From the HBR article with the same title:

Travel and living abroad have long been seen as good for the soul. What’s perhaps less well-known is that they’re also good for the company. People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.

For example, we ran an experiment in which 220 MBA students from Northwestern’s Kellogg School were asked to solve the famous Duncker candle problem. In this behavioral test, individuals are presented with three objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks. They’re asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall—using only the objects on the table—so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the floor.

The correct solution demands the ability to think creatively: Empty the box of tacks and use it as a candleholder. The solution is considered a measure of “insight creativity” because it involves making the “aha!” discovery that the box is not just a repository for your tools but a tool itself.

We found that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to use the box as a candleholder. In fact, 60% of students who had previously lived abroad solved the problem compared with 42% of students who hadn’t lived abroad. Interestingly, time spent traveling abroad had no effect on creativity.

Seven years ago I may not have understood this article, but I do now. Living in the UK was a remarkable experience that changed me as a leader/manager. I naively went into the UK thinking that Canada and the UK were similar and that the cultural integration would be easy. I could not have been more wrong. Those two years taught me how to work with people who were not like me, how to grasp the nuance of corporate and geographic culture and how to adapt.

It will be interesting to see how corporations view moving people around in the future. I was speaking with a neighbour who works for a global bank that is renowned for their international program. She mentioned that they were slowly closing down the program as ‘local talent was now getting strong enough that they don’t need to import people’. That may be the case, but it misses the point that the above article makes – it isn’t just about bringing in good talent – it is about growing the talent pool worldwide. I would argue that there were broader benefits beyond my development or my leading a turnaround – the entire UK team that I worked with grew, changed and benefited. We did it together.

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