How to Steer Your Global Career

Being a generalist isn't enough anymore. Four top execs offer road-tested advice on navigating the advantages and pitfalls of international jobs.
Rebecca McReynolds |  September 9, 2013
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Planning a career in this constantly shifting economy can feel like trying to hit a moving target. Recent estimates indicate that as many as 40 percent of US jobs and 60 percent of those in Europe are being filled today by contract workers, not full-time employees, and this is increasingly true among higher-educated and highly skilled workforces. At the same time, rapid technological advancement has accelerated the rate of change in the global economy. As a result, the average job today lasts only a little more than three years.

To help navigate this ever-changing landscape, we sat down with some of the directors of Columbia Business School’s Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business and asked them how today’s upwardly mobile managers can prepare to meet today’s challenges. Our panel includes: Tomas Hazleton, head of corporate and operational risk for Threadneedle Investments; Kevin A. Quinn, founder of Genki Advisory; James F. Prusky, a partner with Crecera Finance Co.; and Wolfgang Bernhard, member of the board of management for Daimler AG.

How has the job market changed?

Hazleton: The market is clearly more volatile, but there are also more opportunities today, particularly for specialists. The people who are succeeding are the people who are continuing to advance their skills even after school. They have differentiated themselves in some way so that even in tougher economic times they stand out from the crowd and are retained or offered new opportunities.

Bernhard: In my industry, job volatility isn’t the issue. Our projects all have a four- or five-year lead time. It takes a long time to bring a vehicle into production so we need stable teams with long-term experience staying with us for a long time. High turnover would be detrimental to our goals and our company.

Prusky: One big change I’ve seen is that when I came out of school, the way to an international career was to get a job with a large global company that had an expatriate program. Today, a lot of these global companies are hiring local people to fill key positions in international markets.

How has this changed what corporations are looking for from their incoming managers?

Hazleton: We’re no longer looking for average people. Average tenure is decreasing, and managers are trying to find the right tool for the right problem. As much as possible, firms are outsourcing or automating the routine activities and focusing more on their point of differentiation. If clients are willing to pay a premium for their skills, they are going to be looking for someone with specific skills to fill a need. Being a generalist isn’t enough anymore.

Quinn: I think people, whether they acknowledge or not, are more broadminded about the types of candidates they were willing to look at than they were before. We used to look at GMAT scores, grades, and whether candidates were associated with a brand-name company right out of college. Now we ask: Can they do the work? Will they work hard? What are their analytical abilities?

Bernhard: We need to have a broader view of the world. As a global economy, we are at many crossroads. We don’t know how the future will unfold, and uncertainty is a major element of today’s business environment. So we are looking for those people who have the ability to continuously embrace new things without getting stuck on certain ways of doing things or thinking about problems. That’s a personal trait we seek, and what we try to discover in interviews: someone who notices change coming, instead of someone who simply reacts to it.

Prusky: We look for top people in the local markets. For our roles in the emerging markets, we wouldn’t hire someone who didn’t have the local experience.

What hasn’t changed?

Quinn: This probably varies by companies and industry, but there is still a bias out there that isn’t changing fast enough. I know I still have it. When I look at resumes and see that someone has worked at five different companies in 10 years, I automatically think, “What’s the problem?” Someone else could see that person as a candidate who has been accumulating really rich experiences. That can be more attractive to some employers, and now it’s forcing me to reevaluate what I think about people’s experiences.

Prusky: One thing that hasn’t changed is that international business still is one of the most exciting areas a student can go into because the challenges extend beyond the basic business challenges. International business layers in the challenge of cultural differences, and the challenge of interpreting international policy and cross-border negotiation.

What are some key issues that can shape career decisions?

Quinn: The work-life balance has to be a key feature because it can help steer you away from certain jobs, depending on your goals and priorities. For example, to have a successful career in investment banking, work-life balance is largely out the window. But there are other industries in which you can be just as successful and fulfilled without working 80 to 90 hours a week.

Hazleton: It has to start with the personal, because the role has to be a good fit, and you have to be passionate about what you are going to be doing. I tried to get out of risk management several times because it was a back-office job, and I wanted to be a front-office guy. But I kept gravitating back to it because I’m passionate about it. And since the financial crisis, risk management has moved to the front office, so my passion has helped drive my career.

Bernhard: In a company with operations all over the world, you are certainly going to be spending time in other parts of the world, so you need to be mobile, flexible, and able to adapt to different cultures, different customers, and still accommodate that with your personal life. Family and kids are important, so both private and professional life can be challenging. We try to support employees, for instance through daycare facilities at our major locations. Overall, in our company, people who are more mobile globally are also more mobile upwardly.



The new constant is the constantly accelerating rate of change.

The only way to thrive is to be able constantly reinvent yourself, while, in a seeming dichotomy, also be able to get deeper understanding of what is important in the marketplace now.

Imran Anwar

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