When, in 1872, Phileas Fogg set out to travel the world in 80 days he was described as perfectionist, calculating, methodical and idealistic. Were these the characteristics that got his enterprise around the world? Or was it his well-travelled, fixer valet passepartout who, as his name would lead us believe, got him through everywhere he had to go?
Much of the same questions were on the table in this year’s edition of Mundura Begira: What is it companies need for their international ventures to be a success? Well planned policies and methodical execution of these policies or the flexibility to adapt to each situation and its specific circumstances?
Mundura Begira, organised by the Basque Consortium every year, brings together all those of us who work in the field of internationalisation: public administrations, clusters, chambers of commerce, technology centres, other intermediary organisations and, of course, our companies that are present around the globe. This year’s theme was “Understanding Global Changes” and I was thrilled to be invited to moderate a round table on the topic of professional skills for globalised companies.
We started out with a keynote speech from Dr. Chris Brewster, professor of Henley Business School at the University of Reading and award-winning researcher in the field of International Human Resource Management. Prof. Brewster gave a riveting talk combining conclusions from academic research with his own extensive professional experience as HR practitioner and consultant, and offered wise lessons with the humility, grace and wit only the British master so beautifully.
For me, the idea that really stood was that the key factor for international assignments, whether long or short, is the person’s mind-set. And the best thing you can do, as a company, is to use informal methods to support them throughout. Now, he had warned us he wasn’t a typical academic, but even so, it was a bit of a shock to realise that the Pareto rule seemed, in this occasion, to be the other way around: past a certain (and apparently very early) point, all our efforts to make sure procedures & mechanisms are in place are futile. It’s more efficient to send expats to dinner with someone who has already been and come back! So then Fogg’s success came from his determination, right? His determination to prove he was right, to win the bet, and show one could make it around the world in 80 days.
I pondered this as we watched a video celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Basque Government’s international trainee programme and examined the attentive faces of this year’s cohort that had filed into the amphitheatre moments before.
Prof. Brewster and I were then joined on stage by a panel of highly experienced and knowledgeable professionals who had come to share their view on the matter:
- Amaia Arizkuren, Professor of International Human Resource Management and Director of the Master of International Business at Deusto Business School
- Angela de los Heros, Manager of the Antal International Office in Bilbao
- Marisol Busto, Director of Human Resources Chassis Business Unit at Gestamp
An introductory, ice-breaking question about the capabilities required of professionals in multinational companies led us to define an ideal (and let’s be frank, probably unattainable) profile: smart, flexible, empathetic, outgoing, responsible, digitally literate, polyglot, having travelled at least somewhat and that knows what needs to be known in their specific field! And as if that weren’t enough, staff at corporate headquarters needs to keep a global mind-set to understand how policies need to be adapted to different markets, while staff in local markets should learn to live with a minimum level of corporate guidance.
A debate then ensued about how well prepared young people are, up against these high expectations. Everyone agreed that linguistic and in particular English competences have greatly increased here in the Basque Country. In fact many companies, in the automotive sector for example, ask for a second language; English is a given. But differences of opinion arose in relation to how well-prepared our young professionals are, when compared with candidates from other countries that have been living independently and often abroad for some time, and have developed excellent relational and public speaking skills. Perhaps we can conclude that we have nothing to be envious of in terms of technical skills, but we could seek to improve soft skills that are so important in the global context.
A simple survey carried out among managers that participate in DBS’ Master of International Business and it was brought to light at this point. The most common challenge these managers face is overcoming internal barriers, convincing top management of the persistence required to succeed in international markets, and achieving the required support from other departments who often value the comfort zone offered by their local markets. This is why opportunities to network, to share with others who face the same frustrations and to exchange tips, are so necessary. And this is why events like Mundura Begira should continue to provide such an opportunity.
This led us to agree that the support provided by the Basque ecosystem to its companies, from its public institutions to all the intermediary organisations including its universities, is significant and well-coordinated. In fact, what companies value the most, is the opportunity to participate in collaborative initiatives, either with universities to provide hands on training to young students, or with government in international trainee programmes that serve to assess if trainees fit the profile and company culture before hiring them. Our guest speaker offered an external opinion, and confirmed he had indeed been impressed by what he had seen here.
Having come to the end of our session, it was time to summarise: we need professionals with a strong background to fulfil the plethora of expectations placed upon them, and, perhaps because of this, their attitude is key. It can be a lonely journey – whether you’re an expat, a young professional embarking on an international career away from home, or the internationalisation manager that hardly sets a foot at home and spends as much time negotiating with colleagues as with clients – so find allies and build teams as best you can.
As a closing note, Prof. Brewster added a final ingredient to the mix: luck! As we all nodded in agreement, my mind floated back to Fogg in his hot air balloon… He had the determination, a few skills of his own, an ally with a complementary set of skills, sufficient funds for his original plan, plus some contingencies, and quite a bit of luck. Not least because (spoiler!) having gone all the way around the world he crossed the date line, a small detail that allowed him to win his bet!
Bon voyage, zorte on, enjoy the ride fellow Foggs of the business world. It’s a life-changing experience, you won’t look back! Well, you will, but it’ll be worth it!