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Why international work experience is what the world’s top CEOs have in common

A common concern among young people interested in living abroad is the notion that though the experience will be enriching, it won’t help them get a job. The job market is so competitive these days, students know what they need is real-world work experience in order to snag a position within their career field. That’s why an internship abroad gives a young person the best of both worlds. Not only are they able to develop personally, learning about a new culture and way of life, but they also gain international work experience in their field of choice. And this work experience isn’t just anywhere – it’s in a foreign country, which can have a long-lasting effect on a career.

An interesting trend among the world’s top CEOs is that many of them have international experience, which has better positioned them to advance their career. An article by U.S. News & World Report says that three-quarters of Fortune 100 CEOs today have spent a minimum of two years working in senior positions abroad, citing a study by Healthy Companies International. Following globalization trends, the world’s largest companies are shifting what work experience they want for individuals holding senior positions. According to the study, the percentage of Fortune 100 C-suite executives who held senior responsibilities abroad reached 71% compared to 48% 10 years prior. Around 25 years ago, working internationally meant that an individual wasn’t interested in climbing the internal executive ladder. A company would look for people to stay local.

“Now, that same company is aggressively seeking people with overseas experience, recognizing that not only their future growth but also much of their production is being performed overseas and they’re hampered because they don’t have the same diversity in their senior executives that their competitor does,” says Mark Smith, president of Healthy Companies Research Institute.


international work experience


It’s important for companies nowadays to have upper-level employees that understand how business is run overseas in order to stay competitive. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson worked in Mexico City during the ’90s as SBC International’s director of Finance. Stephenson told U.S. News & World Report that he learned a lot of lessons during his time abroad. “If you are going to serve a diverse market, you better have on your leadership team people who know those markets, and not just from a numerical, demographics standpoint but people who have actually lived and breathed and operated in those markets,” Stephenson said.

A lot of what makes international experience important is the understanding of cultural differences and how they affect business. The increasing value of international experience shows that companies are looking for individuals who can process these cultural differences, differences in perspective, problem solving, customs, etc.


international work experience


Gaining experience abroad is also a great way to get ahead early on. “Working abroad often gets you great exposure to higher level, more complex issues sooner in your career,” CityA.M. quoted managing director of the consulting firm Navigant Simon Kent as saying. After working for three years in Tanzania, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, Kent returned home and found his current position.

An internship abroad is exactly what a young person needs to start on their track to success. Beginning one’s career abroad puts a business professional in that global mindset that will make it easier to take on international opportunities in the future. That early exposure to emerging markets and varying business cultures means more opportunity to succeed in this increasingly global economy.



Sources: CityAM, FT,

Photo 1. based on Woman at work, by Steve wilson, CC-by-2.0

Photo 2. based on Hong Kong Rush Hour, by Andreas, CC-by-SA 2.0

Photo 3. based on Men at work, by reynermedia, CC-by-2.0

Photos and blog by Elizabeth Trovall

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The International Internships Blog is a collaboration by The Intern Group staff, alumni and current participants to give you career advice & tips, program information, & so much more!