Global business opportunity: Can you read the signs?

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I broke into the Japanese market by way of Mexico with an assist from a U.S. freelancer working in the Northern Mariana Islands. How’s that for a twisting itinerary on a career roadmap?

This freelancer and I knew each other only through an online discussion group. But she thought of me when her editor at a Japanese airline’s in-flight magazine put out a call for a native English-speaking writer who could cover a Mexico City company’s expansion into Tokyo. The reporter chosen for the assignment had to have contacts in Mexico and experience reporting in Spanish. I’d been writing for a Mexican airline’s in-flight magazine for a couple of years, and I’ve reported for other Spanish-language media in the U.S., Mexico, and South America. I’ve been writing for the Japanese magazine ever since—and that work helped me to land ongoing work for a global corporation in Switzerland that works extensively in Asian markets.

At its most geographically diverse, my client base has stretched from Thailand to Zimbabwe—with stops in China, Canada, England, France, Switzerland, and Germany along the way. And I’ve connected with many of those clients online. In fact, that first company in Zurich (I’ve worked with four there now) and the first in Germany both came to my attention through the same discussion group on LinkedIn.

How can you make similar global connections? It helps to speak more than one language, but being monolingual isn’t an inevitable deal-killer. And virtual networking allows you to develop contacts abroad without being hit by jetlag.

You can begin to make cross-border connections at your own desk via the social media of your choice. On LinkedIn, for example, look for groups that have active exchanges of information and ideas, not just parades of self-promotional posts that fail to engage anyone. Each real discussion is an opportunity to make an impression, if not a connection. When you comment, practice adopting a global view instead of assuming (as too many do) that group members all share a U.S. perspective. And don’t limit your networking to groups for your own industry—look for groups whose members are potential clients and who would value the expertise you can share in discussions.

Most important, make sure you have a serious desire to work across borders. That’s not to say that you just have to want it enough and you’ll get it. More to the point, you have to want it enough to learn to understand and respect other cultures, business practices, and styles of communication. You have to want it enough to think it’s worth it to have a late-night call with colleagues in Asia followed too soon after by an early-morning call with colleagues in Europe or Africa.

The switches in time zones, etiquette, and business standards can be exhausting to keep track of at times. But if you’re fascinated by other cultures and energized by the opportunity to work with people all over the world, it’s worth it—and can be a profitable addition to your business.

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