Five skills to sharpen through your MBA degree and professional experience to succeed in international management
The world of international management is complex. It takes more than an MBA degree to prepare you. But, if you crave the fast pace and the big decisions, a good Master of Business Administration degree can help you develop your leadership skills, business knowledge and acuity.
Experts from IMD Business School have put together this short list of five skills to sharpen through your MBA degree and professional experience to succeed in international management. These insights come from a great deal of experience: based in Switzerland and in Singapore, IMD is a top-ranked international business school that provides leading-edge executive education open programs as well as MBA and EMBA degrees.
Our list of must-haves for international management includes:
- Alertness to international mega-trends
- Global perspectives & cultural sensitivity
- Broad-spectrum experience
- It’s not all about business
- Leadership skills training
1. Alertness to international mega-trends
After many years of thinking that globalization was the mega-trend, we are now in a period where multiple trends (and multiple theories on those trends) impact how you do international business, where and when. They even impact the what and the why – does, for example, a new trend in a particular region present a value creation opportunity?
Country lines are not the relevant borders in today’s business world. Some borders remain highly permeable, with strong trade agreements and cooperation between governments. (It’s important to be aware that even local companies in these regions are affected by the ever-changing global economy.) With some other countries, however, borders are closed or closing making trade and marketing difficult or impossible. And a country can change from one to the other rapidly.
So you have to think in terms of countries, but also in terms of regional trends, global trends, the overall geopolitical situation, non-governmental players, wars and terrorism, technology revolutions, ecological perspectives and more. It will all impact how you do business on a daily basis.
You’ll only keep up if you understand the fast-evolving mega-trends shaping the world. You need to make decisions by assessing – quickly – the big picture and then zeroing in on the most pertinent details.
Do you feel excited or ill when you think of what it takes to stay on top of global mega-trends? Being in tune with what is going on takes more than reading the newspaper and following blogs. You need strong analytical skills – and you need to use them all the time. You may start with a desire to know and understand, to catch the wave and drive innovation and business value. But desire isn’t usually enough: one way or another you must transform that desire into skilled analysis and sharp decision-making. An MBA program can be a good place to develop your foundation for that capacity. A caveat though…
A growing number of traditional, academic institutions have 'followed the money' into the MBA arena.
Let’s take a look at just how an MBA should build your analytical foundations. Unlike academic programs, an MBA program is best taught by people who have real-world experience. There are prestigious institutions out there who can give you a great academic degree but the MBA program at such an institution may not deliver learning that you can truly take with you. IMD Professor of Economics Ralf Boscheck, former Dean of the MBA program, explains: “A growing number of traditional, academic institutions have 'followed the money' into the MBA arena. They have scaled-up the enrollment of junior participants and often struggle to institutionally support faculty able to link academic respectability and business relevance.”
What does that mean? An ivory tower is just not suited to MBA learning.
For master of business administration learning to be relevant, faculty need to be firmly in touch with the current business environment. Traditional universities, explains Boscheck, “often fail to attract and retain the attention of experienced executives.” For a deep MBA experience, you are better off taught by professors who have experience as leaders in international management and balance professorship with research and consulting to top international organizations. This isn’t about laurels: ongoing contact with the business world is imperative in a world where business management practices and the global market evolve at a dizzying rate.
Yet there are other ways that a business institute can fail to deliver an MBA that provides the know-how for international management. “More and more conventional training providers and consultancies present professionals and freelancers with academic laurels and a platform to share their personal experience,” to create an MBA program, says Boscheck. These training providers are perfectly adequate for a 1-day marketing seminar or a teambuilding retreat, but their “processes and case insights seldom add up to genuine thought leadership.”
2. Global perspectives & cultural sensitivity
In the international arena, everyone comes from a particular foundation and brings unique perspectives from their culture, ethnicity, gender, professional and personal experience and a myriad of other factors. This is a good thing – diversity of perspective is powerful. It can boost team creativity, innovation and problem-solving; it can help you understand a wider spectrum of customers.
Dealing effectively with these conflicts enables a company to leverage the richness of diverse perspectives for innovative outcomes.
On the other hand, lack of openness to others’ perspectives can lead to conflict that impedes your goals, whether it is an internal collaboration on a project or a takeover of a company with a different corporate culture. IMD Business School Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour George Kohlrieser explains that knowing how to recognize and manage conflict enables you to pool perspectives to great advantage. “Dealing effectively with these conflicts enables a company to leverage the richness of diverse perspectives for innovative outcomes,” he says. “In fact, conflicts are the lifeblood of high-performing organizations.”
