It has been close to 10 years since I started on a personal quest. by living and working abroad to learn about harnessing human diversity.

Growing up in affluent and successful Singapore, I had enjoyed a certain degree of success in my professional life. However, I had this ‘itch’ to see the world, and learn how other societies functioned. So I decided to venture out, much to the dismay of my family and close friends.

Upon hearing my decision to live and work abroad, their varied reactions were as follows:

  • ‘Why are you leaving such a good job in Singapore? Did something happen at work?’
  • ‘Wow! I wished I had your courage. Make sure you are paid in US or Sing Dollars.’
  • ‘Will your children be going to an international school? Otherwise, they might not be able to speak good English and Mandarin when they return to Singapore.’

These are valid and well-intended concerns for taking on a role in a foreign company in a foreign land. Indeed, expatriate packages are both the boon and bane for international mobility.

Yet the idealist in me was drawn by the possibility of becoming a global-minded Organization Development (aka leadership/talent management) practitioner. And what better way to grow into one by learning to apply human development interventions in different social and business contexts.

10 years on this tenet still forms the purpose of my global forays. The personal and professional lessons I learned plus the experience are priceless when compared to the money I made from the overseas stint.

Gleaned from a crucible experience, cultivating humility was an important lesson learned. There is always more to learn from others than what I think I can give.

Being my first international work role, I joined a structured job rotation and formal learning program in an international organization headquartered in Europe. The goal of the program was to build a pool of future leaders who would be able to shape the global agenda.

During the first six months in the new organization, I was assigned by Tom, the Head of the Program, to be an analyst, supporting a group of partners from the construction industry. My first month as an analyst was both a mental and emotional struggle as I was assigned menial tasks to coordinate teleconferences and record minutes of the virtual meetings.

It didn’t help that I was at the early stage of my first relocation to a foreign land and still learning to set up home in a non-English speaking environment. I felt like I had just been short-changed, being relegated from a well-paid high-status job in Singapore to an unappreciated role of a personal secretary.

I wanted to give up and return home to Singapore. Having made a huge investment in relocating my family to the new country, I did not want to face the naysayers of international mobility among family and friends. The price of losing ‘face’ was somehow too great to accept. So I decided to soldier on and stick with it. I had to make something of myself in this new country and workplace.

My only clutch was my supervisor, Larry from England. I had formed a bonding with his English civility. He challenged me to learn the basics of an analyst and explore ways to make bigger contributions.

So I slogged on and buried myself in the lexicon of the construction industry. I had to make sense of their dialogue during the teleconferences. Larry also invited my wife and me to his home and introduced us to his family. This budding friendship had provided me a sense of receptivity in the country.

Three months passed and I became more efficient at organizing face-to-face meetings and teleconferences. Tom had entrusted me with additional responsibilities to interface directly with our lead partner. This presented me with an opportunity to use my inherent skill-sets to enable the lead partner of our joint initiative to exercise effective leadership.

Six months from my first day as an analyst, Tom invited me to his office to debrief my work assignment. I described my aforesaid experiences dealing with mental and emotional struggles. He chuckled and unveiled that for me this was both a learning assignment to appreciate first-hand the nuts and bolts of the business and to test my resilience in adapting to change. He then asked if I was prepared to move on to the actual work role as a leadership development professional in his office. I accepted it without hesitation.

The next day my manager Larry, approached me and counter-offered me a role to be a member of his team to provide stewardship to the group of business partners. I declined politely and we agreed that we will continue to work together in my new role with him as my internal business partner. I had the privilege of working with Larry subsequently to build up the bench strength of his team.

I call this crucible experience as ‘living in humility.’ Beyond apparent adversity, there is always an opportunity to learn. I learned the value of being vulnerable and how to adopt a beginner’s mind. A mind with an open attitude to allow different perspectives that may have been blocked to be seen.

My initial reactions to my ‘menial role’ were filled with negative assumptions. I could not foresee the kind of manager who would step forward to support my development. The rotational assignment was intentionally structured to exploit opportunities for getting a deep dive into the business and organizational dynamics. The shift came really after I focused on learning what it takes to thrive in a new environment and get help from others.

Most of all I learned how to organize teleconferences among busy senior executives from different geographies and time zones. Although it seemed menial to me then, I am now deeply appreciative of those who co-ordinate and manage such complex schedules.

Living with humility anchors our capability to gain more value from our foreign ventures.

(to be continued…)