What CEOs Have in Common

What do the resumes of all top Chief Executive Officers (CEO) have in common?

According to a study by Health Studies International:

They have all spent at least two years working in a senior position overseas.

This supports my often stated belief that international experience is positive for one’s career.

So much of what’s learned abroad concerns cultural differences. The trend toward international experience may signal how much companies now value employees who understand the differences.

International experience includes foreign language knowledge, understanding other cultures, or even travel experience. It is not simply working abroad for your company.

“If you are going to serve a diverse market, you better have on your leadership team people who know those markets, and not just from a numerical, demographics standpoint but people who have actually lived and breathed and operated in those markets,”

By developing some international experience when young, you will have an advantage later during your career. When your company needs to transfer someone overseas, employees with foreign language and/or cultural knowledge will be at the head of the line for the assignment.

Skills that move you to the forefront and positively differentiate you from your peers are always valuable.

However, while I definitely think that international experience is important to one’s career, I would like to point out two things the study did not mention.

One, to become a CEO, one needs to understand the global operations of the business. When relatively young employees are identified as potential senior management material, they are groomed to make the transition to the higher ranks. This includes being shifted between operating units both domestically and internationally.

Two, to ascend the corporate ladder, an employee needs support from multiple senior management members. Typically, stars have one mentor (also known as a guardian, protector, angel) in senior management who assists in the employee’s career growth. But to get to the very top levels, one usually requires support from multiple members of upper management. The larger the company, the more this is true.

To reach the top, it is prudent to get exposure to as many different senior managers as possible. A good way to do this is to spend some time outside your own unit. Working abroad often meets this objective.

With these two points, working internationally becomes a chicken and the egg question.

Is it the working abroad that creates the necessary skills to become a CEO?

Or is it a requirement in becoming a CEO that one needs to work abroad?

In my experience, I think there is merit to both questions.

Regardless, 75% of Fortune 100 CEOs, and 71% of their C-Suite executives, have a minimum of two years experience working abroad. So if you want to rise to the upper echelons, an international assignment may be a requirement.

I suggest you start as soon as possible to strengthen your international experience.

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