“The ability to speak foreign languages breaks barriers,” says the senior manager at LumenLab, the innovation center of MetLife, the world’s largest life insurer.
In Singapore he encounters the languages Mandarin, Malay, Japanese, Korean and Hindi on a daily basis. This multiculturalism helps him view situations from other cultures’ perspectives. “This is an essential ability that every good leader should have,” says Subhajit, who earned an MBA at the city state’s NUS Business School.
The advent of globalization has fuelled a demand for executive talent with overseas expertise. Combined with the ability to speak multiple languages, such a skill-set is increasingly sought-after by companies with global operations.
“We are finding an increasing number of recruiters who consider overseas experience and cultural awareness to be a required skill set and no longer simply desired,” says Amber Wigmore Álvarez, executive director of career services at Spain’s IE Business School.
According to Mercer, the global consultancy, about 75% of multinational firms expect long-term expatriate projects to remain stable or increase in 2016/17.
“We’re very open to people working internationally. WPP has a whole range of very large, multinational clients — [such as] Unilever, Kraft, [or] HSBC,” says Frances Illingworth, global recruitment director at WPP, the biggest global advertising group, which “definitely” values business school hires, she says.
Global companies who seek international experience at the entry level often recognize that such talent positively impacts their business outcomes, says Julia Zupko, director of the Career Development Office at Yale School of Management in the US.
According to the UK’s Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), nine out of 10 companies say hiring employees with global experience improves their bottom line.
“For firms that value talent moving into global positions or other locations, a second language will often [also] be required,” says Julia, adding that for consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Company or BCG, this is particularly the case.
Mark Davies, employer relations manager at the UK’s Imperial College Business School, says there is growing demand for multilingual European language speakers. In particular, he says, companies like BP, GE, Johnson & Johnson, and GSK are looking for talent to work in emerging markets such as Asia and Latin America.
In addition to international experience and multilingualism becoming a required skill-set for a growing number of recruiters, global posts are key to achieving promotion and career advancement.
“In an increasingly competitive and global marketplace, these roles can help you stand out and strengthen your probability of securing C-suite roles,” says IE’s Amber.
According to firms polled by CEBR, the key benefits to managers with global careers are a broader network of contacts; the ability to take on more responsibility; and becoming more respected and valued by a company.
Global career experience also boosts annual earnings by £2,700 on average, according to a study by L’Oréal, the cosmetics group.
For André Alcalde, an executive at Lojas Renner, Brazil’s largest fast-fashion retailer, a global network built from an MBA at HULT has boosted his prospects. André, who speaks English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, studied in seven capitals — among them London, San Francisco, and Shanghai.
“In a business world that is more internationally-connected, it is mandatory when building an executive career to be able to deal with different cultures and understand the value they bring,” he says.
Global movers and shakers do face challenges, however. Shaswati Panda moved from an IT services provider in India to a senior post at Accenture in the UK.
There are distinct cultural differences, says Shaswati, who is earning an MBA at Lancaster University Management School. For example, in contrast to the UK, “[Indian] communications may leave some things unsaid, to be explained only by the context of the culture,” she says, adding: “Doing business in any country comes with its challenges.”
Nizar Al Schekhli worked at US tech corporation Dell in Casablanca, Morocco. The weather is great, says Nizar, who has an MBA from Italy’s Bologna Business School, but business there is often conducted in French. “I wish there were more English speaking opportunities.”
In some markets a lack of multilingualism will hold managers back. “Language barriers make it challenging for some students to reach their career objectives in China,” says Yvonne Li, director of MBA career services at CEIBS in Shanghai.
Speaking the local language is an advantage, she says. “With the growing integration of the global economy, employers — especially those with reach — need talented individuals who can work in a multicultural environment and lead multicultural teams.”
For those who adapt, global careers are addictive. Research from Boston Consulting Group found that 64% of expatriates would be willing to work in another country.
At IMD in Switzerland, many managers are trying to change geographies, says Julia de Vargas-Marquez, MBA career services manager at the business school.
IMD offers basic skills in French to employees and MBA participants can enrol in an additional foreign language elective course. “On average our MBA participants speak four languages,” Julia says. “Being multi-lingual offers a definite advantage when seeking employment.”