Key Career Building Blocks

After I was hired at the Alliance, it occurred to me that my first "interview" for the job had actually been five years earlier when I'd collaborated with Michael and shown him who I was through my work and actions. NCIV joined forces with the Alliance on various challenging projects. I enjoyed working with Michael in those demanding moments because we approached things in similar ways and because I learned a great deal from him. It was a relationship that developed naturally during the course of working together— unforced networking at its best.

At that time, I didn't realize that my relationship with Michael would lead to my next career step—or that his perception of me and my work would be so important five years later. Learning to recognize that perception is critical in the workplace is the first of several attributes essential for professionals in international education, exchange, and development.


Karl Dedolph told us a story about his first months on the job after grad school that illustrates the importance of perception. At one of his first client meetings, his boss gave him the opportunity, as a very junior consulting analyst, to present to their main client. He was nervous:

Unlike most people who are nervous, who give off that sense of nerve, my counter is to try to be as relaxed as possible. Like over-relaxed. So instead of bringing energy and standing tall and looking the client in the eye, I slumped back in my chair. I crossed my legs. I lounged. After the meeting, our client pulled my boss aside and asked, "Is Karl sick? Is he physically ill? Because it sure seemed that way."

Later, his boss took him aside and said, "You've got one more chance, or you're out of here." Karl realized that how he was being perceived was blowing it for him—his body language, his nonverbal cues. It wasn't what he said, it was how he said it:

I had a quick and important lesson on perception. I realized that people remember these things. Differentiating yourself from your peers and advancing in your career often is subjective and based on people's perceptions of you as much as your actual work.

Early in my career, I, too, had small but meaningful lessons on the importance of perception. Three weeks into my job at NCIV, Sherry and I traveled to Denver for a board of directors meeting. A majority of the meeting was held on a Saturday. The board chair had determined dress would be casual. I put on a pair of khakis, a polo shirt, and black shoes—fairly dressed up for a dress-down day, at least by my standards. I even tucked in my shirt. I also decided to forgo shaving.

The following Monday, back at the NCIV office in Washington, Sherry and I met to discuss follow-up tasks from the meeting. As I sat down in her office with a fresh cup of coffee, she remarked that she liked the particular tie I was wearing. She then made another observation about my appearance.

"You're looking nice and neat this morning, too," she said. "You looked awfully scruffy on Saturday."

I blanched. I had no idea how to take this. Was it just a passing remark? Or rather a comment conveying Sherry's displeasure with my hiatus from the razor and an admonition not to let it happen again? Our meeting finished and Sherry never remarked again on my appearance, unless it was to comment on the fashionable tie I happened to be wearing.

The second example occurred not long after that board meeting. Sherry requested I write a follow-up e-mail to the board. Wanting to show my diligence, I wrote it immediately. I labored over the wording and tone. I knew it needed to be professional, but I'd also just discovered that the board was a laidback, personable group. I wanted to show that I, too, was laidback and personable and would prove to be an excellent colleague. So I chose my words and tone accordingly. Pleased with the amiable yet professional nature of the e-mail, I copied Sherry and hit send.

Later, Sherry told me in a respectful way that she thought the tone of that e-mail was too casual. A business-related e-mail to the board of directors of our organization needed to be more professional. "The members of the board are my bosses," she remarked, "and I need everyone on staff to treat them as such."

Both of these relatively insignificant events were meaningful learning experiences for me. While I'd thought the tone of my e-mail was appropriate, Sherry had not. While I'd thought there was nothing unprofessional about growing a bit of fashionable stubble from time to time, Sherry disagreed. Like Karl, I learned it's not always what you say, but how you're perceived.

I emphasize this idea not to say that first impressions are all that matter. I'm also not encouraging you to manipulate another's perception of you, or suggesting that you cultivate an image as a hard worker (whether you actually are or not). Rather, my point relates to one Sherry makes in chapter 2, and has made to me many times: you're always on. You never know who's observing. You never know who's storing away perceptions of you, good and bad. And you never know how those images might come back to help you, or haunt you, in the future.


