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When I started lecturing on the science of managing across cultures at different universities, I began receiving phone calls and emails from students asking lots of different questions related to their potential future in international business. The question I receive the most often is: would you recommend that I enroll in an international MBA program?
When I ask the students if getting an International MBA would mean getting additional loans and getting deeper into debt, they systematically respond in the affirmative. My second question is then, “Are you fluent in a foreign language, and have you ever lived abroad?” They invariably reply in the negative while starting to wonder why I’m diverging from the main subject.
The truth of the matter is that we have too many international MBA graduates with zero sense of what it means to evolve in a foreign setting. Only a handful of schools in the United States require fluency in a foreign language to enroll in an international MBA — which in my view is a sign that those international business programs know little about the art of international business.
Yes, the monolingual student who graduates with a common international MBA understands INCOTERMS; yes, he knows what a letter of credit is; and yes, she is cognizant of what a global supply chain should look like. The sad part is that they could have learned that on the job in about six months of working for a freight forwarding company while collecting a salary instead of paying interest add eternum on a student loan.
My suggestion to those young people who are toying with the idea of going to graduate school to get an international education because the prospect of getting a job with a Bachelor’s is slim is to pack their backpacks and hit the road.
The best and cheapest international MBA in the world is still gained by living in a foreign country where everything is different, where the language is unknown, and where one must quickly find one’s bearings. This style of international adventure brings the manager out in anyone, making one realize at the speed of light where one’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
Building relationships in an environment that is totally foreign requires solid interpersonal skills that include the ability to build rapport and trust among people. Learning the language to communicate and ultimately find a job to feed oneself and survive in that environment requires discipline, persistence, humor, humility, and charm.
Learning to feel at ease in that new culture requires some serious adjustment of one’s cultural paradigms, forcing the brain to think outside of the box and rely on creativity while letting go of assumptions. It’s a tough exercise, and I can assure you that it will make anyone grow faster than a safe and cozy simulated “international environment” in an air-conditioned university.
Learning how to BE in an international setting is the best and the most efficient training anyone can get to prepare for international business in a commercial setting. It is also the most affordable. Never forget that.
For those who are not that daring and could not throw themselves into the unknown armed with a backpack and a few dollars, there is always the Peace Corps, Doctors without Borders, Mercy Corps, and other international organizations that each year enroll large numbers of volunteers in exchange for room and board. In this context, the unknown is not so daunting while the experience is still incredibly valuable.
It will not, however, force you to rely so much on your inner strength as it would if you would go alone. But that decision right there might well be the decisive first step that differentiates the true global leaders of tomorrow from those who will simply become potential international employees. Bon voyage!