A study published in Forbes found that 56% of companies with annual revenues above $10 billion “strongly agreed” that diversity helps drive innovation. Frédéric Rozé, CEO of L’Oréal USA, shared how the fact that his career had taken him to numerous countries around the world helped him personally gain greater understanding of cultures and people – and how he applies this learning to business decision-making. “We have different brands that meet the diverse needs of our consumers,” he said. “Another benefit… is that you can pick up ideas from the outside and apply them to the business.”[i]
If you’re successful in international management, your career, like Rozé’s, will take you places where you will enrich your cultural and “people” awareness. But you can’t wait for it to start there.
The best young executives aiming for international management take purposeful steps towards broadening their experience. One way is to seek out assignments in other countries with your employer. And definitely don’t overlook the opportunity that your MBA studies can offer to broaden your horizon.
Here at IMD Business School, we have a special way of building our MBA class: we leverage the value of diversity in a small select group, which creates a unique dynamic, enabling the participants to gain deep learning from each other. Among its 90 participants, a typical IMD MBA class represents 40 nationalities. We’re known for this – many participants cite it as a major draw. Kelvin Khong, for example, came to the program in 2012, supported by his employer.
“I specifically looked for a Europe-based program,” he explained. “I’ve studied and worked in four different parts of the US and I did my undergrad in the UK. IMD has this European and multicultural perspective, in a program taught in English.”
For Khong and his family, living in the heart of Europe provided the breadth they’d sought. As for the perspectives from his fellow participants, Khong says: “IMD’s internationalism is extremely valuable.” And did Khong bring perspectives that fostered thinking and learning among his classmates? He was a Commanding Officer of an F-15SG Fighter Squadron for Singapore’s Air Force – so what do you think the answer to that is?
3. Broad-spectrum experience
This section is related to the one above. If broadening your human contacts is important, so is broadening your contacts with economic and geopolitical realities. Different sizes and types of organizations. Different structures. Different goals. Different geographies. The more diversity you can get in your experience, the better you will success in international management.
Recruiters feel the same way. An article in the Financial Times noted that international career opportunities are on the rise – and so are the general managers eager to fill those roles.[ii] Hands-on international experience – lots of it – is what can set you above the crowd. Peter Lacy of Accenture Management Consultancy is quoted in the article as saying that his company’s clients expect to hire people who can operate seamlessly across borders – a mindset he says “comes from being exposed to new business cultures and experiences that come with international placements.”
Where should you go to gain the right experience? Well of course with each industry there are certain cities or countries that will put stars in the eyes of hopefuls. And when you’re in a career-building mode, you may indeed see the advantages of being in a particularly fast-growing region such as the APAC region – indeed, the exceptional dynamism of the area is part of the reason that IMD established our second campus in Singapore.
Our suggestion is simple: get the most diverse experience possible. Sure, if you work in the financial sector, you may think first of working in an important hub like New York, London or Singapore. But what important insights could you bring with you, when you get to New York, if you had experience working in micro-financing in Africa? Just a thought.
Some young general managers looking to get into the international playing field may hit the “need experience to get experience” wall. You can solve that problem with your educational choices. Great if you started with an exchange program in high school, but if you didn’t, don’t worry. International business schools like IMD design their MBA and EMBA programs, as well as many shorter executive education programs, with opportunities to gain hands-on experience in a foreign context.
In our MBA program at IMD, the key way this happens is through International Consulting Projects. Since 1980, 600 projects have been done for a broad spectrum of 400 companies around the world. In teams, the students apply the skills they’ve been learning in a real-life global setting, guided by a faculty member. Aside from the IMD guidance the experience is exactly like any other international management project. Employers – they flock to the IMD campus every December – know this.
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4. It’s not all about business
The chaotic nature of the world economic environment is not only a factor of how companies interact with each other. International enterprises are influenced by and must interact with governments and humanitarian organizations – and occasionally even with “unrecognized political leaders”. Businesses and business leaders can no longer ignore political, social and ecological realities.
In this highly turbulent and dangerous age, it is incumbent on business leaders not only to be politically aware, but politically astute.
IMD Business School Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy Jean-Pierre Lehmann
“To my disappointment, but I have to say, regretfully not to my surprise, the senior editor of a well-known business magazine wrote to me recently, ‘we don’t cover politics’.” These words were written by the late Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD Business School in a 2016 opinion article. He said that business leaders are sometimes encouraged to pretend that politics does not exist. The topic is rarely addressed in business media, in business forums or indeed in business schools… but, he asked, “How much time was spent this year among MBAs in studying the causes for Brexit or Trump, among many other dangerous disruptions?”
