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Global vs. Local Career

Planning your next career move? Don’t make the mistake of associating global companies with stability and local companies with unprofessionalism, says Gary Brown, Former CEO and Executive Director of 7-Eleven Malaysia and Former Regional Head of Sara Lee Corporation. Allow Gary to walk you through the wealth of experience you can gain from both global and local companies. With his expertise, figure out which type of company will help take you a step closer to your career goals and ensure that your next move is a significant one.

GAIN ACTIONABLE INSIGHTS TO:

  • Pros and cons of working for global and local companies
  • Why you should consider working in a global company early in your career
  • What combination of skills and experience makes executives attractive to recruiters

PROS AND CONS

There’s often a misconception that local companies aren’t as professional as global companies. I’ve worked in large, established local companies in Malaysia including 7-Eleven and Berjaya, both of which had great processes in place and were committed to investing in technology. Global companies aren’t inherently better than local companies. Similarly, there’s this idea that once you get a job at a global company, you have job security until you choose to leave which isn’t always true.

In Asia, a lot of potential employees tend to seek out jobs at multinational companies, thinking they’re inherently better than a local company. Instead of making general assumptions, I would suggest looking at the company itself, as well as your role. If you’re choosing between working at a global or a local company, look closely before you write a local company off. Large local companies can provide you with a wealth of experience and skills that can add great value to your personal development as well as your career. Let’s look at some pros and cons of working for global and local companies.

GLOBAL COMPANIES

One of the big draws when it comes to global companies is that there is a great deal of structure in the business. Now that structure may be very layered in terms of levels of management, but these distinctions are quite clear. And structure goes hand in hand with discipline. In order to work within a particular structure, you do need to have a level of discipline. This is particularly relevant in finance and marketing departments. You’ll find that especially in these aspects of the business, global companies put a great deal of intention into establishing a process for the way things are done.

Financial processes in global companies are a lot more robust, and lower level management are able to gain exposure to these systems. In terms of access to resources as well, a global company is usually superior to local companies. There’s also a lot more training that’s conducted in global companies.

Now let’s say you’re facing a setback or a challenge that you simply cannot seem to crack. The great thing about global companies is that you can tap into a global network of expertise. Across the company’s various offices in the world, there’s surely going to be someone who has some experience with the kind of problem you’re trying to solve and can guide you in the right direction.

Global companies also tend to have the willingness and ability to invest more heavily into processes and technology. Essentially, these two elements are required to hold the global business together. And with the expansive reach of global companies, you obviously end up getting exposed to other markets, cultures, and businesses within a global company.

Consider a large multinational company like Sara Lee. When you’re given the opportunity to interact across countries and cultures, you build up the confidence to articulate yourself with different people. You’ll learn how to ask meaningful questions and strengthen your communication skills.

Such global companies also tend to be more established, and therefore have a longer term outlook on the business. You’ll find that there are 5 year plans in place, and there’s a sense of patience in achieving these goals. These plans and strategies are also implemented in an agreed upon manner.

In global companies, processes tend to be quite rigid: while this is necessary to standardise the business across various offices, it can possibly stifle creativity and innovation. As a marketing plan will have to look more or less the same in Thailand and in Australia, an employee might feel constrained by the way things need to be done. IT process are also usually standardised. I see this standardisation as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

Another disadvantage of global companies is that the speed of decision making is quite slow, precisely because these companies are highly structured. When a decision needs to be made, you’ll have to work your way up or down the hierarchy. Similarly, this structure extends to roles as well. As an employee of a global company, the likelihood that you’ll be exploring responsibilities beyond your job scope is not high. Your role is usually clearly defined, and you typically will not be encouraged to go beyond it.

There also tends to be a high degree of corporate governance that goes far beyond legal requirements. Oftentimes, global companies tend to err on the side of caution, and worry about staying clear of trouble that may arise. In reality, staying within legal corporate governance is more than enough and these additional layers do nothing but slow the business down.

In companies like Sara Lee, Unilever, P&G and so on, you also tend to get a lot of international visitors. When these visits are scheduled, there’s a lot of time that goes into preparing for it – two or three weeks can go into preparing presentations and activities for these visitors, who may spend just five hours in your office! These visits disrupt the workflow, but in the process you are forced to dive deep into your own business to explain it better. Of course the visitors can bring expertise and guidance as well.

LOCAL COMPANIES

When you think of local companies, think lean, flat and agile. Most local companies do away with the highly structured approach, so decisions are made much faster and approvals are easier. In general, there tends to be a lot less paperwork and presentations and a lot more hands on “doing” in a dynamic environment.

Because the organisation is flatter, you’ll also have the opportunity to work closely with the CEO and founders, which is a great way to learn from their way of thinking. There’s also a great entrepreneurial drive that runs through local companies by and large. As a result, you may be hired for a role in marketing, but end up taking on projects that develop your sales or content skills. Not only can this add variety and fun to your job, you’ll also get to add new skills to your portfolio as you go along.

With this dynamism, however, there comes a lack of patience. A local company usually has its sights on the short term horizons, which can translate to a hire-and-fire mentality when employees aren’t able to deliver. This is much less prevalent in global companies.

Another issue is that when you take a spontaneous approach to decision making, the danger is that the necessary research, investigation, and evaluation isn’t always done to the level of a multinational company.

If the local company is a small family company, that could come with a whole slew of issues that include politics and interpersonal conflict. There are so many different local companies - large, small, family company, and so on.

I worked for two local companies over the course of my career. One was a relatively small family company, which ended up being difficult. The family became entrenched in the business, and some decisions were made by the family, not necessarily the management of the business. Compare that with my second stint at a large Malaysian local company – Berjaya. While it is a public company, it is also somewhat of a family business. Berjaya (and 7-Eleven), however, was run highly professionally and independently, so there were no political issues.

MAKING THE CHOICE

So how do you decide between the two?

Ultimately, global and local companies aren’t mutually exclusive. Choosing to work at one doesn’t mean that you can’t transition to the other at a different stage in your career. With each company, you’ll need to look at opportunities for growth and expansion: your own, as well as from the business’s perspective. Begin by looking at what skills and experience you already have, and what you would like to gain through your employment at this time.

One deciding factor could be relocation. Would you feel excited and challenged by the opportunity to live and work in another country at this stage of your career? If so, a global company is more likely to offer you this opportunity. However, if you are not prepared to move, it can become a negative in your career path in a global company, as employees usually need to get exposure to new markets to gain the well-rounded experience that will get them promoted. In local companies, there isn’t usually such pressure.

Secondly, what is the size of the local company? If it’s a very small company, I would think twice about planning a long term career with them. However, some people are drawn towards the environment in a small company. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to be a big fish in a small pond, look at medium to large local companies instead, as you’re more likely to be challenged and exposed to new ways of thinking.

WHICH SHOULD COME FIRST

In my opinion, you should get global experience earlier in your career rather than later.

A global company would help you to develop the building blocks for your career with ease. You’ll get a good grasp of processes, structures, and will cultivate a great deal of discipline along the way. Once you have those building blocks, they form solid pillars on which you can build the rest of your career.

For example, in Asia, Sara Lee alumni are highly sought after. Management from the global company are seen as having the right experience and a solid grasp of business fundamentals that make them attractive to employers. You’ll find that many local companies want to tap into the skillset of management from global companies, and actively recruit from this pool of candidates.

Transitioning from a local company to a global one can be slightly more difficult. I would suggest doing this later on in your career. With a local company, the pace is much faster. You have to think, plan, and execute rapidly. At a local company, your hand is on the fire. You get to wear different hats, get your hands dirty, and expose yourself to various aspects of the business. Along the way, you’ll also discover what your strengths are, and what interests you.

As you can see, working in a local company will snap you out of the “get comfortable” mindset of a global company. It rounds out your management experience. There certainly aren’t enough senior managers who have experience in both global and local companies. So I would recommend that you start your career at a global company, and transition to a local company to mould yourself into an excellent manager with the discipline of a global company, and the dynamism and lateral thinking skills of a local one.

PERSONALITY TRAITS TO THRIVE

I don’t think there’s a certain personality type that is more or less suited to working at a global company or a local company. To me, the key trait that matters is adaptability. A great manager or executive is someone who can quickly assess the business environment they’re in, and adjust themselves accordingly to thrive. So take your blinkers off, because the onus is on you to shine. Adaptability is your key to success.

Some people tend to do better when there are good processes in place, and aren’t as comfortable with ambiguity. Such people might find working in a global environment much easier. However, my view is that if you’re unable to deal with uncertainty, dynamism, and flexibility, you should do something about it. Thinking that you can only succeed in one type of environment can be very limiting.

Of course, for fresh grads, you might not know what kind of environment you feel more comfortable in. As you advance in your career and gain a breadth of experience, you’ll be able to narrow down on whether you like structure, or whether you prefer dynamism. I would still maintain that you shouldn’t let this hinder you in any way: if you’re adaptable, you should be able to thrive, whether the company is able to provide you with structure or not.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

If you’re looking at working in a local company, look into the company’s size. If it’s a family business, try to find out how involved the family is in running the company. Now this information isn’t always easy to find. Reach out to people in your network and find either past employees who are willing to share transparently about their experience, or headhunters who can answer your questions. Know that just as there are YTL and Berjaya which are family businesses that are run professionally, smaller companies may be restrictive because the family is overly involved.

The next factor to think about is what skill and experience gaps do you have that are preventing you from driving your career to the next level. Narrow down on what you’re lacking, and then look at which type of company help you fill in some of those gaps.

Also, how entrepreneurial are you? If you like to innovate and prefer a hands-on approach, you would be in your element at a local company where you won’t feel restricted.

Lastly, what do you see yourself doing in the next 10 to 15 years? Once you’ve charted your path, look at which type of company and roles would help you achieve your goals. If your goal is to be the CEO of a large global company, then follow the path of a global company and intersperse that with shorter stints at local companies along the way.

Put together, experience working at global and local companies will help you develop into a well-rounded leader. However, how you time each of these transitions and which one you choose to focus on will depend on your personal career goals.

STEPS TO TAKE IN 24 HOURS

1. Find the gaps in your work experience

Look at what skills and experience you already have, and those that are lacking. Write these down, and look at which type of company would help you tick some of those boxes.

2. Make a 10 year plan

Write down your career goals for the next 10 years. Use these goals to figure out whether you should be gaining global experience or local experience to support your path.

3. Look at Where You Thrive

Are you someone who works better in a structured environment? Are you comfortable with ambiguity? Knowing where you stand will help you prepare for a transition from local to global or vice-versa.

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