Needed: New Skills For Professional Success in the Globalized 21st Century
by Kai-Lit Phua

As a result of globalization, business executives and professionals face new challenges in the 21st century. New skills are needed to meet these challenges in order to achieve professional success. These skills include adaptability (e.g. quickness at recognizing and seizing emerging opportunities), the ability to adjust to culture shock, political and diplomatic savvy, and the ability to maintain smooth relations with foreigners in the shape of customers, suppliers, bosses, colleagues, subordinates and political and legal authorities.

"Globalization" refers to the increasing economic integration of the nations of the world through international trade, investment, production, currency trading and so on. The influence of new communication and transportation technologies and the role played by the multinational corporation (MNC) in the spread of globalization are widely recognized. Some observers have also pointed out the impact of globalization on local norms, values and behavior.

Certain academics argue that globalization is not a new phenomenon since global trade, investment and labor migration were already significant at the end of the 19th century. According to this view, contemporary globalization is not something new but only qualitatively different because of advances in technology and organization that result in "space-time compression". Space-time compression means that vast geographic distances and time zone differences are being surmounted by high speed travel, movement of large amounts of goods over long distances at relatively low cost and in a timely fashion, and convenient high speed communication and transmission of data and information. These technological advances have facilitated transnational economic activities and therefore speeded up the rate and extent of contemporary globalization.

Globalization and the Business Executive/Professional

What does globalization imply for the business executive or professional of the 21st century? As the cliché goes, it implies both opportunities as well as threats. Opportunities in the sense that the possibilities of production for export, foreign investment, joint ventures and strategic alliances with foreign companies etc. would be enhanced. Threats in the sense that competition from foreign products and services would become greater. There would also be stiff competition from foreign multinational corporations that may have significant financial, technological, product development and managerial capability.

Corporations that produce for the local market would need to meet world product standards in order to compete successfully with foreign-made products, they would need to upgrade their technology continuously, hire high level personnel who are "world class" and so on. If these corporations decide to invest in foreign countries or form joint ventures or strategic alliances, their personnel would need many skills. The skills would include not only international finance, marketing and negotiation skills but also political savvy, diplomatic skills, linguistic skills, the ability to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings, etc.

Individuals who work for a foreign MNC may face more demands and pressures from the international headquarters of the MNC: as MNCs rationalize their activities worldwide, local subsidiaries will be under pressure to increase profits and cut costs, contract out, downsize and delayer and so on. Thus, as globalization continues unabated, business life would get more interesting as well as more demanding.

New Skills Needed for Professional Success in the 21st Century

The range of skills needed for professional success in the 21st century will be quite broad as a result of globalization of business. Business schools and MBA programs typically teach traditional business skills such as finance, accounting, marketing, human resource management and so on. Innovative business schools have introduced MBA programs that focus on international business management. Thus, these schools have "internationalized" and "globalized" their curricula. Students studying such curricula may also be required to spend a semester or two in a foreign country in order to broaden their outlook and prepare them for future work as global managers. Business executives and professionals who have not been exposed to business education programs that focus on international business will need to learn the necessary skills on their own.

International business skills include not only those skills that are taught in traditional business education programs but also knowledge and skills that are important for professional success in a global context but that are seldom taught in business schools. Such skills and knowledge would include knowledge of the politics of foreign countries; an understanding of the norms, values and culture of foreign customers, foreign suppliers, foreign colleagues, foreign workers being managed by oneself, foreign business partners, foreign authorities, etc. Foreign language skills would also be useful for international business success.

An understanding of the norms and values of foreigners would also enhance the process of business negotiations. Americans are straightforward, impatient with hierarchy, dislike cautious and drawn-out negotiations ("beating around the bush") and like to sign clear-cut contracts. Americans are often puzzled by "Asian" behavior such as vagueness, deference to higher authority, avoidance of making anyone lose face in public, emphasis on the building of trust and the building of long-term business relationships and so on. An understanding of the values and business etiquette of different nationalities would help to facilitate international business enormously.

The "Culture Shock!" book series published by Times Books International in Singapore make for amusing as well as eye-opening reading. In my opinion, they are a very informative as well as relatively painless way for the entrepreneur or manager to increase his or her "I.B. Quotient" (International Business Quotient) quickly.

