For many of us the thought of going somewhere new on a short notice might be quite daunting. There are so many things to plan, things to learn and figure out before going abroad for that one project.
On top of all the logistics there’s usually also thinking about the business etiquette of the place you’re going to, how business is done, what’s the best way to lead teams and all that. Phew! That’s a lot! So where should you start?!
Plan your activities
As the first step, it is good to write down the activities you are planning to do while on this assignment or project abroad. Surely, you will have to do your work, possibly work with a team and move around the city, at minimum from the hotel to the office.
But try to go in slightly more detail.
What does the team you’re going to work with look like? Where are they from? Are they from the same company or it’s a mix of different people from the client side and maybe other external parties? Have you met them before?
For how long are you going? Tax-wise, are you sorted? What about work permits?
Will you have the time to see the area and be a tourist?
Are there any networking events planned already? Will you be attending any team dinners/lunches/drinks?
Are you going alone or with someone who has already been working in that location?
All those questions will help you determine where you need to put more effort when preparing for your stay abroad.
It’s a good idea to start wide to get a good grasp of the overall knowledge about the country. And then narrow down to what you specifically will need during your project abroad.
It might turn out that even though you might be going to the other side of the world to work on this project, your team members might come from backgrounds and culture similar to yours, in which case you probably won’t need to do so much adjusting in terms of working style.
However, it might as well be that you will be the only representative of your culture in the room, and this project will challenge your cultural adaptation capabilities.
Especially if you will have some time to spend as a tourist in this location, really use this opportunity to learn more about the country and city you are going to. There are so many people who claim they are so well-travelled, but in reality they only spend their time in 5-star hotels and in their company’s offices, not really experiencing the location they are in at all. You don’t want to be one of those people.
When you have your travels planned, it’s probably a good idea to read a bit more about the cultural values and, using your historical knowledge and lens, think through why they potentially might be so important or so strongly engrained in a given society. This will help you be less judgemental and annoyed when encountered with a completely new perspectives and points of view.
Keep track of your a-ha and Oz moments
If the place you’re going to is completely new for you and you are open to learning more about it, it might be a good idea to keep a travel journal. At the end of each day, give yourself 5-10 minutes to think about the things that surprised you, that made you feel uncomfortable or angry, but also the things that made you happy or intrigued. See which of those might have something to do with cultural differences or similarities. Think how you can use this reflection to make your next day richer in the happy and intrigued moments rather than the uncomfortable ones.
The more uncomfortable situations you encounter and deal with, the better understanding of the culture you will begin to get! And the better understanding you have, the more efficiently you will work within the intercultural team. It’s really worth doing if you are aiming to be a truly global professional, being able to lead across cultures.
Let’s go over one example together to illustrate all the above points briefly.
You are going to Spain for the first time and will be spending 2 months there, working on an internal project. You have never been there even as a tourist, and you have only met one or two Spanish people in your life so far.
You are supposed to be working on an internal project to improve the efficiency of the finance department. It has worked very well in the office you came from and since you have been leading the project there, the leadership thought it might be a great idea for you to also go to Spain and work with the local team to see where they have some potential for improvement.
Your team consists of 4 Spanish members of the local finance team, one member who is working with you remotely and is based in India accounting centre, as well as one more team member who is a part of the external company the Spanish office works with, who comes from Germany but lived in Spain for 10 years already. You have never met them in person, but you had the initial introduction chat before you came over to Spain.
In the above scenario, which is very often the case, you only have the basic information about the team and where you’re going. You more or less know the scope of your project, but you keep an open mind as there might be various further developments when you arrive and see the processes in practice.
You might want to start with logistics to make sure you are all set.
Do you need a visa to work in Spain? If you do, have you started the process yet? You are only going to be there for 2 months – does that impact your tax situation? Do you have your trip booked? Are you arriving at a reasonable time to have time to settle in or fight the jetlag?
Then you can move on to finding out a bit more about the country in general.
What are your first associations with Spain? Do you know any historical facts? Maybe you are familiar with some modern Spanish book authors? Find out some basic facts about the latest Spanish history and economy to understand the society, its fears and proud moments slightly better. Before you go maybe you can connect with the Spanish team colleagues already to ask them for some advice as to where to stay, where to go when you arrive, maybe even invite them to go with you?
And then you can go one step further, to learn more about the business and cultural values. This will help you make some sophisticated guesses about how you might want to approach leading this team and this project.
Using for example the book of Erin Meyer – The Culture Map, see where Spain is on each of the cultural dimensions. These are average country scores of course, but hey, what if the average of the country is on the complete opposite side of how you prefer to work? In this situation, you can at least have a think on how to best approach such differences in working styles rather than being surprised by them on the arrival. It might as well turn out that the Spanish colleagues are very similar to you and you will not have to adjust your working style at all, but as they say – best to hope for the best but prepare for the worst 🙂
What other tips do you have from your experience? What helped you have a successful assignment or project abroad?