International Business Experience Prepares MBA Students for Leadership on the Global Stage

Students are taken out of their comfort zones and put into another culture where they are allowed to experience local problems, right down to basic things like food and travel

A qualified civil engineer, Paul Gill had been involved in projects that involved the London Olympics Games and the London Bridge redevelopment. He embarked with an open mind upon his MBA at Ashridge Business School with the aim to either develop or open his eyes to a new career, possibly in social enterprise.

He never quite envisaged the transformation that would occur through his participation on the global experience as part of his MBA. Here, real life overseas consultancy projects form a key element of a practical and integrated view of international management, to equip students in becoming truly global leaders.

It was on a visit to South Africa as part of his study experience that stimulated Paul to apply his business skills to bring change in the world of social entrepreneurship.

Good business skills training is a prerequisite of any reputable MBA programme, but applying these in the real world can be an even bigger challenge than learning them in the first place – particularly in settings which would be considered non-traditional for most business school students.

“I went to do an MBA to be a future leader, not a manager. So while that doesn’t mean I can’t manage people, the real question is how do I inspire others? I felt I was a social entrepreneur who wanted to set up a social enterprise that could help specific segments, especially women in developing countries. The trip provided me with the inspiration I needed for this and the firsthand experience of how I could help these communities strengthened my belief in the MBA, that it can be done, and it’s not just a concept,” he said.

Inspired by his international business experience, Gill co-founded Sonas World, a social enterprise to empower women and children in developing countries. Gill thinks that one of the reasons for this was the varied approach to business skills training the group received as part of their international business experience.

“As part of our business skills training, we were asked to do consulting for big corporations like Vodafone and SABMiller, but the beautiful part was that we were also taken to the extreme opposite kind of place – to a township in Cape Town called Khayelitsha.”

This, says Gill, was the tipping point for him. “It’s one thing to talk and think about concepts, but there was an emotional trigger that was switched on during the trip. We saw the corporation and saw the strategy; but when we went to the township, I thought, what do we do with this, where can I use my skills?”

Gill maintains that it’s what you do with your acquired business skills’ training that really counts. “The international business experience made me see that it doesn’t matter what my business skills are, unless I can use them to bring down those barriers between human beings, it won’t work. You meet people and connect with them in a different way – this is the fundamental idea of Sonas as well. I learned through the trip, that if you really want to make a difference and apply what you have learned, you must learn to connect with people.”

Making the most of international business training

With business now reaching to all corners of the globe, managers need to be prepared and equipped to lead on this worldwide stage. International business experience exposes students to both the challenges and pleasures of living and working abroad.

As Jean Vanhoegaerden, a professor at the school, says: “Students are taken out of their comfort zones and put into another culture where they are allowed to experience local problems, right down to basic things like food and travel. But there is the other side of that experience too – exposure to local fun events, like football in Brazil or a Tango workshop in Argentina.”

The international business training one gets from taking part in live cases with companies around the world is similarly double edged, he continues. On one hand, it lets MBA students experience the differences between cultures in international business, but, equally importantly, they can see for themselves what the similarities are.

Steve Seymour, director of MBA Programmes at Ashridge Business School, adds that the international business experience allows students to really grasp the nuances. “They are able to discover firsthand the cultural differences associated with even the simpler side of the activities – such as making a presentation and taking feedback from a client. They also learn that karaoke in China is a very different cultural experience from the activity of the same name undertaken elsewhere’.”

The real learning on the international business experience offered on Ashridge’s MBA programme is the aforementioned live case studies, Seymour believes. In these, students work in groups to solve real issues for real businesses in order to get some hands-on international business training.

“They are able to discover first hand if any of the ideas and concepts studied in a UK classroom are relevant to say, a Chinese entrepreneur or an individual selling minutes on his own mobile phone to people living in a township in South Africa. “

Students also have to write a paper on what they learn, applying some of the models and strategic tools to the live case. As holds true with any international business training in an MBA programme, Vanhoegaerden says, you must reflect on your experience in order to learn from it.

Why does cultural awareness training matter during a study abroad experience?

Cultural awareness training is crucially important to any MBA aspiring to an international business career. This begins in the classroom says Vanhoegaerden. “While they work within that group for a year or two, it’s important that students become aware of cultural differences around them – for example, an understanding that it’s normal for some cultures to talk more before they come to a decision.”

Seymour believes that attending an MBA in a UK business school provides international business experience in itself. “For example, overseas students have to attune themselves to the UK culture, norms and ways of learning, and all students learn firsthand about each other’s perspectives and cultures. As Ashridge Business School’s staff is also drawn from a range of backgrounds and cultures, the cultural awareness training begins as soon as students arrive to begin their MBA programme and not just when they disembark from the aircraft to start their week of international business experience.”

It’s not uncommon for MBA students and management professionals on executive education programmes to underestimate their need for cultural awareness training. Some believe that if they have travelled and worked in the international business arena, they understand the term cultural awareness.

“But knowledge of what cultural awareness really entails helps you to react better in any aspect of the international business experience,” says Vanhoegaerden. “So, it’s important that in any geographical area, when you’re there with a group, not to only do sessions in cultural awareness training, but also to expose MBA students to the culture,” he adds.

Courtesy: Ashridge Business School

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