When you hit the big time in business, there are always a few cultural snafus waiting for you. Being the guy at the table who doesn’t know how to use chopsticks is one matter; being the guy who threw up on a prime minister is another (sorry, George H.W. Bush). It’s easy to make a mistake, but it’s even easier to make a mistake when you have no background on the culture you’re dealing with.
Traveling and immersing yourself in other cultures is key to making a great first impression in business. The younger you start learning about other places, the less likely your chances of speaking over the British national anthem while the Queen watches you (sorry, Barack Obama).
Here are a few ways travel can help entrepreneurs avoid public humiliation, and grow in the process:
1. Challenge and hone your problem solving skills.
Traveling allows you to broaden your horizons and discover new ideas and ways of doing things. And, let’s be honest, “stuff” happens and problems are magnified when you’re traveling. You can gain problem-solving skills anywhere, from the airport to your client’s desk. If your wallet gets stolen while you’re on the subway in a foreign country, your problem-solving skills will expand exponentially – you have to solve the problem, then and there. You’ll find resources you didn’t know existed, and remembering how calmly you reacted will make it easier to stay calm when your most annoying client emails you ten times a day.
2. Gain independence, but remember to mingle
Whether you’re told to step or think outside the box, people still want you outside said box. Traveling allows you to broaden your horizons. We all have a tendency, especially when we’re younger, to listen to others’ ideas before our own. Moving around gets you in touch with what you think, not what the dominant culture is constantly feeding you.
Beyond that, travel teaches you to manage on your own. This is important for would-be entrepreneurs. You’ll learn to find your own accommodations, make your own food, and navigate your way through different places. Nothing gives you confidence faster.
Don’t let this trick you into thinking that travel is a solo venture. On the contrary, visiting other places forces you to meet new people and engage others, which are essential in business. Interacting continuously is a great business experience that most executives earn as they move up the food chain. Get your experience now.
3. Develop real relationships
When you travel, who you meet impacts your business. You never know who you’re going to meet, and you never know how your experiences can help you make a connection. A few days ago, an author emailed me ranting about a decision from our editors. I noticed he teaches not far from where we lived in Vietnam. Because I could relate to where he lived, I was able to reconnect with this author and ease the situation by using our proximity to break the tension. Having something positive to talk about changes the tone of these conversations and allows us to develop a rapport with our clients. Proving you care about doing right by your business – and your clients – gives you a leg up on the competition.
4. Think proactively
It’s okay to travel for fun; everyone deserves a break. Strategically planning trips to understand cultures can give you a leg up, so don’t travel just for the enjoyment of it. You must define what it is you want to do with your business, and then decide if traveling is necessary and beneficial. Think long-term about where your company might go, both in a business sense and a physical one. Spending lots of money to go to Carnival in Brazil sounds fun, but it sounds less fun when you can’t finance your annual business trip to Iowa. (Brazil gives you beads, but Iowa gives you leads. Repeat that mantra as often as necessary!)
5. Give yourself an edge
Showing that you are dedicated enough to your profession to travel across the world is a statement in itself to your potential clients that you are serious about what you’re doing. Much of my work is with India, many of my teammates are Indian, and we outsource to India, so it made sense for me to travel to India. Think about it: you and I are both bidding for the same job, and if I travel to India and sit down with a potential client while you just talk on the phone, it gives me an advantage. Travel can help you land more clients and contacts.
Traveling and gathering knowledge beyond your own corner of the world is valuable in making you a smarter businessperson and a better decision-maker. Whether you realize it yet or not, the world is made up of people who have the same beliefs you do – and just as many people who don’t share any of your beliefs. By visiting other places, you’re more likely to make a good impression on your intercultural colleagues. If nothing else, it increases the chances that if you throw up in someone’s lap, it will be a friend’s.