Workers of the World

The global cosmopolitan, with linguistic skills and an ability to work across cultures, could be a company's best asset.

by Emilie Filou, World Business
Last Updated: 27 May 2015

Nadim Saad has three passports: Mexican, Lebanese and Greek. Although this is unusual enough, it does not represent Saad's complex identity. A management consultant based in London, he was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese father and a Mexican mother. He speaks four languages (Arabic, English, French and Spanish). He lived in Kuwait for 12 years from the age of three; he then spent five years in France, four in Argentina and, most recently, four in the UK. And that's glossing over the numerous one-year stays in Spain, France, south-east Asia and the Middle East.

Saad is part of a new generation of people that INSEAD professor Linda Brimm has labelled 'global cosmopolitans'. Brimm has been studying people such as Saad for more than 15 years.

She says: "Neither immigrant nor expatriate seems to capture the full complexity of this population of highly educated, usually multilingual people that have lived, worked and studied for extended periods in different cultures. Their international identity might start at different stages of their lives, but they all have a world view that is profoundly affected by their experience of living in different cultures."

Brimm argues that as the world becomes flatter, business more cross-border, travelling and studying abroad easier, these people are likely to become more common. Global cosmopolitans could become to 21st century organisations what expatriates were to 20th century multinationals.

Most multinationals have recognised that their growth engine is now outside of their home market. The old model of exporting core skills towards the periphery (the typical expat set-up) is out of date and overpriced. Instead, organisations need a more nimble approach to globalising their business, one that is much more fluid and globally aware.

Daniel Lalonde, president and CEO of Louis Vuitton in the US, explains: "When you're working with a strong brand such as Louis Vuitton, it has to be applied consistently across zones. But the challenge is finding a way of mainstreaming this positioning; there are different ways of doing this, and that's where global cosmopolitans come in. They appreciate the nature and subtleties that it takes to make it work in certain markets."

Brimm says that their ability to navigate between cultures and to adapt is what sets them apart. A lifetime of exposure to different cultures also allows them to look at situations from a range of perspectives. Yvonne Sonsino, head of international at human resource consultancy Mercer, says that half her 70-strong team fall more or less into that category, and she says she would always favour someone with a cosmopolitan profile for her organisation.

Cosmopolitans are also likely to succeed where many expatriates have failed by integrating with the local community. "The traditional reason why expats fail is because the family cannot settle. But family circumstances are already sorted for many global cosmopolitans. They're used to moving as a unit, so it's a better success rate," says Sonsino.

In countries with a particularly strong sense of identity, it can also help not to come from an equally strong national group. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault and Nissan, and a high-profile cosmopolitan himself (born in Brazil to Lebanese parents, his career has spanned positions in France, Brazil, the US and Japan) explains in his book Shift: inside Nissan's historic revival (2004) that his multicultural background probably made it easier for Nissan employees to accept him.

These people also bring with them an extensive network of international contacts and are frequently employed by companies to research new markets overseas. For instance, Saad's company, Result, offers advice to companies wishing to expand internationally in telecoms, IT and media and entertainment. "I think it makes us more credible to have people like that on board," he says. But even those not employed in such roles have the ability to bring in business lessons from other cultures, which can be a significant driver of innovation.

However, Brimm says that few organisations appreciate the skills and assets of cosmopolitans. All too often, they fail to take advantage of the richness of the cosmopolitans' background; at worst, their employees' particulars lay buried in an HR file. Lawyer-turned-UK politician Dinti Batstone experienced this first hand.

The daughter of an American father and a half-Italian, half-Spanish mother, she grew up in Hong Kong, where she attended a French school. When the family moved to Japan, she went to a Japanese school before being sent to boarding school in the UK. By the time she was 18, Batstone spoke six languages, "four well (English, French, Italian and Spanish) and two badly (Japanese and Portuguese)".

Batstone trained as a lawyer and after a few years at a law firm went to work for a media company, where she negotiated international licences for Latin America, Mediterranean Europe, Benelux and the Middle East. When she asked why she'd been given the job, she was told that she had all the right skills and was a good negotiator. "But they didn't mention my languages and my international experience; they just said that everything was done in English or translated.

But there is a soft side to negotiating, where it really helped that I could speak to people in their language."

