You can’t swing your MacBook these days without bumping into a travel blogger. The internet is rife with envy-inducing Instagrams of faraway lands. If you want reflections on travel accompanied by artfully posed influencer photos, you can take your pick.
So, there’s not a lot I can add to the discourse in terms of meditations on traveling and personal growth. On traveling and organizational growth, it’s a different story. Time and again, I’ve seen the business impact of international visits, conversations and expansions.
In a time when disruption is always lurking around the corner, flexibility and fleet-footed thinking are prized qualities in a leader. To achieve open-mindedness, there’s no better hack than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. That’s why the leader who travels the world is the leader you want at the helm of your organization.
So, what characteristics do these leaders have?
The leader who sees the world respects others.
Empathy trickles down from the top. Forging one’s way in a new market or territory is an empathy-inducing experience. At Fluent City where I serve as CEO, each language class is like a mini visit into a foreign land. Our students may be executives at the top of their fields, but when they enter our classrooms, they’re forced to learn and communicate in ways that are often humbling and even scary.
A study of American adults who embarked on foreign travel concluded that post-traveling, these adults were better able to suspend snap judgments about individuals and were more competent at discerning the context and situational factors influencing individual behavior.
This ability to discern and appreciate a diverse array of knowledge, skill sets and ways of thinking is massively beneficial in the business world.
The leader who sees the world revises opinions based on new information.
Every project starts out with a loose plan. But by the time most projects are over, that original plan looks nothing like what actually happened to accomplish the mission. That’s why a leader who adapts their thinking based on new information is primed to thrive in a dynamic business landscape.
Getting lost, attempting to speak a new language and adapting to unfamiliar social norms are practice for putting leaders into a flexibility mindset. The willingness to change course, and to recognize when you should, can make all the difference in the C-suite.
The leader who sees the world can sit in ambiguity.
Being indecisive and being a good leader are mutually exclusive. However, there are gray areas that are important to explore. Black-and-white thinking won’t serve most leaders in the long run, just as it doesn’t serve most travelers in the attempt to make their way through a new place.
Asking for various opinions. Requesting help. Exposing oneself to uncertainty. All of these practices are workouts in the fitness test of doing business. Making a habit of these “workouts” develops intellectual agility in the face of complex business decisions.
The leader who sees the world overcomes cultural challenges.
Cultural challenges exist even if a team is just six people from the same city. So if a leader must routinely navigate the cultural challenges that come with international travel, they develop a toolkit of strategies for cultural challenge mitigation.
The humility that comes with listening to diverse perspectives is incalculable. In a previous role, I was involved in weekly calls with 14 marketing producers around the world, from Sydney to Seattle to Hong Kong. We shared vital business experiments and lessons that were crucial to our overall marketing growth.
The leader who sees the world tests new markets.
Traveling internationally exposes you to new economies, markets and ways of doing business. From purchasing sundries in a local shop to witnessing large negotiations in the boardroom, a traveled leader has a larger spectrum for the ways in which we commercially transact with one another.
International friendships, conversations, media and corporate practices can all serve as inspiration for unconventional problem-solving. I spent time working in the U.K. and the Netherlands while running my consulting business and have incorporated habits from both cultures into the way I do business now.
For leaders with busy schedules who need to optimize business travel, here are my tips on making your trips count.
Go to a region, not just a city.
If you have occasion to go to one city, think about partners who are in the region. For example, if you’re headed to San Francisco for a couple of important meetings, do you have partners or clients in Seattle or Los Angeles? A multicity tour can maximize your time out of the office.
Plan your trips around specific objectives.
It helps to be intentional about your goals, and fill in the rest of your schedule around one or two core meetings. Or, if your goal is simply to get to know the culture of another office or region, map your trip based around interactive social opportunities that will allow you a full cultural experience.
Eat with others.
When you’ve traveled a long way, it’s tempting to eat in your hotel and then crash for the night. But mealtimes are valuable networking opportunities. They can fuel your long-distance business relationships for several months to come.
Take a day trip.
Excursions aren’t just for having fun. They give you a strong point of reference for relating to colleagues and partners in that region. Take advantage of free spots in your schedule to get out of your hotel room and explore; bunkering down inside a hotel will drive you crazy.
It can be easy to fall into the routine of maximizing familiarity and minimizing experiments and uncertainty. But that’s not how leaders achieve growth. Workplaces need agile thinkers who can understand a multitude of perspectives, who can stand to be uncomfortable sometimes.
So, the next time you’re considering putting up that out-of-office away message, think about everything you might bring back when you return.