I recently hopped around the world--New York to Bangkok to Frankfurt and back home--over the span of a week. I was conducting a series of seminars for a client and at each stop I had a chance to work with senior managers from across an entire region. In Bangkok, for example, I worked with people from Asia (China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, etc.) and in Frankfurt I worked with people from Europe (France, England, Germany, Italy, etc.) and finally with people throughout the Americas. This gave me an unprecedented opportunity to get a snapshot of the world. Over the course of just eight days I got to interact with managers from every major country on the globe. Here are four lessons from a quick tour around the world:
1) Get to know Asia: a European manager was commenting it had been years since his entire region had come together because budgets were too tight. When I asked why his Asian counterparts had told me they were meeting every year, he explained, "They've got India and China." Their profits are growing, so they have bigger budgets. Your career would be well served by positioning yourself in those markets in some way. If you are not ready to take an expat role, then at least stay educated and look for chances to do work that touches China or India.
2) But know that Asia does not exist: it's easy to point to Asia when you are coming from the West, but remember that "Asia" was a Western invention. But to think of Asia as one unit is to overlook the complex, millennia-old lines that divide the content into radically different countries. China is no more similar to India than Greece is to Canada; indeed they are culturally miles apart. Some economies are rising, others falling. Bulging salaries in India are pushing textile work to Bangladesh. Smelting factories in China are filling Australian mining companies with cash.
3) Don't live in the crisis: sitting in my Times Square office at the heart of New York, the traditional heart of the global financial sector, it is easy to believe that everyone has suffered as much as we have. But the news is more spotty. While the U.S. and Europe have barely scraped by, other countries are quietly coasting along. Nearly all of Asia, most of Africa, and several countries in Latin America have grew their GDP in 2009 while North America and Europe shrunk. Colombia, for example, has remained off the radar, but as companies are closing their 2010 financials, they are realizing something exciting is going on there. The markets are growing; the country is safe. (See this heat map from the CIA estimate real GDP growth in 2009).
4) The virtual organization has not yet arrived: the people I worked with were not strangers. They knew each other. They sometimes interacted daily. And yet in many cases they had never seen each other in person. Managing my session breaks was a challenge because participants were hungry to put a face and handshake to the voice and emails they knew their colleagues by. Though technology has made it far easier to collaborate across time zones, it remains still far from replacing the power of interacting in person.
Whether you are an entrepreneur or executive I believe positioning yourself well for tomorrow requires that you do four things today:
1) Become an Asia expert
2) Learn that region's complexities
3) Step out of a crisis mentality
4) Jump on flights rather than pick up phones