4 lessons learned on starting and growing a career in international business


how to grow a career in international business

It seems that for the most part of recent history, there is never a good time to be starting a career, unless of course you are in a rapidly growing high-tech segment of an expanding industry. In 1979 when I started my own career following graduation with an MA in International Relations, there was turmoil internationally, terrorism was rearing its ugly head, oil prices were sky rocketing, Chrysler was heading for bankruptcy and inflation was on a trajectory to eventually reach 21%.

Although governments in Canada were freezing hiring and limiting budgets, I managed to get a 3-month contract with Consumer and Commercial Relations (the name of the Ministry at the time) as a Policy Analyst. For the next 3 years I went from 3 to 6-month contracts and finally to one-year contracts, and eventually after proving myself and building my reputation, to full-time status.

I took additional courses in French, mathematics and accounting to broaden my skill base and wrote articles on doing business in foreign markets, based upon research and interviews I conducted with experienced traders. I used whatever tools I had to acquire to strengthen my resume and orient it toward what I really wanted to do.

All of this effort put me in a position to apply for an “internship” in the Ministry of Industry and Trade and do what I really wanted to do – work in the growing field of international business. Taking the job required a pay cut – not exactly great timing with our first child on the way and a new house with a high-interest mortgage. However, the rest is history you might say, as I progressed rapidly and after progressive responsibilities retired in 2016 as a Professor of International Business. Now I operate a small import-export business, just for fun.

Charmed life you might say? The road to achieving what I had set my sights on to do as a career was far from easy. And, I will admit no different than the path anyone may take to obtain the same results. So what advice can I offer to young people just starting out in their careers, perhaps not long out of school, and who intend to work and thrive in a career involving some form of “international business”?

1. Recognize that you may not be able to start your “dream job” right away

It may happen that you must start working in a field totally different than what your goals project. The key is that you do two very important things:

1) Once you obtain that first job, do whatever job you are in to the very best of your ability and build your reputation as a reliable, adaptable and relentless learner such that your performance – and your reputation – is well regarded.

2) Keep your eye on your goal and continually look for opportunities to apply for positions that are related to your core interest in international business.

It could well happen that the endeavour in which you are currently involved has an international component somewhere in its organizational structure and opportunities may arise that allow you to move, now with experience, to that position.

I once met one of my students on the floor of a Canadian Tire, stocking shelves, a year out of school. He told me that he was disappointed in his current occupation and still wanted to work in international business. I told him to first be the best employee that Canadian Tire had ever seen – and if that meant being a “stellar shelf stocker” so be it.

I noted that since Canadian Tire bought products internationally, watch company job postings for opportunities in the purchasing office or a logistics function that moved products from foreign markets to Canadian Tire distribution centres.

After all, he had an education related to that work – including all of the FITT courses . This suggestion got him thinking and although he did not end up with Canadian Tire, three years on from graduation he is now working for a leading customs brokerage firm. A recent thank you email for that passing advice reaffirmed that I had steered him in the right direction.

The moral of the story is that sometimes it may take what I call a “flanking move” on the job you seek. Just get a job in the building, which may involve taking a job at or near the bottom of the organization. If you are in the right organization and develop the right work ethic you can move your way up the chain. This applies to any position in any field.

2. Practice continuous learning and continuous improvement

Continue to take courses to add to your tool kit. Now, education is very tailored to specific skill sets and designations that may take one or two years to complete. In the grand scheme of things this is a short period of time. If you already have a good general education in international business, such as that obtained from the skill set derived from a full FITT program offered at many leading educational institutions leading to the CITP designation, build on that knowledge base.

Consider for example, the many designations that can be obtained in logistics, supply chain management, freight forwarding. Consider as well learning or improving your knowledge of another language, a fundamental skill in the conduct of global business.

I like to say, in the world in which we now live, you cannot say “business” without saying “international”.

Many businesses have these needs and functions embedded within their operations. Consequently, many businesses will have international requirements and working in these areas are financially rewarding and will satisfy your appetite for an international career.

But keep in mind, your learning will never stop here. If you pay attention to the two important things I mentioned in my first piece of advice – you will continually move in a positive direction and further develop your career. Every employer rewards people who never stop trying to perform better and achieve the organization’s goals – in alignment with their personal goals.

3. Recognize that many “opportunities” exist in places you may never have considered

Another one of my international business students was feeling a little despondent for not obtaining employment in his chosen field of study. He bemoaned the fact that he had an upcoming interview with a Canadian bank and felt that he would be destined for “tellerdom”.

I encouraged him to study hard for the interview and since he was a very smart and industrious fellow, and with his keen sense for and skill with “numbers”, win the job and take it from there. I suggested that banks were excellent training grounds and would offer a plethora of varied, future opportunities beyond whatever position he may take initially.

Banks, I suggested, also have several international departments and international operations, and with an eye to his goals he could apply for these positions from within the organization. One day I entered my branch to do some banking – and there he was, a financial advisor, which when we spoke suited him for the time being as he positioned himself for those very opportunities of which we had discussed two years before.

One can consider many diverse businesses and then think about how there might be an “international component”. Take the investment industry for example. It is not just a business of buying stocks and bonds or selling mutual funds. All investment companies evaluate international opportunities for investment, assess international political and economic (as well as business) risks and positions in these areas are filled with international exposure.

4. Do not ignore governments or international organizations because they seem “too lofty”

Do not ignore governments or international organizations just because they seem “too lofty” a reach or may be undergoing cuts and change. At present, these organizations are actively seeking new, young recruits to help them renew their operations. I follow the UN on Twitter (@UN) and I see many appeals for young people to apply for positions in a variety of fascinating international positions. I recommend you visit the UN Career site and see for yourself.

You can build a resume online and set up notifications for positions that may be in your areas of interest. NGOs are also areas where one can start and develop and international career. And of course, you can also get weekly updates on the career section of FITT’s TradeReady blog.

The Federal and Provincial governments are in the same position and despite the current turmoil of the times – just like I experienced way back in 1979 – they will be seeking new, young recruits for a variety of internationally related functions and responsibilities. Visit their web sites and job postings and you may be surprised at what you find.

The time-tested methods of identifying where to start and then building your skill set and reputation still hold true today for those interested in working in a variety of careers with an international component.

If I may borrow a very powerful marketing message from an investment firm – “tomorrow begins today” to reinforce the notion that we all have the power to make our future, with thoughtful planning, positioning and a continuous improvement mindset in whatever we choose to do. This includes ultimately achieving one’s goal to follow a global career path.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Floyd Simpkins

A strong leader in the international business community, Floyd Simpkins, CITP has been contributing to trade and development for over three decades. His career spans both the public and private sector, as he has worked to promote trade and investment for the government of Ontario, helped individual businesses achieve global success, and positively impacted hundreds of careers by serving as a college and university professor. Floyd has also played an instrumental role in the development of the FITTskills curriculum.

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