Batstone remembers a particular negotiation with a Flemish broadcaster that had reached deadlock. "I thought that since she was Belgian, she had probably been brought up to be bilingual so I suggested that we speak French. It totally changed the tone of the negotiation and we reached an agreement."

Being multilingual is just one skill that can be overlooked. Just as with Saad's three passports, what is visible is often just the tip of the iceberg. "People often think that I'm British and fully integrated," says Batstone, "but I'm an immigrant. I'm an Italian citizen and my parents have never lived here."

Although employers should try to understand their employees' needs, it takes time and resources, two things many HR departments are short of. Sonsino says that adequate pay is one thing, but that it is mostly about finding people a job they enjoy on an innovative project. "It's less tangible than pay, but it is equally important. It's quite high maintenance to have people like that on board."

Amanda Alexander, global head of talent at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, says her job is to manage the firm's pool of talent and to provide fulfilling careers to all its employees. "The challenge with cosmopolitans is that they are often so flexible and capable of going anywhere that the question is: how do I put this person to best use?"

Brimm found that cosmopolitans themselves often did not have a clear idea either. "Questions such as 'where is home', 'where will I bring up my children', 'where will I be appreciated' are serious considerations and play an important part in determining their career choices," she says. Others might find it difficult to settle down in one country, having been used to a life on the move.

Cosmopolitans can also struggle to define their identity when faced with challenging new situations. "Assimilation doesn't mean that you have to lose your individuality or your originality," writes Ghosn in his book. "And in any case, I knew I'd always be different." Many cosmopolitans tend to gravitate toward cities with a strong international flavour and which are home to many like-minded people, such as London, Geneva or even Dubai.

The outcome of such challenges is a breadth and depth of experience unique to cosmopolitans, but one that must be carefully managed to perform at its best. Brimm refers to this as a double-edged sword, whereby a strength might also be a weakness. Many cosmopolitans are unaware of their strengths and weaknesses.

As a clinical psychologist, Brimm's work has focused on helping people tell their story and reflect on their experiences. Students on her course at INSEAD write a personal narrative as a way to explore and understand the implications of their experiences.

Saad is convinced that his cosmopolitan background has helped him, but it has taken a lot of work and reflection on his part to understand how it has influenced his career. "I would like to understand this aspect better. My background has given me a lot of empathy, so I tend to blend in easily. But how can I use these skills in negotiating or marketing? For the moment, it's all very natural and inherent, but perhaps it could be used more effectively if it was more conscious."

Similarly, Ghosn writes that he has no doubt that he was picked for the Nissan job because of his background: "If I were in the CEO's place, I'd have chosen me, too. I wouldn't pick a person who'd never lived abroad, who had no experience of restructuring a company, who had never demonstrated an ability to work in a different culture than his own, and send him into such a situation. I had the ideal background."

Other cosmopolitans might prefer to play down their differences. Years of being set apart and uprooted leave many with a craving for stability, ignoring the lessons they might have learnt over the course of their globe-trotting life. At the risk of jeopardising unique talent, companies should ensure they understand their employees and give them a chance to demonstrate the skills they will bring to the company.

It is clear that cosmopolitans have something unique to offer; a diversity, richness and wealth of experience that could benefit a business whatever its size. What is surprising is how few organisations have tapped into this resource.


Global cosmopolitans develop unique ways of adapting to new situations, but these strategies can have downsides:

- Their agility and chameleon-like abilities can mean that they don't bring their own ideas to a situation for fear of standing out

- They might have successfully adapted by being non-confrontational and adopting a diplomatic role, and therefore have the tendency not to speak up when they disagree

- They might have the tendency to see endless new possibilities, but find it hard to focus on a particular project

- They may also be fluent in several languages, yet never sound like a native-speaker and miss out on nuances and colloquialisms

- They may be excellent observers, but fail to engage.

- Know your story and value it
- Know your strengths and let other people know too, such as:
Success and experience in managing change and transition
Success and experience in managing difference and the creative edge of
being different
Developed observational skills
Understanding of different lenses for seeing the world
Understanding of different ways of doing things and contributing them
to creative problem solving.
- Know your double-edged sword
- Apply your strengths to personal challenges, such as:
- Maintaining multiple networks
- Finding a sense of meaning
- Recreating a sense of home

- Be aware of their complexities
- Don't make assumptions about what will work
- Encourage personal knowledge
- Acknowledge their skills and use them
- Embrace their uniqueness.

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