An important virtue as you progress in your career is not necessarily how you conform but rather how you adapt. Kowtowing to varying needs and expectations is less important than learning to work comfortably and successfully within various organizational and cultural constructs. Determine how you can work with colleagues of differing viewpoints and working styles in order to get the job done. Incorporate compromise into your daily routine. If another party is resistant to compromise, maintain your composure to work around and through the situation.

For young professionals, this process of adaptation can be especially challenging. As I discuss in chapter 3, my generation and the generations following us have an acute sense of urgency. We are on-demand. Consequently, when we enter the workplace, we're eager to bring our skills to bear on the tasks at hand. We don't necessarily stop to think about the need to adapt our performance and style to mesh with those around us or look to our more experienced colleagues for guidance.

Adaptation to professional environments is not an attribute reserved for young professionals. You must possess it and hone it even as you progress in your career. In fact, adaptation perhaps becomes even more important as you acquire additional responsibility and come into positions of leadership. Not only do you have to deal with irreverent young professionals like me who don't want to shave, but you're also required to be a leader for your organization. Leadership requires adaptation.


Adaptability is one of many skills that can be cultivated while living within another culture. Studying abroad in France, teaching English in China, and learning French and Chinese: these experiences shaped the kind of professional that I am today and are the crux of my resume. They're the principal experiences that have shaped my cause and nourished my passion. Spending significant time abroad, and often gaining or polishing a foreign language in the process, are fundamental building blocks of a career in these fields.

The specific language skills and cultural knowledge gained are perhaps the most obvious benefits from time abroad and might end up being explicitly useful in your day-to-day work. If you work for, say, the American Councils for International Education, which focuses on exchanges with Russia and former Soviet republics, strong Russian skills and regional knowledge may be a prerequisite. If you're assigned to Peru to manage a Catholic Relief Services development project, fluent Spanish will likely be necessary. If you decide on the Foreign Service, previous linguistic knowledge—as well as the ability to quickly develop a working knowledge of new languages—is part of the job.

But more often than not, jobs in these fields won't require you to use language or regional skills on a day-to-day basis. I've had only one position—a three-month internship at the Embassy of France in Washington, DC—that absolutely required I speak a foreign language daily. I've traveled to China for work and was able to use my Chinese language and cultural knowledge in social settings—but it wasn't required for my daily work.

Even so, an experience abroad is essential for working in these fields. Hiring managers rarely give second consideration to a resume that doesn't have some kind of international exchange or foreign language component. But if the job they're hiring for doesn't require those specific language or regional cultural skills, then why the heavy emphasis on overseas experience? First and foremost, an international experience (or two or three) shows that you care deeply about the work you're hoping to do. It demonstrates that you've made it a priority to "get out there." It indicates you inherently understand the importance of the work (facilitating an exchange program, advising students who want to study abroad, planning logistics for an on-the-ground development project) because you've experienced it yourself.

Second, an experience in another country and culture teaches you skills that employers value and that will help you to succeed in your job: self-motivation, self-reliance, and self-confidence; time management, critical thinking, and the ability to work in teams; flexibility, adaptability, problem solving, negotiation, and compromise. Indeed, not only do employers in the fields of international education, exchange, and development prize these "soft skills," but increasingly employers in other sectors do too.[1]

As Sherry notes, though, in the job search process it's not enough just to have these skills and experiences. An experience abroad or language skills might help strengthen your resume in the eyes of a hiring manager and help get you the interview; do not assume the experiences will speak for themselves. You must be able to articulate why your time abroad or your language study has been so crucial for you—what you've learned from these experiences and how they'll help you succeed in that specific job with that organization.


One of the most common questions Sherry and I receive from job seekers is, "Do I need a master's degree?" followed closely by, "If yes, when should I get it?" My experience has shown that—for better or worse—an advanced degree is an increasingly essential building block of an international career. I don't believe I would've been hired for my current job without a master's degree (it wasn't the only reason, but it was a key qualification). The same holds true for friends and colleagues. An advanced degree is a qualification that, at a certain level, employers expect to see. This doesn't apply in all cases, and it certainly doesn't preclude professionals without advanced degrees from having successful careers. It does, though, strike me as the trend.

Some pursue a master's directly (or almost directly) out of college. This worked for me, and it works for others. Based on her ten years of hiring young professionals at World Chicago, Peggy Parfenoff told us that she thinks, in many cases, getting your master's soon after you graduate can be beneficial. This gives you the time to burnish your academic credentials, develop your skills, and gain a variety of professional experiences via internships and fellowships.

Realize, though, that an advanced degree doesn't automatically entitle you to a more senior position. If you went to grad school more or less right out of college (meaning you have limited work experience), expect your first job, even with an advanced degree, to be entry level or on a lower rung (this was the case for me). Newly minted master's degree holders often (understandably) find this disappointing. They hope their advanced degree will automatically warrant a higher-level position. But, from the hiring manager's perspective, why should that be the case if those applicants have little to no practical work experience? Your advanced degree, especially if pursued shortly after undergrad, is not a panacea but a building block. It may take some time for that degree to pay off and to secure a position you couldn't get without a master's (it took me five years).

Others see gaining several years of work experience and layering a master's on top as the best way to go. Alanna Shaikh told us that she firmly believes professionals in these fields need a master's degree—but not immediately out of college. She notes that a recent college graduate may not know what kind of degree program is best for her:

I applied to a lot of master's programs right out of undergrad, and if I'd been accepted, that would have been awful. The degree programs I was choosing did not coincide with what I'm interested in now.

It took Alanna several years of fieldwork to determine that global health is her passion and thus the field in which she should pursue a degree. And her process for knowing when it was time to go back to school went like this: "You'll hit a point where you'll top out and everything you can do with an undergraduate degree doesn't strike you as interesting any more. That's the time to go get your master's."

Second, Alanna believes that employers and hiring managers see a resume with "the whole package" (work experience + an advanced degree) as preferable to one that features two or more degrees but no practical experience. "You've got to have the actual experience to show them you can do the job, and then you've got to have the shiny credential and the up-to-date academic knowledge on top of that."

"It's Just the Bottom Rung of another Ladder"

Fayezul Choudhury, then vice president for corporate finance and risk management at the World Bank, told us a story that neatly summed up the main focus of this chapter.

On his wife's birthday in 1985, Choudhury spent nearly twenty-four straight hours at the office. At the time, he was working in London for a well-known international accounting and consulting firm. On that particular day, his wife dropped him off at the Underground station near their home at 3:30 am and didn't see him again until 2:30 am the next day. His wife was remarkably understanding and not upset with him for working on her birthday that year. Yet Choudhury said the experience unnerved him and spurred him to question whether this job was right for him.

Not long after, Choudhury received a promotion and was made a partner in the firm. "Finally," he thought, "this is proof that I've made it." A senior partner called Choudhury into his office and followed up this news of the promotion with a simple, "Well done. Carry on." No congratulations or praise for the hard work Choudhury had put in. Excited about the promotion but equally frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm from the senior partner about his accomplishment, Choudhury turned to leave the office. Just as he reached the door, the senior partner stopped him.

"Fayez," the senior partner called from his desk. Choudhury turned, an expectant look on his face. The senior partner finished: "Remember, you're not the only partner in this firm."

At that moment, Choudhury not only knew that it was time to move on, but he also came to realize a fundamental truth about careers: you've never really made it. The journey goes on.

"A number of pieces just fell into place for me," he recounted. "You have this notion that if you're a partner, or if you've reached a certain point in your organization or your career, you've got it made. But really, it's just the bottom rung of another ladder."

  • [1] British Council and NAFSA: Association of International Educators studies illustrate the importance of intercultural skills in the workplace and the value employers place on international educational experiences. See
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