Building a cross cultural career

Are you interested in a career as an intercultural professional? Perhaps you took a course that piqued your curiosity, or you had a transformative cultural experience and want to help others. The challenge may be that, having identified this interest, you do not know how to proceed. After spending almost a decade building my own cross-cultural career, I can offer you this advice:

Start where you are, with what you already know. Look to the space(s) where you have some expertise, where you are credible, and where you can launch an initial exploration. This could be first-hand experience with a country or culture, knowledge about how an industry works, or a professional skill.

For example, if you were previously an expat in France, you could coach expats in general or focus on those moving to/from France. Let’s say you also have a marketing background. You could advise companies on marketing strategies for a French audience – or help a French company market in your country. Now let’s say you also have experience designing and delivering trainings. In this case, you could create a program for other professionals working with the French market. You will have your own unique combination of pieces to arrange and rearrange; the key is to start with what you know and what you can do now and then build outward.

Work with your financial realities. It can take time to make your intercultural career financially sustainable. This may mean that you can’t jump into independent consulting full time. This is okay – and can work to your advantage. If you aren’t using your cross-cultural work to pay the bills, you won’t be tempted to make erratic decisions because you’re out of runway. You can grow slowly, experiment beneath the radar, build a client base, connect with colleagues as a newbie instead of as a competitor, and weigh your opportunities. An under-appreciated benefit is that you’ll continue developing valuable experience in the field where your day job takes place. Still, if you’re working at the same time, the trade-off is that it might take you longer to hit your stride.

Alternatively, you might find your cross-cultural calling in an institution like a university, non-profit, or community organization. In this case, you’ll have a different set of trade-offs: your cultural job WILL be your paycheck, but it may not be enough to make ends meet. Some of my colleagues found they were more comfortable when they took a part-time job; for them it was still worth it because they got to do what they loved as their day job. And, as they got promoted, this side gig became less and less necessary.

Identify your knowledge gaps. Without a foundation in the concepts, frameworks, vocabulary, and evolving thinking in the field, it can be hard to hold your own, talk the talk, and provide effective explanations, recommendations, and solutions to clients.

For some professionals, it is worthwhile to go back to school (and may be a requirement for certain positions, especially in higher ed). Yet others learn through a combination of independent reading and attending workshops and webinars. I recommend starting with the Intercultural Communication Institute, SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research), and books by experts like Milton Bennett, Stella Ting-Toomey, Fons Trompenaars, Judith Martin, Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, Erin Meyer, L. Robert Kohls, Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe. This is not a complete or comprehensive overview of the field, but it can frame your thinking and help you get the lay of the land.

Build your professional skills. If you want to grow in the intercultural field, you need some combination of writing, public speaking, coaching, mentoring, training, or facilitating ability. The reason is simple: to help people develop cross-cultural competence, you must communicate, present, and engage effectively. In addition, you may need experience writing grants, responding to RFPs, conducting assessments, creating podcasts, producing videos, designing surveys, managing clients, marketing events and services, and using social media.

A good way to develop these skills is to leverage paid, unpaid, and service opportunities. Let’s say you want to improve your presentation skills. Start with your day job – remember, presentation practice is presentation practice, whatever the topic or setting. Next, look for unpaid projects like assisting an intercultural colleague with their presentation. You might not get money, but you’ll see someone with more expertise in action. Finally, service work is an excellent way to build skills. For example, I learned how to design, market, and deliver webinars while on the board of Young SIETAR. The key here is to take both a short and long view. Identify which gaps are holding you back, which ones you can develop now, and which ones you can tackle later.

Get involved in multiple circles. This is not a field where you toil by yourself and then suddenly hit it big. It tends to be collaborative and collegial, and the best way to learn about opportunities and participate in them is to build your network. The quickest deep dive is to attend conferences through ICI and SIETAR; you may also benefit from associations and conferences that examine culture through the lens of global business, study abroad, education, relocation/mobility, multilateral institutions and NGOs, social justice, etc. You can also follow and even contact people whose work you admire.

Just remember, networking is more than handing out business cards or liking posts on LinkedIn. Particularly in this field, it’s about building relationships, helping each other, and partnering on projects. It also helps if you can find the right balance of expertise and humility, idealism and realism, and conviction and likeability.

Next steps. These five steps may take time, but if this is the right place for you, you will find a your way. As Earl Nightingale said, “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.”