A well-rounded business leader should remain aware of the geopolitical situation at all times. This is not (merely) a moral imperative, but a practical one too. Capitalism and the global market economy depend upon a solid, sustainable political order. Lehmann says it better: “In this highly turbulent and dangerous age, it is incumbent on business leaders not only to be politically aware, but politically astute.”
Reducing the amount of energy and materials that they use in making a product generates significant cost savings.
International corporations these days must look at sustainability as an imperative for long-term success. Many – even most – do, because profitability can be realized through basic sustainability practices. “Changing practices to become more socially responsible has not been too difficult for firms,” explains IMD Adjunct Professor of Leadership and Sustainability Francisco Szekely. “Reducing the amount of energy and materials that they use in making a product generates significant cost savings. As a result, the vast majority of companies have altered their supply and operations chain to take advantage of this “low-hanging fruit.”
But according to Szekely, it is more complex than that. Some companies take a short-term view, balking if they see sustainability as an impediment to profitability – on the surface. He used the example of banks not offering student loans because it was not seen as a “growth industry”. But if they’d looked a little deeper, they might have thought about how those students can contribute to the economy at large with degrees in hand.
Of course other companies go beyond in leveraging sustainability into business success, short- and long-term. Tesla –the most valuable auto maker in the US – is typically the first example to come to mind. The company is miles ahead of governments when it comes to emissions goals, and more ambitious than many NGOs (this is about way more than “low hanging fruit”). Szekely explains that, “far from concentrating on producing less harm, the approach of Tesla is to focus on creating higher value for its customers and for society at large.” And in this manner, the company is actually not following but leading regulatory practices and forcing other auto makers to catch up. Actually impacting the world and our lives – this can be the face of business.
Can you become the kind of international manager who looks further, deeper and more globally when it comes to sustainability as an important contributor to good business practice?
5. Leadership skills training
Have you ever stood in front of a mirror and tried to mimic the expressions and style of someone you admire? Did you feel awkward and silly, glad no-one was watching? Some leadership development books or courses essentially suggest you do this: learn about a great leader and try to mimic. In all likelihood, mimicry will at best give you a superficial leadership.
Others will tell you that you need a “leadership toolkit”. Again, the effect is superficial – and you are unlikely to be able to reach into your toolbox when you need it, at the most high-pressure moment.
But guess what? We’re not saying leadership can’t be taught. Far from it.
Not only can leadership be taught, it is an absolutely vital learning for any international business manager. Here’s a thought from 2007 IMD MBA Alumna, Anna Johnstone: “IMD taught me to lead by ‘being myself, but with more skill’. You explore your own values and skills, and maximize your strengths to be the best leader you can be. Leadership built from within evolves with you, it is more effective and your successes are more fulfilling.”
Incidentally, she feels it is particularly important for women to build their own leadership style. For herself, she feels she succeeds by building on her strengths in client relations rather than copying the techniques that work for her male colleagues.
"The data collected at IMD Business School clearly shows the positive impact of coaches and coaching on participants whenever they are used in a program."
Mark Skinner, Senior Leadership Coach IMD Business School
Mark Skinner, a senior leadership coach at IMD says he is pleased to see that the concept of leadership coaching is now a feature of most high-quality executive education programs, not just at IMD. This is particularly valuable in international management education contexts, where global complexities have created the need for very tailored coaching.Self-awareness training and leadership coaching help integrate leadership skills. During leadership exercises at IMD, an executive coach guides participants to become aware of their personal leadership style. IMD’s MBA program also includes one-on-one coaching both during and after the program, for particularly deep and personalized learning. An executive coach – exactly like a sports coach – helps you go beyond practicing on your own because their expert eye is non-judgemental and open-minded.
“The data collected at IMD Business School clearly shows the positive impact of coaches and coaching on participants whenever they are used in a program,” he says.
Interestingly, Skinner has noted that executives who have had the opportunity to hone their leadership skills through coaching are also better able to access the ensemble of their business skills. They gain in confidence, and sharpen analytical and decision-making skills that help them to spot and leverage opportunities for value creation. They are stronger in negotiations and conflict management. They are more self-aware and able to analyze the role they are playing in interactions with colleagues, clients, suppliers and competitors. This turns every action into a learning experience that further deepens and improves their leadership strength.
An international MBA program can help transform you into a global leader by using a hands-on approach to leadership skills development. Leadership development is the ultimate key to equipping yourself with a degree that will help launch your international management career.
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