Written by Yassin Bangy
In 2003, Celfocus was awarded a project in Egypt and I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I got married, had a kid and continued to travel. Since Cairo, we have lived in Dubai, Prague, Istanbul, are currently living in Dublin and never worked in Lisbon again.
When I look back at my last 17 years working abroad with Celfocus, four words come to mind: Adapt, Grit, Perspective and Grow.
Adapt – Hit the ground running
Most of the programmes I have worked in are of a fast-paced nature. Moving the family from one country to another and landing on your feet on your first day at the office is a physical and emotional challenge.
You are leaving something you built, relationships that took years to shape and an emotional connection to a country and people that before you arrived were foreign to you. This is especially challenging for the kids. They’re in the process of creating their references and boundaries with the world around them. As they get comfortable with their surroundings and create relationships, they move to a different country, different culture, different house and especially a different school; for them it’s the same as moving to a different planet!
And then you arrive in a different country. Your belongings are in a boat somewhere in the Atlantic, you need to set up water, gas, media – not to mention government papers and deal with the school butterflies, etc.
But you moved with a purpose, the Customer is waiting on Monday for someone fully focused and with a sense of urgency to tackle the programme’s challenges. You find yourself in a new country, with a customer that thinks, talks and behaves differently, and you need to shut down all the havoc at home during working hours and adapt quickly to your new reality.
You learn how to read what people value, which buttons you can push and which you should not and that this is very much culture-based. So as you get in, you need to use your senses to learn how to navigate within your new environment. When you are lucky, you have someone you trust on your team to show you the ropes; but in the end, it is you that creates the relationship with this new Customer. And in our business, we don’t just get one culture, we’ve got the melting pot.
But it’s not only about challenges. We have been lucky to have lived in cities with an amazing history and different ways of experiencing life that deconstructs what is fed to us by media outlets portraying these cultures through their own lenses. We take with us the best of what we found and experienced in each country.
Grit – Endure and push for something you believe
Everybody knows that Grit is key for success at anything you want to achieve. Working in International projects brings another layer of complexity that you have to breakthrough to achieve your objectives. Let’s not forget that you are working with teams from different cultures under the same programme, each working to push forward their objectives to deliver one common goal defined by the local Customer. This is a very complex environment to work under and with deadlines driven by a fast-paced industry.
Grit comes from within each of us, but it is also something that it is nurtured within a group and I have been lucky with the people I’ve come across in these programmes. The group finds alternative and creative ways to overcome problems and serve as informal channels to circulate information and influence actions and decisions to push the programme forward.
So I see Grit as an indispensable personal characteristic to prevail and succeed in international assignments. However, it is not our individual Grit that pushes the programme forward; it is the collective Grit of a group of people that share the same goals and who will drive it to its conclusion.
Perspective – Looking through a different lens: your personal one
I was lucky to have been through different programmes, in different roles and in very different regions of the globe. This experience allowed me to understand that most of the problems are shared by all, but experienced in different manners.
The way you look at a situation drives how it will impact you and the people around you. The ability to better understand a multicultural environment gives you a better chance to see the situation for what it is and not how each team paints the situation on their perspective. It is easy to explain, but very difficult to implement and an everlasting exercise to detach yourself from the day to day activities and the priority requests to correctly evaluate the true nature of a situation. As you get more experienced, you fine-tune the ability to read the situations better.
Experience and Perspective come hand in hand as you travel around the globe. Every new situation, programme, country that you face adds a new recipe into your library or a different version of an existing recipe you tried before. As your library grows, you have assets you can either re-use or adapt, allowing you to expend less energy.
After a while this new environment becomes your second nature and you start understanding how the locals perceive the way others talk and behave. You can guide a team sitting in a different country to avoid or perform on some particular items valued or not by the Customer. As you start to understand them better, so do they, and it is another bridge you create. As they start to understand where you are coming from, the Customer will also start valuing another perspective that brings added value to the challenge in question.
Growth – Growth Mindset
For me moving is like a cleansing process. Every time you move you evaluate your period in that country and decide what you’ll take with you. On the practical side of life, you have to run through all the stuff you accumulated during that period and decide what really matters to you and should continue and what stays. The hope is that from country to country you will end up leaving less and less stuff behind, and that will have a positive impact on the planet. On the personal side of life, every member of the family takes his own experience with them; and as a family we make an effort for it to be a positive one. We try to understand the culture, their history and what drives them. Professionally what you take is as precious or more than what you built and left behind. The working culture is somehow imprinted in you, the process and tactics you used to adapt and the ability to work, collaborate and get things done are assets you build for your future self and your company.
I am very lucky to have a family that is very supportive to put up with me and the programmes that I keep being assigned to; a supportive family is key in this type of journey. This type of life experience is especially important for kids, and in my opinion, the up-side of it is higher than the downside. They will not be with their cousins, uncles, grandfathers and community as often, which in our case is quite big.
However, nowadays we are either quite busy living abroad or at least travelling for work, and my experience tells me that the holidays spent in Portugal are intensive enough to maintain core relationships. On the up-side, even though they see themselves as proud Portuguese, they see everyone, even from conflicting countries from our eyes, as the same. Change and diversity become part of their nature and the hope is they will spread the word throughout their lives.
The growth in all areas of our life is amazing, you grow as a professional because you are outside your home country, your safety net is smaller and it pushes you to grow faster as the resources at hand are shorter than back home. As a person you experience different cultures and realities and makes you value what you have back home, provides perspective on situations you previously saw as a problem. It pushes you to become a citizen of the world.
If you have chosen this life, it is about the journey and all the good and the not so good that comes with it; you accept it, learn from it and enjoy it as much as you can.