The business executive or professional will need to be familiar with "no-nos" and taboos in foreign societies in order to avoid faux pas or to avoid offending foreign customer, supplier, business partner or government authority sensibilities. For example, if American corporations wish to penetrate Third World markets, they need to be aware that it is offensive to market products made from pig by-products to Muslims, that Hindus will not eat products made from cattle and so on.

Educational systems and outlooks need to be globalized and internationalized too. This is not impossible to achieve: small European nations that are also economic powerhouses such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden are showing the way for the rest of the world. Students need to be taught to be less ethnocentric and to be more broad-minded when it comes to the subject of the norms, values, beliefs and behavior of foreigners. Such training can only help them as they deal with foreigners in the years ahead. Students need to be taught that, in the future, they are likely to work for foreign-owned corporations operating locally. Even if they work for home grown corporations, they are likely to deal with foreign business partners and they may also be posted overseas as managers of MNCs operating overseas.

Personnel who have been assigned to live and work in foreign countries will need to develop adequate coping skills as well as the ability to adjust to life in a foreign (and often very different) environment. These skills are not taught in schools and universities and therefore need to be learned individually. Those who have lived or studied overseas are relatively advantaged compared to those who have not had the chance to do so. An extended period of time spent as a student in a foreign country enables one to deal more easily with foreigners from that particular country when one becomes an adult working professional.

Thus, in my opinion, the effective professional of the 21st century would definitely need to possess "effective functioning in foreign environment" skills. These range from personal skills (e.g. an open mind, adaptability, quick adjustment to culture shock) to interpersonal skills. By interpersonal skills, I mean the ability to manage a dissatisfied or even unhappy spouse who has followed one to a posting in a foreign land, children who are having trouble adjusting to life in an alien environment, coming to terms with incidents of xenophobia, dealing with foreign colleagues and foreign bosses, managing foreign workers in their own country, dealing with foreign business partners and foreign authorities etc.

Those who have studied or lived overseas can remember how they had to adjust to the culture shock they experienced as foreigners in an alien environment, e.g., they may have experienced surprise/shock at how the locals differ so much in their norms, values, beliefs and behavior. Western women may find the way in which women are treated in certain Middle Eastern, African or East Asian countries to be very difficult to accept.

Interpersonal Skills in Foreign Environments

Earlier, I mentioned the challenge of managing dissatisfied or unhappy spouses and children while working in a foreign land. There are some writers who believe that an unhappy spouse is a major reason for failure in an overseas job posting. Thus, managers who are posted overseas need to be aware of this challenge if they want to perform effectively overseas.

Individuals who work overseas may also experience incidents of xenophobia. Thus, it is necessary to be able to cope with incidents of xenophobia when these unpleasant events occur to oneself or to one's spouse or children.

A useful skill that a person working overseas needs to have is tact/diplomacy. As an alien working in a foreign country, one needs to be careful not to offend one's local boss, colleagues or subordinates. Thus, one may need to be very diplomatic when talking about local politics, local religious beliefs and practices, the foreign policy of the country one is working in, etc.

American professionals working overseas also need to understand how the local political system works and how to handle the local authorities (politicians, police etc). In certain countries, access to local politicians and other influential people can help to facilitate business transactions considerably. In other countries, petty corruption and even high level corruption is widespread and the American professional is likely to be faced with an ethical dilemma when he or she is expected to make "under the counter" payments or expensive presents in order to get business going. In such cases, the counsel of local business partners and local advisers can be of enormous help.

The challenges brought about by globalization for business executives and professionals are great indeed. However, they are impossible to avoid and therefore, new skills such as those discussed above need to be developed or acquired in order to meet these challenges successfully.

Kai-Lit Phua is a Malaysian sociologist who received his tertiary education in the United States. He has worked as an analyst with a U.S. state health department and as a manager in the private sector of one of the world's most globalized nations - the Republic of Singapore. His personal website is located at: .

Also by Kai-Lit Phua: Singapore's Manager-Politicians and Who Says That Organization Theory is Boring? | Many more articles on Executive Performance and Creative Leadership in
The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Kai-Lit Phua. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading