American Product Managers Should Live Overseas for a While
American product managers should live overseas for a while. In a global software economy, it is a requirement. You will develop empathy for your international colleagues. You will learn the needs of all your customers that you cannot do from just a Zoom call.
Once your company reaches $50 million in revenue it probably has some international customers. Gartner Group estimates that the enterprise software market will grow by 8.5% to $466 billion in 2019. While North America accounts for almost 50% of the market, Europe accounts for 25% and Asia/Pacific is about 15%. As a company grows the relative share of international revenue rises. Product Management for a global product is more complex than one that just serves the United States. To be effective, American product managers should live overseas for a while to develop the necessary perspective, skills, and experience.
I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. In high school, I was fortunate enough to spend a summer as an exchange student living in a small town outside of Brussels, Belgium. It was quite a culture shock for me. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit – Grosse Pointe. I spoke ‘high school’ French. My Belgian family had hosted many American exchange students before me.
Belgium has two cultures – the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speaking Dutch. You could walk three blocks and be in a Flemish neighborhood and in another three blocks you would be in a Walloon neighborhood. After the first day my host family only spoke to me in French. I struggled at first, but by the end of the summer, I was semi-fluent and could read the newspaper with ease. I learned to appreciate Belgian food and a village lifestyle that I could never have experienced in the States. I still remember waking up to the smell of freshly baked bread from the neighborhood bakery three doors down from my house. At the age of 16, that summer was one of the most influential times of my life. I had an opportunity to learn how people in another culture worked and lived.
In the early 1990s, I was working for an enterprise software company in Atlanta. I was assigned to turn around a broken customer in Amsterdam. For one year I commuted between Amsterdam, Detroit, and Atlanta. I had an office and apartment in Utrecht, a university town 50 kilometers south of Amsterdam. I also worked on a sales team that covered Northern Europe.
In this job, I gained first-hand knowledge of what it took to successfully sell and support European customers for an American enterprise software company. In the late 1990s, I was a senior executive for a $350 million enterprise software company. We had direct sales operations in 14 countries and distributors in another 34. In the early 2000s, one of my side jobs was to downsize our UK operations and oversee the newly appointed Managing Director. In 2010 I was the chief operating officer for a German-based systems management software firm. I spent over 50% of my time in Western Europe.
During my travels, I learned many things that helped me to be an effective product manager, leader of product managers, and executive. I believe there are a number of reasons American product managers should live overseas for a while.
How Can I Live & Work in a Foreign Country?
The best scenario is for you to go and visit an office your company has. Most companies have headquarters in Europe and Asia. In Europe, you can generally visit as a tourist for 90 days (Schengen Area countries – Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, etc. 26 countries in total). In the UK you can visit for up to six months. Japan, China, South Korea are a bit different. Some countries, like India, require a visa. In general, the hoops required to legally visit and work at your company’s offices in a foreign country are not insurmountable.
There is definitely going to be some expense associated with your trip. You will need a place to stay, living expenses, and train and airfare expenses. You should be able to conduct a 60-day visit for less than $7,500.
In 2021the availability of virtual working solutions is ubiquitous. Video conferencing, WIFI calling, and groupware apps like Slack means you can collaborate with anyone at any time. Your biggest adjustment will be dealing with time zones. London is 5 to 6 hours ahead of New York City depending on the time of the year. Tokyo is 13 hours different than New York. One of the most important skills you will learn is emphasizing with your International colleagues waiting for the Americans to get in the office so you can talk with them.
Important Lessons That I have Learned
In the 25 years that I have been working internationally, I have learned a number of valuable lessons.
Many Things are the Same, but Some are Different
A Senior Vice President who ran my company’s international operations had a famous quote “We have more in common than what divides us.” In general, you will find that international customer business processes have similar challenges and opportunities as their American counterparts. The process to sell and deliver just-in-time bumpers for Mercedes cars in Germany is similar to the process they use in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A master purchase order is negotiated, a purchase order release is sent with that day’s quantity requirements, the vendor confirms the shipment with an advanced shipping notice, the truck shows up at the right dock at the right time, a shipment receipt is generated, the vendor generates an invoice, Mercedes checks the shipment receipt and the purchase order release and sends an electronic funds transfer to pay for the bumpers. The only material difference is that in Germany the documents are exchanged using the EDIFACT EDI standard, in Alabama they use the X12 EDI standard.
While you should focus on the commonalities and you should develop an appreciation for the differences. What works in the USA might not work in Europe and Asia. GDPR is one example. eInvoicing is another. As a product manager, you should strive to identify and understand these key differences. You need to understand how important compliance with these differences is to customers and prospects. It is one thing for your international colleagues to tell you about these requirements – it is something else when you can hear them directly from customers and prospects.
