I have never had a very easy time learning foreign languages. Not for want of trying. Starting in junior high I struggled through seven years of Spanish, which is supposed to be one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to pick up. I memorized vocabulary and the conditional and subjunctive verb tenses, and could eventually read well enough to understand the gist of things. But speaking never came easy, probably because I never used it much outside of the classroom.
Language was just one of many challenges faced by Dan Ellens and his family when they moved to India back in the mid-1990s, before the country's economy really took off (See "India Gears Up," pages 1 and 17). Ellens was tasked with building up the manufacturing capacity and establishing world-class quality standards for Jervis B. Webb Company's nascent operations there. Webb makes conveyors and other material handling equipment. At the end of our interview—despite going weeks without milk or sugar and enduring several months of nausea and headaches from the antimalaria medication he took—Ellens said his two years in Bangalore was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
More plentiful in operations and logistics than in other management functions, such experience is what corporations look for today when hiring future leaders. It's a global economy with global supply chains, global market opportunities and global customers. The people managing such activities must have a global perspective. In addition to an advanced degree in business, finance or some other field, international experience can be the ticket up the corporate ladder. In fact, many of today's top companies require such experience before applicants will even be considered for key leadership positions.
Of course such opportunities don't come along every day. You have to be prepared to jump at the chance when you get it, and be willing to accept the disruption such a move brings. Once the decision was made to go, within three weeks Ellens and his family had sold their house, packed up their belongings, traveled to India and his children were enrolled in a new school.
International experience can have wider benefits than your career. I remember the pride in his voice when another expatriate, a manager for a U.S. appliance manufacturer, shared a story with me about his son. We were having one of those "stranger in a familiar land" moments, drinking Heineken in an Irish pub in Shanghai, listening to a Filipino band cover Madonna songs and watching the British Open on TV. He talked about how his son had taken to bargaining with vendors in the local Mandarin dialect at one of the local "night markets" over video games and Pokemon cards.
Even if you never pull up stakes and move your whole family abroad for an extended period of time, international trips that go beyond sight-seeing, when you get a glimpse of how other people live and work and think, can provide valuable perspective that make you a better manager and businessperson. It's amazing how quickly the assumptions we live by come unglued, and the personal resourcefulness that's then unleashed, when you are confronted by daily power blackouts, taxicab drivers taking the long way around, or the urgent need to find a doctor with whom you can communicate.
Which brings me back to learning to speak Spanish. Beside the occasional trip to Mexico, I regret never having had the chance to really apply my language knowledge. No matter what you've studied, or how well (or mediocre) you've done in school, real-world experience brings those lessons home. Especially if you're on the other side of the globe.