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The benefits of graduates working abroad

12th Dec 2012
Director of Consulting A&DC
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In difficult economic times, it’s hardly surprising that many graduates are looking abroad for work. In fact, since the start of the recession, there has been a 27% increase in the number of British graduates finding their first job overseas. This may seem worrying, with the fear of a ‘brain drain’ across different sectors. However, it can actually bring about many positives, not only for the individuals themselves, but for the future success of our businesses.

A recent article in The Telegraph stressed that instead of focusing on the problems, we should be celebrating the fact that our graduates have the confidence to work abroad. Why? Because experiencing a different culture can teach invaluable skills and mindsets, which will stay with individuals throughout their career.

It’s important to remember that graduates are our future leaders. They may leave the UK after university, but they will gain experiences that they can bring back with them when they return. And it’s these experiences that will develop fundamental characteristics for a leadership position, which could ultimately improve the future productivity of Britain’s businesses. So what are the key attributes of a leader, and how can working abroad help to develop them?

Firstly, a senior figure in an organisation needs to be aware of external factors around them. A fundamental error for any business is ‘group think’ in the boardroom – the mindset that the individuals at the top of the company are the experts. We saw with Kodak, for example, that its employees were some of the first to venture into the digital camera space, but they let themselves be diverted by senior management’s focus on film. The key is to be able to look outside and develop a fresh way of thinking. By having the opportunity to work abroad, graduates are open to so many innovative ideas and perspectives, and can learn what does and doesn’t work in businesses across borders.

Leaders also need to be able to respond swiftly to uncertainty and adapt to changes. Decisiveness is key, particularly when times are tough, and a lack of action can result in missed opportunities and instil a lack of confidence. The experience of working in a different country can develop an individual’s resilience, making them much more prepared to cope with pressures of a leadership position. Starting any new job can be daunting, but doing it away from home in a completely different culture is a big step. If our graduates are able to make the move, it suggests that they are not afraid of change, which is an invaluable trait to bring to our businesses in the future. 

The ability to remain cool and confident is a further trait of a good leader. In times of crisis, staff look to senior figures for reassurance, and a leader should be able to show their self-belief when it comes to achieving objectives. Re-locating to an unfamiliar country requires much self-confidence, which will only be enhanced after a successful work placement. This sense of achievement will stay with the individual, giving them the strength they need to push boundaries and go the extra mile to make a success of a business.

It’s also fundamental to be a good communicator. Frequent and honest communication is essential in top roles, particularly when employees are likely to be feeling anxious about job security and possible changes to their responsibilities. The importance of face-to-face contact is critical when it comes to engagement and retention, and after working overseas, a graduate’s levels of communication are likely to have greatly improved. They may have experienced language barriers that tested their skills, pushing them to recognise other ways of interacting; being able to read body language and facial expressions, for example, is just as important as listening to employees. 

On top of these key leadership traits, the experiences of a graduate working abroad can be fundamental when it comes to expanding businesses across borders. This is something that we’re increasingly seeing with globalisation, and it will only continue into the future. If a leader is already aware of the local language and culture, and has already built a network of contacts, it can put their company at a distinct advantage.

The rise in the number of British graduates finding work overseas is valuable for a graduate’s career and personal development, and will provide our businesses with a competitive advantage in the future. This isn’t to say that those graduates who do not work abroad won’t be successful in leadership roles – there are many opportunities to develop the key traits here in the UK. But the important thing to remember is that leadership is learned rather than taught, and a graduate needs to experience challenging situations that push them to develop the necessary characteristics.

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