Steve McClaren

01 Oct 2014


Time abroad can broaden your leadership knowledge and coaching skills, provide a valuable alternative perspective and widen your professional circle. But it’s no holiday.

Imagine you could draw the world based on where people see the centre. “For someone who spends their life living and working in the same country, the world spins around their home. Time spent working abroad helps you realise the UK is just a small island on the edge of Europe,” says Dominic Irvine.

As founder of Epiphanies, a consultancy that provides learning development programmes in the areas of leadership and performance for blue chip companies globally, Irvine regularly travels all over the world and works with senior level managers who have been through the process of relocating. “Different parts of the world have different values, customs and traditions, and experiencing these helps you realise that much of what we call ‘normal’ is just our way of doing things.” he says. “There is almost always another way things could be done.”

When Derby County manager Steve McClaren first went abroad to work he took with him a distinct football philosophy and a tried and tested set of methods. He soon discovered, however, that the culture and style of play in his new environment were very different. “I quickly realised that I would have to change and adapt,” he says. “I learned to be flexible and pragmatic, rather than being inflexible and dogmatic, where my way is the only way.”

As a coach in Germany and Holland McClaren gained a new perspective on tactics, training and discipline, but one of the biggest differences was the attitude of the fans and media. “Adapting to the knowledge of the press in Holland was both enlightening and difficult,” he says. “The Dutch would question my team line-up, tactics, formation, system and substitutions. It was a lot more in-depth than simply whether you won or lost a game and this was difficult to adapt to, because the English mentality is very much focused on the result rather than how you played.”

Sometimes the contrasts in approach abroad can be very obvious, while at others times the differences are more subtle. The key is to not get frustrated or anxious when you realise you’re out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to hold your hands up when you don’t understand or want to find out more, and ask lots of questions. Focus on absorbing everything and assessing what might and might not work on home turf.


This applies as much to management and leadership as it does specific business processes or coaching techniques. “Experiencing the rich tapestry of cultures that makes up our planet can show you that most of the ideas and philosophies you’re familiar with around management and leadership are Western,” says Irvine. “That doesn’t make them wrong, but it does emphasise that they are not the only ways of doing things. Hunting for the other perspectives is what helps us become better leaders, businesspeople and colleagues.”

“It makes you change and be flexible and adaptable, which are key facets in successful leaders,” agrees McClaren.

Carol Pearson, poet, author and playwright, once said, “Heroes take journeys, confront dragons and discover the treasure of their true selves.” Jo Clay decided to take time out from her job as a senior officer at Sport Wales to embark on such a journey, volunteering initially on a conservation project in India for four months, before working with vi-ability to support a new volunteer organisation in the south of the country.

“I hoped the time away would give me a fresh perspective, time to think about what next and return with renewed energy,” she says. “I didn’t really come with a list of things I wanted to achieve. I wanted to keep an open mind about opportunities that presented themselves.”

And the opportunities have been many and varied, requiring Clay to put her mind to everything from devising a marketing strategy and building websites to public speaking and business planning. “It has made me realise that I can adapt to a very different environment, and that the skills I’ve learned in the sports sector can easily be transferred to other sectors,” she says. “The principles of development, growth and business planning are the same. It’s the approach that is different.”


Of course, it isn’t just how things operate within your line of work that will be different abroad, nor is it likely to be your primary challenge. Cultural, social, economic and environmental nuances can all combine to make you feel like a fish out of water and, if not dealt with well, can prevent you from exploiting your opportunity to the full.

Researching the business and social culture before you leave is a no-brainer. As well as helping you to hit the ground running in whatever venture you are embarking on, it could avoid blunders that might damage your reputation as a respectful and professional individual. Following the correct dress code, etiquette, hierarchy and things like timekeeping and when it is polite to refuse hospitality shows that you know where you are and that you are open to local ideas and methods.

For Irvine, the hardest part of working abroad is figuring out what are the unspoken, ‘taken for granted’ behaviours are that are not the norm at home. “For example, in the Middle East the person on the right always goes through the doorway first. This is so ‘obvious’ that no-one ever mentions it and not to do it is a little bit rude,” he says. “In Russia, the brusque style of communication can be a bit daunting until you get to know people.”

A particularly important and powerful encounter came when Irvine was running a workshop in Vienna for a multinational brewer. After a day that had not gone as well as he’d hoped, one of the delegates – from a group from the former Yugoslavia – approached him. “He took me for a little walk and said, ‘The thing you need to realise is that until last year we were two separate breweries, in different regions with different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Not so many years ago, friends and family of colleagues from the other brewer were trying to kill us. My friends and family were trying to kill them. So you talk about building a team - our journey is far older and begins with forgiveness.’ I had to revise my view of what was important and significant.”

However, while it is important to understand and respect local tradition, historical context and etiquette, Clay has also learned not to try to copy it. “The most important thing I’ve learned lately is that despite the differences I shouldn’t change my approach to try to fit in; if nothing else you become exhausted trying to maintain a persona that isn’t you,” she says. “Instead, I’ve become much more up-front and honest about things, and I ask more questions to understand what is going on so that I can be supportive in the best way.”


While it would be easy to use the language barrier and unfamiliar surroundings as an excuse to stick like glue to any team-members who have joined you, networking is as important when you’re abroad as it is at home. Allowing the locals to show you around and put you in touch with others who might have ideas and experiences to share can be invaluable, both in enhancing the whole experience and potentially widening your professional circle, which can prove useful in the future.

“The best advice I received was from Sir Bobby Robson,” says McClaren. “He said to go on my own and don’t take anybody with me, because I would learn far quicker and far better from the others than from having any form of sounding board. When you go out on your own you sink or swim, but it is a great experience, which helps you to mature as a professional and an individual.”

Irvine adds that it’s a virtuous circle. “Once you break into the international arena you start to build a reputation for being able to operate internationally, this in turn leads to more work and more experience and hence more opportunities.”

What’s more, if you have made an effort to learn the host language, you’ll need to put it into practice, which is less daunting within a circle of trusted local friends who will make an effort to understand you and correct you diplomatically.

Ultimately, if you don’t immerse yourself in your host country, engage with its people and work within its cultural parameters, you may as well be watching from inside a glass box. The real opportunity to learn and to open your mind to new ways of doing things comes from stepping outside your comfort zone. That’s how you end up on the plane home with a notebook brimming with new ideas and a contacts book full of new numbers.