Global Know-how: The Career Imperative

If you're American, it's relatively easy to get overseas finance experience. If you're not, landing a finance gig in the United States can be tough...
David McCannApril 28, 2008

On the career track to CFO, there seems no end to the list of events and circumstances that could derail the quest. Increasingly, though, just to board the train you have to be a seasoned traveler already.

The idea that international experience makes an up-and-coming finance executive more appealing to multinational companies is nothing other than logical, and it is far from new. But it does seem lately to have achieved a sort of critical mass. With the globalization of business accelerating nonstop, what was a very desirable trait even a couple of years ago is now practically mandatory.

“I can tell you with great conviction that global experience is one of the highest priorities in virtually all of the large searches we do for global companies,” said Michele Heid, co-managing partner of the finance practice at executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. “The trend over the past couple years is that not having it has become a real barrier to getting a shot at a CFO role. And now with so many companies opening knowledge-management and data-processing centers overseas, that’s just going to continue.”

But while having that experience on the résumé is a big advantage no matter where a person is from, not everyone has equal access to it. Because of the U.S. government’s tight quota on visas for foreign professional workers, it is much more difficult for them to hone their knowledge in the United States than it is for U.S.-born finance professionals to do the same in many other industrialized countries.

That presents what some see as a fairness issue, particularly since no place is in greater demand for providing that education than the United States. “Yes, it is unfair. There is a disadvantage for foreign nationals who are very qualified and educated and seek to have that U.S. experience,” Elena Park, head of the immigration practice at Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor, told “No matter what, people still want to come here — they see this as a land of opportunity and that having a U.S. employer on your résumé means a lot all around the world. To be prevented from doing that is frustrating.”

That frustration is shared by companies trying to bring professional workers into the United States and, in many cases, being shut out. Park said it’s somewhat less difficult to get visas for workers in some fields, including accounting, in which there are affiliated international professional associations, but there is far from a guarantee in any particular case. “It’s not as if the government has decided there are enough U.S. workers, or not enough, in any certain field,” she said. “It’s just, ‘Get in line.’ There’s no rhyme or reason.”

The government tightened up on visa approvals over security concerns in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but many see the policy as a net negative for American companies. “Why do we limit the talent we have working with us?” said Blythe McGarvie, former CFO of Paris-based BIC Group and now president of Leadership for International Finance, a corporate finance and leadership consultancy. “There are fear mongers like Lou Dobbs who are trying to erect walls, but I’d rather tear them down so we can get the most talent in the right places.”

Youth Movement

When it comes to getting finance and accounting talent to the right places, some companies wait for the right time, choosing not to send people abroad until mid-career, when they’re considered worth the significant investment. Others believe it’s easier and better to start the international learning curve early on, when workers are less likely to be bound to their home countries by family situations.

For the big public accounting firms, there is no such choice. With multinational clients asking for their accounts to be managed by partners with broad global experience, the firms are pushing as many young employees out to other countries as they can. “Our clients are looking for hands-on experience outside the United States and the ability to work with cultural issues, communications, and conflict resolution,” said KPMG audit partner Manny Fernandez, who is also national managing partner for university relations and campus recruiting.

Thus, in its hiring, KMPG is giving higher priority to students who have lived or studied abroad. “We’re giving them additional opportunities so that we’re attracting the right individuals for the future of the firm,” Fernandez told Even interns are in this loop. In 2007, KPMG gave 50 interns four weeks to get their feet wet working with multinational companies in seven countries. This year that’s being expanded to 100 interns in about 12 countries, which is in line with recruits’ wishes, according to Fernandez. “Students are clamoring to have more international experience going forward,” he said.

Smart Enough to Ask Questions

Working overseas can get in your blood, even if you weren’t clamoring for it before you went. On his way up the ladder, Derica Rice, the CFO at Eli Lilly and Company, spent six and a half years in London starting in 1997. “Once I got a taste of that experience, I thought, boy, this is not that bad,” he told “In fact, it was quite nice, because it was different and a new challenge. I couldn’t get enough of it, to the point that when I was asked to come back, I wasn’t ready.”

But since the world is a big place, how does one get enough experience to prepare for all the different cultures that might be valuable to know about upon becoming CFO? According to Rice, it’s more a matter of becoming familiar with the types of concepts that might be different in other countries and cultures than absorbing specific details. “If you’ve never worked outside your own country, you might never know to ask a question,” he said. “But given that you’ve had an experience in even one other country, you’re smart enough now to ask it.”

Not asking a question at the right time obviously can have disastrous consequences. When Frank Brown, now the dean of INSEAD, the international graduate business school, was working on mergers and acquisitions while employed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, he “saw a bunch of deals crater because Americans didn’t understand the Japanese and vice versa. One didn’t happen because the Japanese didn’t bid below the asking price, thinking it would be an insult to the Americans.”

If you’ve worked anywhere in Asia, and you’re flying for the first time into, say, Singapore to do business, you can say, “You know, I’ve learned that there are some interesting things about Asian cultures, so I better have someone on the ground who can answer my questions,” said Brown, who wrote a book called The Global Business Leader. “And it so happens that in Singapore, it’s an insult to put your right hand on anybody.”

Of course, it’s not just cultural norms that must be understood. The main reason global know-how is valuable is that every country also has its own legal, tax, and compliance issues, which a CFO must be prepared to deal with. International experience, Brown said, informs “negotiations of any kind, hiring of any kind, financing acquisitions, divestitures, partnerships, joint ventures, licensing deals — any kind of transaction you can think of where you’re going to be working with someone from another culture.”

To that list, Blythe McGarvie added that going abroad teaches finance executives what it feels like to be out of their comfort zones, how to see cultural nuances instead of only black and white, and how to identify possibilities they might not otherwise have known existed. She said that, for instance, “A CFO has got to understand where to go for sovereign wealth funds and where to look in the world to enhance shareholder value.”


Brown said that among the many multinational companies he worked with while at PwC, the most adept at moving people around the globe was Schlumberger, the big oil-field services company with headquarters in both Houston and Paris. There, executives in early and mid-career stay in one location no longer than three years before rotating to the next assignment (the company has operations in about 85 countries).

In an interview with, Schlumberger CFO Simon Ayat said it would be impossible for someone to head finance at the company without extensive global experience. A person who knows nothing about the differences between jurisdictions’ varying legal, tax, and compliance requirements “doesn’t understand the structure or the amount of resources that must be put in place,” he said. “There is no cookie cutter.” Ayat, by the way, has moved 12 times in his 26 years with the company.

Within the finance function, Ayat said, Schlumberger recruits in the areas where it has operations, but when a high-potential person is hired, he or she is sent to another country either immediately or after one year.

“We do this, first, because we like to spread knowledge from one place to another,” he said. “Second, we want to teach them best practices. But we also want to turn them into a ‘Schlumberger person’ — so that they become Schlumberger more than anything else, sometimes even their own cultures. When you send these people abroad and they live the international life of Schlumberger, they come back different people. They know the Schlumberger culture and requirements and become better employees.” Most executives eventually return to their home countries after several assignments, he noted.

For companies content to give finance executives only one or two international experiences, the consensus among those interviewed for this article was that it doesn’t make all that much difference where they go. China and India are obviously burgeoning commercial markets, but the rest of Asia and Europe are still extremely important, and now more companies are launching operations in South America and Africa. “The pace of globalization is extraordinary,” said Brown.