Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Skilling up: Benefits of working abroad

When Peter Lynas, the CFO of BAE Systems, was offered a chance to work in Spain for a couple of years in the very early days of his career, he grabbed it immediately.

As a junior accountant working for banknote printer De La Rue, the chance came because the group also ran the processing equipment for the country’s lottery El Gordo.

Lynas says: “It was character building. I went in 1981 when I was 23, so it gave me a level of confidence in myself, in my ability to be way outside of my comfort zone, from a language perspective. When I went out there I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, but I could by the time I finished two years later,” he says.

“It was a great experience and I’d recommend to anyone getting a stretch of international experience, especially if its non-English speaking,” says Lynas who then went on to join GEC Marconi that was acquired by BAE, where he eventually took the top finance job.

Kelvin Stagg, CFO of recruiter Page Group, worked as a foreign exchange and derivatives trader in FMCG giant Unilever’s Rotterdam office for two and a half years. There he experienced a different culture, even though most people speak English there.

“The Netherlands is not a difficult country to transition into, but it’s a very different country in terms of the experience,” says Stagg. “You have to be direct in Holland, and being direct is not being rude, even though it feels like it if you’re British,” he advises.

“So how you communicate with people just widens your mind a bit if you spend a lot of time in another country. I think not working and living abroad is an experience people will miss if they don’t do it,” adds Stagg.

Same but different

Working in countries with native English speakers can still pose challenges. When Ian Smith, now CFO of challenger bank CYBG, was sent to Los Angeles by Coopers & Lybrand in 1993 to work in the entertainment practice, he describes the experience as ‘sink or swim’.

“I wanted to go to California for the weather, and ended up in LA where I worked in the entertainment practice of Coopers & Lybrand for two and a half years,” says Smith, whose audit clients were in film and television. The largest client was Mexico’s Televisa, which produces enormously popular soap operas called telenovelas- that have made it the biggest media company in the Spanish speaking world.

Smith says the experience of being thrown in at the deep end was challenging, despite having developed core professional skills in finance control and auditing skills by this stage. “I think you throw yourself into it. You definitely have to be all in to these things, especially when there is a cultural difference between the UK and US,” he says. “They are two countries separated by a common language,” adds Smith.

Comparing the different accounting cultures, Smith says the US was quite rigid and regimented and very rules-based, compared to what he’d grown up with professionally in the UK. “The other interesting cultural difference was that the best and the brightest, for better or worse in the UK, would choose accountancy and the big firms as a career, whereas in the US the best and the brightest went to become lawyers and into other professions,” says Smith. “Being a CPA didn’t have the same status as it would here,” he observes.

Managing overseas

Once you hit senior management, the challenge of running teams in an overseas posting can be quite daunting. Ask Colin McKinlay, CFO of leisure park provider Center Parcs- who has spent much his career in the travel industry. At the age of 29, soon after being made a finance director in holiday group Airtours he was sent to Canada for two years to address issues in a group of North American companies called Sunquest Vacations that was owned by the group.

“I was the classic head office guy who has gone out to do a review,” says McKinlay. “It was a challenge of winning over the support of the people in the business in Canada, not being seen as the head office mole or spy- and so being able to investigate the business,” he says.

McKinlay says he made the posting work by constantly building relationships based on trust as he moved from sites across Canada, the US and Mexico. “It was a bit of a restructure and turnaround, and a little bit of business development and growth as well, so initially just getting a firm platform from a finance systems perspective.

“That was to understand what was making money in the business, what wasn’t making money in the business, and using that to really get some stability and from that working out ways to really grow the business,” he adds.

Working in North America was made all the more challenging by having to make some difficult decisions and ultimately conveying some bad news. “With a restructure you may have to have difficult conversations with people, who may have to leave the business as a result, so the thing to do is to have those conversations in a way that you would want done to you, if the tables were turned,” he advises.

“I think if people are afforded the opportunity to work overseas it’s something they should do,” insists McKinlay.” It’s not for everyone, but I think the benefits of doing it are that it provides perspective and insight into how other businesses work in other countries.

“Whilst you may not draw on all of the experiences that you have, subconsciously you are drawing on some of those learnings that you get of dealing with people in a different country, and always doing things which naturally broaden your insight and perspective,” he says.

McKinlay was then posted to Germany to undertake more restructuring by Airtours, that in time was rebranded as Mytravel. Talking about his German experience, he says: “That was a really interesting move, as the business culture is different, social culture is different, there’s more formality, more hierarchy.

“It’s an environment where you quickly learn that you have to fit in, in order to get things done, and there’s maybe a little naivety at first to think you can change the way things are done, but you can’t things are done- that’s centuries of culture,” he says.

McKinlay attended night school to learn German and picked up enough to just about understand people. “You had to focus so hard on what people are saying, because if you lost one word in a sentence you might as well be looking out the window for half an hour,” he says.

The difference in culture can be very daunting at CFO level. When Allison Kirkby stepped up from CFO to CEO of Swedish media giant Tele2 she says she was worried that not being a Swedish national might not play well with peers on the executive team or with key shareholders. “I was concerned that as I wasn’t Swedish, would I really be able to deeply understand the culture and the local Swedish dynamics in a deep enough way to be credible,” she reveals.

“But the only way you do that is by spending time with the organisation,” says Kirkby.  “I also made sure that I surrounded myself with people who really understood Sweden. For example, the CEO of Sweden was somebody that I chose who came from within Tele2, who deeply knew Tele2 and our business in Sweden,” she adds.