.B.A. degree taught me how to “think differently” than how I thought as a trained software engineer.

The point here is we all become focused on our own fields to the point that our views are narrower than we realize. This can be overcome, in some situations, by ensuring diverse teams. But not all work is done in teams.

For many organizations – and fields of study or activities – a global mindset increases one’s perspectives and diversity of ideas. It may also lead to seeing “bigger opportunities” by having a global skillset.

The evidence indicates those working in “Global businesses” are more likely to advance their careers if they have global skills and global thinking ability.

At the bottom line, global skills may not be critical for all businesses and all skillsets, but for many businesses – including those where it may not be obvious at first – global thinking is critical to success.

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