Accidentally Global: Making the Best of It

Sometimes, your career can go global quite by accident. And how you deal with it can make a huge difference in the outcome.

About two years ago, I was on a ski vacation with my family when my cell phone rang on the chair lift. It was my boss, telling me that he really needed me to relocate to the United Kingdom for a month. Two weeks later I was sipping a single malt Scotch in my Virgin Atlantic Upper Class seat/bed/pod thing somewhere over Newfoundland.

Turns out I had been selected to participate in the secondment of a handful of US personnel to my media company’s UK headquarters. The goal was to spread some of the Internet best practices developed in the US to the UK online operations.

It was a great idea, but the reality of situation was that we had to figure out how to make ourselves useful pretty much on our own. This was a new process for everyone, and understandably, some UK staffers might have felt like they were getting force-fed advice from a bunch of arrogant Americans with irrelevant qualifications.

How did we get things going? We tried several approaches:

  1. We learned fast. It was critical to figure out what was important to each local operation and market, and not just rely on our stateside knowledge, which may or may not have been transferable.
  2. We got to know people. We held wine-and-dine meet-and-greets, where we served cocktails and presented current best-practices thinking from the US to groups of local decision-makers – explaining how it had helped our businesses back home and tailoring it to their concerns. We also spent lots of time addressing questions. These events helped make sure that everyone knew who we were, and established our credentials.
  3. We found small, solvable problems … and solved them. Once we showed some initial successes, resistance began to fade.
  4. We focused. After getting the lay of the land, we tried to concentrate our efforts on a small number of critical projects. We helped out elsewhere, of course, but we made sure the most important projects were well cared for.

Not surprisingly, team members’ personal outcomes differed vastly. I was there for less than a month, and felt like I was leaving just as I was beginning to make real progress. Others seemed happy to head home as soon as possible. But at least one person used the foreign assignment as a springboard to a full-fledged global career. His stay was extended several times, and a few months after returning to the States, a position opened up and he was tapped to head back overseas and replace the person who had initiated the secondments.

The key to succeeding in this kind of environment, I think, was to embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty: to not stress over the lack of a job description, the vague criteria for measuring success, and the incredible amount of work that that needed to be done. By jumping in and doing something, we were eventually able to do something important.