When Clare Brundle left London in 2005 to work in Singapore she had already worked in Asia, volunteered in Borneo and trekked around Australia.
She was confident that her background helped her score an editing role with a publishing house. Her next move was to Sydney with Hardie Grant Media, Australia’s largest independent custom publisher. It was a good change for Brundle, and her experiences abroad were also a big plus for her local colleagues.
“My work experience in London and Singapore… [provided] me with a wider network of contacts and broader reference points that I can share with the team here,” said Brundle, now the company’s general manager and head of custom publishing.
Publishing director Colin Ritchie says Brundle’s skills gained from time working overseas has been a boon to both the business and team members. “Often a broader international view helps us with the content and style in what we publish,” Ritchie said. “As many of our publications are read by international visitors, it is important that we connect with our audience in a way that is familiar to them.”
According to a study from Brookfield Global Relocation Services, the number of employees on foreign assignment rose in 2011 for the first time since 2006. While expats have long been valued for their skills and global acumen, businesses are also beginning to recognise that expatriates can also bring a fresh perspective from which local employees can learn.
Experts have long told expats to try to blend in to local culture and befriend colleagues, but it hasn’t always gone smoothly. More often than not, expats will gravitate toward others on foreign assignment and locals maintain their on-the-ground network and friendships. That, though, seems to be changing, albeit slowly, as locals realise the value of befriending, or even setting up businesses, with their expat colleagues.
You never know where you’ll find just the right business partner. That’s what Edward McMillan learned when he met Irish expatriate Ryan McClenaghan while working for machinery manufacturer Amada Oceania in Sydney. He quickly realised that despite differing skill sets, both shared similar viewpoints on manufacturing. Both felt that while manufacturing is growing overseas, it is struggling in Australia — and they each wanted to do something about it.
McMillan, as a local, understood the Australian market and was able to tap into what company decision-makers were looking for in terms of product requirements. And McClenaghan’s experiences working abroad would assist in identifying new markets to sell to — a collaboration which would be key, the pair thought — in a successful manufacturing business.
“Ryan has worked overseas and travelled a lot so he is good with people and easily builds relationships," McMillan said, explaining that McClenaghan’s experience in the UK and Japan was helpful because it allowed the pair to implement more advanced manufacturing techniques that had been developed abroad.
“Most people would run a mile from setting up a manufacturing company,” McClenaghan laughed. “But Edward and I saw an opportunity within Australia to combat the changing manufacturing environment.”
In 2012, the two men launched sheet-metal specialist Micron Manufacturing and adopted a laser technology-software combination to quicken part production.
The company has seen substantial growth, something the pair attributes to bringing together two different skill sets, work experiences and educational backgrounds.
Of course, there’s also the more traditional cultural learning that can be as valuable for locals as it is for expats trying to immerse themselves.
Three years ago, writer Rennie Sweeney left New York for Europe relocating first to Germany and then to Vienna, following a travel-writing project on the city.
“I loved it, so I relocated to Vienna and started writing for the English newspaper here,” she said.
Sweeney said she is learning from the locals in the Austrian capital, but they too are learning from her, too.
“Our national identities and backgrounds inevitably influence the way we work, even when distanced from the immediate environment that shaped them,” said Sweeney, who is a freelancer for Spidi, a business language and intercultural training company. “Our culture is always going to be connected to business. The people I work with are often curious about American cultural variations in doing business, work ethics and formality, amongst other factors.”
Sweeney said the similarities, differences and funny surprises have been fascinating to learn from. “They always end up affecting our own attitudes towards our work,” she said.
The relaxed attitude of Americans always gets attention in Vienna, said Sweeney. “And our love of personal small talk is also always an issue... a humorous one usually. I've had phone conversations with people in legal, banking and tax offices in America and the way they just chit-chat with you so personally over the phone while talking about business seems incredible to me now after going through similar interactions here.”
Sweeney said, though, that her relaxed attitude has helped her forge friendships beyond the work sphere.
“The world is so internationally integrated that we can’t afford to live in a culturally isolated society, and I think that’s a big benefit of expatriates and locals working together,” Sweeney said.
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