Getting Ahead By Going Abroad

January 1, 1998
While you’re busy managing human resources for your organization that’s going global, you might think about the value of international experience for your own career. Even if you don’t want to specialize in international HR, there are some important advantages to getting international experience. You might find yourself with a surprising amount of authority, for example, and you’ll get lots of hands-on experience that you can apply back home in the United States.

Besides, with more American companies looking to overseas markets for growth, there’s a high demand for people with international expertise, so it’s a good way for an inexperienced HR person to get a foot in the door. But it’s also a good idea for mid-career or experienced HR professionals who want to deepen their knowledge of their firms’ overseas markets and the HR issues involved.

From HR neophyte to expert.
Take Edward Barrall, who’s the international HR manager for Houston-based Hines, an international real estate and property management company. Barrall’s first HR experience was in 1993. Fresh from the master’s program at Indiana University, Barrall wound up in Moscow working for a small import-export company. He had studied the culture and history of Eastern Europe and Russia, mastered Russian and had a number of business courses under his belt.

In less than a year, he then landed a job at Hines, a firm that manages approximately $8 billion in real estate assets and has developed such high-profile projects as the Gallerias of Houston and Dallas. “It was an easy choice for them, hiring me,” says Barrall, “because they needed someone who spoke the language and knew the laws.” There weren’t many Americans who fit the description in the newly capitalistic Russia.

The Moscow job with Hines involved setting up a new HR department from scratch -- quite an assignment for a 31-year-old right out of graduate school and with less than a year of experience. This put him right in the middle of what he regards as the core of the HR job: disseminating culture. With Russia on the threshold of capitalism, his workforce was eager to learn the ways of the West. Barrall’s job was to articulate Hines’ culture and to try to blend Hines’ and the Russian workforce’s cultures, which made working there seem like working in lab, he says.

It also gave Barrall the chance to shine. Whereas he might have been a cog in the wheel at this stage in his career had he started out in America, in Moscow, he was the HR department -- or half of it -- and designed the HR strategy practically from the ground up with a Russian colleague. “What we did was take Western management concepts and adapt them to the Russian legal and cultural environment,” Barrall says.

Now, Barrall is back at corporate headquarters in Houston, as the new HR manager for international operations, overseeing HR for all of the company’s nearly 400 employees overseas, expatriates and local hires alike. Because of his experience in Moscow, he brings much to the business table. For example, lately he has been trying to sell some of Hines’ newer overseas managers on adopting comp and benefits programs, rather than just taking care of people individually. He already has been down this road with the Russians he helped manage back in Moscow.

“There are so many basic skills you need to manage HR that are easily country-adaptable.” What you learn abroad, translates back in the United States -- where the international HR agenda also is growing.

International exposure helps at home.
Bruce Currin, director of HR for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes knowledge of international cultures is advantageous for those in his field. “We have people from all over the world who end up in Nebraska working for us, and we’re trying to build a more diverse workforce,” he says of the 24,000-student, heartland university. “It’s important for us to know, understand and be sensitized to the values of each of those cultures,” Currin says, concurring that international experience is helpful to HR professionals in such a setting.

Simply having experienced other cultures helps HR managers with the myriad issues that arise in integrating a melting pot of international workers at home. According to Dennis Briscoe, professor of international HR management at the University of San Diego and author of “International Human Resource Management,” (Prentice Hall 1995) HR professionals increasingly have to develop a corporate glue that holds their firms together. But it’s difficult to figure out what glue will work if you don’t know what it needs to fix.

Global skills you need.
A recent Armonk, New York-based IBM Corp. study of HR practitioners worldwide identified a number of skills that will be increasingly important for future HR managers. They also identified these capabilities as showing the widest gaps between current HR abilities and those that are needed in world-class organizations. Some of these capabilities include:

  • Educating and influencing line managers on global HR policies and practices
  • Anticipating internal and external changes, particularly in finding and training workers worldwide
  • Exhibiting leadership for HR of the future and communicating that to the HR department and to the rest of the organization.

How do you get these increasingly necessary skills for both domestic and international HR managers? “One way is to study books here at home,” says Philip R. Harris, president of Harris International, an international management consulting firm in La Jolla, California, and author of “Developing the Global Organization: Strategies for Human Resources Professionals” (Gulf Publishing 1993). “Or, you can go abroad and learn firsthand. The immersion does much to advance one’s awareness.”

What’s the point in all this for HR leaders? “You learn how to become a transformational leader for the 21st century,” says Harris. That means: leadership on the cutting edge of change, innovation and entrepreneurship. “Transformational leadership is necessary to enable employees to tear down their psychological walls and transform their mindsets about the new multicultural workforce,” says Harris in his book. HR managers who can transform their HR departments with a global view can make their businesses more successful and usually advance their careers.

But if you go abroad, realize that you may catch the international bug -- you may want to keep going back. Your company -- and your career -- could benefit from the increased exposure.

Global Workforce, January 1998, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 10-11.