Careers on the couch: international experience expands your career - #findaba16

Two CFOs who have developed their careers by working in different locations around the world share their views on whether international experience is essential on your CV.

By Georgina Guedes

At the Finance Indaba Africa on 13 October 2016, Roy Clark of Clarkhouse Human Capital spoke to two CFOs about their experiences of working internationally, as part of the Careers on the Couch series. "The world as we know it is becoming more and more global, and the demand for international experience is growing," he said, then turned to the panellists to ask why they believe working globally is a must.

Wayne Beifus, the head of finance at BAT South Africa, who has had a 20-year international career, said that if he had two CVs on his desk, everything else being equal, he would take the one with international experience.

"Until you have stepped outside of your bubble, you don't really understand that you are a global citizen. You learn how to connect, how to get inspiration, you are exposed to different business trends," he says.

"I've just attended Graeme Codrington's presentation and he explained how we're living in a different world - no longer operating in a village and things have changed. I challenge every up-and-coming CFO to get out of their comfort zone. You need these skills because you can no longer operate on a micro scale and be the best in your career."

However, he says that international opportunities don't just come along - you have to work for them. "It's like anything in life, nothing will just happen for you. You have to intervene, drive it, and be passionate about what you are trying to achieve."

Bikash Prasad, the senior vice president and CFO for Africa and the Middle East at Olam International, and this year's winner of the Moving into Africa Award at the CFO Awards, added that to get international work, you have to identify the right companies to work for.

"You have to ask: is this organisation adding value to my CV? You need to make compromises to work in the right place - even taking a lesser salary. You have to work at the right companies and have the right profile in that company. For example, taxation is very country-centric. International employers are looking for good general management skills; they aren't looking for specialists - they can get those in their own country."

Leading on from that, he said that it is important for those considering an international career to develop their softer skills. "Softer skills are more important than hard skills. Systems are different all around the world, but you have to know how to deal with different cultures, how to deal with diversity - to get the job done with a different set of people. Then it's important that you have the leadership skills. If you are a qualified accountant or engineer, the harder skills come naturally to you anyway."

Wayne says that once you've landed an international job, your ability to harness diversity is your greatest asset.

"You've got to understand how to connect to the local talent - that is probably one of the biggest learnings you can get from taking your career international. Connecting into somebody from the UK is completely different to connecting to someone from Australia - what motivates them as the point of reference your team will have is very different in different cultures."

While working internationally delivers incredible opportunities, there are naturally some downsides. Bikash said that one of the greatest among these is that if you move around a lot, you uproot your family every three to four years. "Your spouse might not have the opportunity to work, and your children will have to make new friends."

Wayne agreed, saying that he was told when he started his first assignment that there are three laws of working internationally to be successful. "One is that your family are a part of it and you have to keep them happy. The second thing is to keep your family happy. And the third thing is to go back over the first two points. As long as your wife, or your husband and your kids are happy, you can make it work."

Bikash adds that there are also some challenges to returning home. "If I go back to India, I will be competing against homegrown talent who have been exposed to local tax, excise and customs laws and I'll be at a disadvantage."

However, Wayne pointed out that you can always go back:

"You should look at what you're acquiring, not what you are missing. You will always have your home, don't fear leaving. Don't use your fear as an inhibitor to miss seeing the world. Go and see what's out there, so you can bring it back to South Africa."