Rita Holt – Regional Leadership, 3 September 2019
Do you ever dream of working in another country? If you had the opportunity, where would it be? Perhaps an English-speaking country like UK or USA or immersing yourself in a different culture like Japan or Indonesia. No doubt your skillset will play a major part in your decision. If you’ve got skills in data science, nursing or teaching, you have a wide field of choice, but your background and particularly your values will also influence your decision.
We all have values, beliefs and attitudes that develop over our lives. Our family, community and experiences all contribute to our sense of who we are and how we view the world. Good leaders will stick with their core values, no matter what the challenge, and will encourage others to join them. Travel, especially working in different cultures, will shape those values.
My values continue to be shaped through a lifetime of travel and a curiosity in how the world works – an outward mindset. I have adapted office management skills and a keen interest in anthropology to overseas work in international trade, diplomacy, banking and international development.
I had just turned 20 when my boyfriend asked me to join him in Moscow where he was posted for two years. A quick wedding and we were off. I admit I didn’t give it much thought beyond being so excited! I found work in the Australian Trade Office in Moscow and thanked my mother often for persuading me to take secretarial studies after high school. Uni could wait. I had been working at Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra so was somewhat familiar with how government works which helped navigate the workings of a trade office. I did a lot of growing up in Moscow, in plain sight of befuddled diplomats and Soviet officials who must have wondered what on earth I was doing there. But I learnt a lot about what I was capable of, how brave I could be (and how naïve!) and started developing an outward mindset.
Arbinger suggests that an outward mindset helps us to see the world as it is and not how we imagine it to be. The reality of working in Moscow in the late 70’s as a 20-year-old was tough and I quickly learnt about living as a foreigner in a communist country during the Cold War. I started looking beyond the challenges I faced and saw how difficult it was for local citizens. I watched locals going about their daily tasks, the never-ending queues for food, the surveillance, the indignity of it all.
The values learnt while so impressionable informed my search for work on our return to Australia. I found a position in an NGO advocating the needs of people with disabilities. After a few years I accepted a more senior position with a mining company managing an office of geologists (all male) and admin staff. I was 24. Skills developed in diverse offices in Moscow and Canberra gave me the confidence to quickly adapt to unfamiliar environments and to network effectively.
Years later, a posting to New York turned everything on its head. After a frustrating search for work and a love/hate relationship with the city that never sleeps, I eventually landed the ‘job of a lifetime’. However, as office manager with a French investment bank in New York, I was completely out of my depth! I had no affinity with this ruthless world, was losing confidence and my core values were sorely tested. It was only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the WTC in New York in 2001 that I found my mojo. Our office was deeply affected by the aftermath of 9/11. The MD was stranded in Paris demanding updates, staff were distressed, and there was talk of retrenchments. My expatriate colleagues just wanted to leave New York. My strong values not only got me through the crisis but gave me confidence to support others.
Postings in Spain, Thailand and Taiwan where work was restricted to community liaison gave me opportunities to observe how society works in different cultures – looking deeper through music, art, food, education, friendships and commonalities. A BA to formalise my lifelong interest in anthropology helped me better understand the lived experience which again informed my values.
Working overseas and being exposed to different cultures and social norms teaches us to be more comfortable with uncertainty. It forces us to be reflective, assess our own core values and adhere to them. These are important skills for a good leader.