How Living Overseas Makes You More Empathetic, Creative and Courageous – and Why it Matters
By Regina Borda, International Marketing Director
The best thing I ever did was leave my native Switzerland – along with everyone and everything I had ever known – and come to Miami to earn my MBA.
The hardest thing I ever had to do was leave Miami 10 years later – this time with my husband and three children under the age of two in tow – to run the marketing department for KFC Germany.
Coming to Miami was like gaining admission to paradise, and not just because of the lush vegetation, pristine beaches and tropical climate. I escaped the confines of my safe, comfortable, yet predictable and somewhat boring home country and landed in a world of color, flavor, warmth, laughter, music and friendship. This made me feel adventurous and free; it allowed me to connect my ideas in surprising new ways and discover different, more generous ways of living.
Going to Germany was the opposite – I went from a comfortable, happy existence where everything ran smoothly according to plan, to an environment where I had to relearn the most basic things: how to get a driver’s license, and how to get your utilities hooked up. How to deal with the fact that German supermarkets are closed on evenings, Saturday afternoons and Sundays (if you run out of milk, eggs or sugar, you are out of luck – you’ll eat Ramen noodles until Monday. That’ll teach you to plan ahead next time!). How a family of five can make do with a refrigerator the size of a hotel mini bar (and remember, you can’t go shopping on the weekends!). How to manage a team of people in a culture that is not used to implicit feedback (“you may want to take another look at this deck and consider incorporating the builds I have just given you”) and needs very direct instructions that would be perceived as insulting elsewhere (“this deck is garbage – burn it!”). I couldn’t even find much comfort in the fact that travel in Europe is so amazing and easy. Technically, I could have gone to Rome one weekend and to Paris the next, but did I mention I had 3 kids under the age of two? Pushing strollers and schlepping diaper bags would not have been a very glamorous way to explore London or Barcelona, so we spent many weekends at home on the couch. Because it was raining most of the time. Plus, the super markets were closed.
It was really tough, and yet I am immensely grateful to Yum! for giving me the opportunity to experience all this, and not because of the immediate career growth opportunities my job in Germany brought. Dealing with all these challenges made me who I am today.
I believe that frequent and in-depth exposure to new people, places and situations is indispensable for meaningful personal and professional development. Spending time abroad not only has allowed me to develop an understanding for the cultural forces that shape who we are and to more easily generate disruptive ideas – it also has helped me build the courage, resilience and strength I need when going for breakthrough results in my piece of the Yum! business.
At the most basic level, our task as marketers is to find new, unexpected and meaningful ways to connect what people do, think, feel and care about to what we stand for as a brand – we want them to not just buy Pizza Hut, but to connect deeply with our purpose at Pizza Hut.
I pose that it is nearly impossible for one to examine culture, and thus consumer behavior, if you have only ever known one culture and one way of looking at the world. It’s like trying to see the forest if you are a tree. You can only connect the dots and spot differences in peoples’ ways of life if you have a well-rounded view of other perspectives and differences. That means you need to do more than just watch a focus group through a one-way mirror.
A recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal conclusively demonstrates the link between foreign travel and creativity, as per this quote from The Atlantic: “‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,’ says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of [the study]. ‘The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation.’”
Creativity is a pretty crucial skill for a marketer – and, truly, any leader – to have. We innovate. We look at what everybody has seen before and think what nobody has thought before. We deliver excitement by connecting things in new ways and thus revolutionizing the way we live (or at least the way we eat pizza) – like Stuffed Crust. Or online ordering. Or $10 Any. Or Sweet Sriracha Dynamite (my favorite!!). The list goes on and on. You need to be creative to constantly innovate, and living in a different culture boosts your creativity.
But it doesn’t end there. To make a true impact as a leader, you do not only have to have empathy and be able to get into the minds of your consumers, franchisees and teams. It is not enough to simply be creative in the new ways you encourage people to connect with your brand.
You also have to have courage, and be bold in your thinking. You have to do what hasn’t been done before. You have to set big goals for the business, for your team and for yourself – goals that are difficult to achieve. Be comfortable with not knowing all the answers – or even all the questions — and be able to deal with ambiguities. Much like moving to a new country and realizing too late that you’re out of food for the weekend, you have to accept that there is no such things as guarantees in business or in life; that nothing worth doing is ever easy. You have to be resilient and relentless. Many times, failure is an inevitable consequence of trying something new; but you will never have truly failed unless you give up.
Although I no longer live in Germany and have made it back to the safe and welcoming shores of the United States years ago (phew!), I am fortunate enough to travel on a regular basis in my current role as International Marketing Director. I always make an effort not just to learn about the local Pizza Hut business and share know-how with our in-country teams, but while traveling, I get out and get lost somewhere. I chat with locals, eat strange foods, and inhale foreign smells. I enjoy figuring out how to get back to my hotel after taking the wrong subway in Tokyo and ending up at the outskirts of town where all the signs were in Japanese and nobody spoke English (clearly, I lived to tell the tale). I make an effort to see things I have never seen before and add them to my treasure chest of life experiences that I can go rummage in to find breakthrough solutions for professional and personal challenges.
You may not currently be in a job that requires you to travel much. But you don’t have to go to Tokyo or Timbuktu to get out of your comfort zone and build empathy, creativity and courage. Just mix up your routine whenever you can. Go try a cuisine you have never tried before. See a play, if you normally only go to the movies or ball games. Listen to a genre of music that you are not familiar with (whether country or hip-hop, ranchero or opera) and try to perceive its beauty. Befriend someone that is different from you and learn about their lives. But if you ever have the chance, even for a short while, do travel. Do live abroad. Living in a different country can be like jumping off a cliff without being sure there is a safety net in place – it can be a huge leap of faith. It’s not always going to be a marvelous, magical experience, but it always will make you stronger, braver, more resourceful, more tolerant and more flexible. It will always bring more flavor to life.
“The World Is a Book, and Those Who Do Not Travel Only Read One Page” – St. Augustine