Negotiation Styles Are Different
While core business processes may be similar, the process of selling and negotiating is often quite different than the USA. By directly participating in sales calls and deal closing you can obtain unparalleled insights into the buying behaviors of International companies. These insights can help you make better prioritization decisions as a product manager.
For example, here is a summary of a typical negotiation cycle in the USA:
Contrast this with an analysis of negotiating with Germans:
Now contrast that image with one for negotiating with Spaniards:
Finally, here is one for China:
Developing an appreciation of how the business culture works in different countries is critical. This is stuff you can’t learn from a book – you need to experience it first-hand. This is one of the primary benefits product managers can learn from living overseas for a while.
Work-Life Balance is Important Internationally
One thing that you will learn by living overseas is that there is a deeper commitment to work-life balance. A story that Americans find odd is the French labor law that says that workers have the right to ignore business emails that arrive after hours.
Outside of the USA workers are generally entitled to significant vacation time. In the European Union workers are entitled to 22 days of vacation (aka holiday). Product managers should be aware of this since it may impact when they choose to launch products or initiatives. For example, in the summer different States in Germany have scheduled vacation times to lessen the impact on the transportation infrastructure. For example, in Southern Germany (Bavaria) the summer holidays run from late July to early September. In Northern Germany (Berlin, Bremen, etc.) they run from late June to early August. In Asia ‘Golden Week’ is a common thing. In Japan, Golden week ran from May 1st to May 5th. In China, Golden Week is a huge holiday where people travel back to their home villages. In 2021 China’s Golden Week runs from October 1st-7h. The pictures of traffic jams during Golden Week are legendary.
Language is not a Barrier
One concern that you may have is that you do not speak the local language. Americans are at a significant disadvantage in comparison to their international colleagues. Most International software company employees speak multiple languages. This point was brought home to me when I was an exchange student. A 6-year-old ‘cousin’ of my host family who joined us on a family trip spoke 5 different languages – French, Dutch, German, English, and a little Spanish. I barely spoke French.
In my 25 years of working internationally, I have managed to get by with English and French. I can recall only one time when giving a customer presentation that I required a translator – it was in Venice Italy in 1997. You should make an effort, however, to learn basic phrases – Hello, goodbye, good morning, good afternoon, where is the bathroom, I’m sorry I do not speak [insert language here], etc. Always start a conversation in the local language even if you totally goof up the phrasing and pronunciation. Your efforts will be recognized as being sensitive and at worst at least not rude.
I live in Costa Rica now and I am slowly learning Spanish. Phone apps like Google Translate help a lot.
Balancing Priorities Will Become Tough
After spending significant time overseas you will find a challenge that you didn’t have before – how to balance the priorities of international requirements against your regular ‘American’ requirements. Development resources are limited. International requirements are numerous and varied. By living overseas you will develop empathy for any given country’s requirements.
As a product manager, you cannot play favorites – you have to make decisions to benefit the entire business. It can be tough to de-prioritize the requirements of the country organization that hosted you. But sometimes you have to make those decisions. If you are lucky, you will be given the chance to visit again and you can explain the decisions you made. The fact that you made a trip to explain an unpopular decision will endear you to your international colleagues.
Make an effort to learn about cultural norms before you travel – Google only has about 702 million recommendations. A colleague of mine recently returned from an engagement in Estonia. She was surprised to learn that you do not wear shoes inside the office, you wear slippers. The same thing is true in visiting the homes of colleagues in Europe. It is easy to avoid cultural traps like this and avoid being labeled an ‘ugly American’.
‘I’m from America and I’m Here to Help’
Perhaps the greatest challenge you will face in your overseas visit is overcoming negative stereotypes of Americans. The phrase “I’m from America and I’m here to help” implies that your international colleagues need the assistance of a genius from America. While it is true that the United States is the largest software market in the world and Silicon Valley is the seat of technology innovation, it does not mean that we are the ultimate source of truth.
You will find that your international colleagues, in general, are more educated and have more experience than you do. Remember to check how many languages they speak versus you. A much better attitude is “I’m from America, how can I serve you?” In my experience humility and genuine efforts to understand and serve go very far.
Final Note: You Will Build Lifetime Relationships
The biggest benefit for product managers living overseas a while is building relationships that will last you a lifetime. Living overseas with your international colleagues will be a shared painful experience that both of you will remember. Day to day challenges like adapting to local grocery shopping, going to a doctor that doesn’t speak perfect English, or asking a stranger on the street for directions to the train station is a fact of life when visiting overseas.
Conquering these challenges will help you build empathy with your international colleagues. I have been fortunate to have built some great friendships over the years. I have been lucky enough to be invited to many of my colleagues’ homes to share a meal. Today I can visit dozens of cities across Europe and Asia and I always have a friend I can call to share a drink or a meal. These friendships have made me a better person and a better executive. I hope that you too have the opportunity to spend a few months overseas.
Reformed private equity operator who blogs about Enterprise product management and Mergers/Acquisitions