Be a Better Manager: Embed Yourself in a Foreign Culture


In a post I wrote late last spring, "Top Job-Seeking Tip: Be Willing to Relocate (Including Overseas," I wrote about a Kaplan University official who encouraged 2010 graduates to be willing to relocate, advice that I suggested should include relocating overseas. We can now cite new research that shows why my addendum was so important.


Researchers from Insead, Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and Tel Aviv University have written an article in Harvard Business Review, in which they presented their findings that the experience of living abroad makes managers more creative and more entrepreneurial. For starters, they asked 220 MBA students to solve the Duncker candle problem:

In this behavioral test, individuals are presented with three objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks. They're asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall-using only the objects on the table-so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the floor.


The correct solution demands the ability to think creatively: Empty the box of tacks and use it as a candleholder. The solution is considered a measure of "insight creativity" because it involves making the "aha!" discovery that the box is not just a repository for your tools but a tool itself.


We found that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to use the box as a candleholder. In fact, 60% of students who had previously lived abroad solved the problem compared with 42% of students who hadn't lived abroad. Interestingly, time spent traveling abroad had no effect on creativity.

The researchers found, moreover, that students who integrated themselves into the local culture were more innovative than those who didn't:

This creativity effect was even more pronounced in students who had made an effort to adapt to their host countries. In a study of 133 Insead students from 40 countries (15 of whom held dual citizenships), we found that creative enhancement was significantly higher for students who said they had adapted to the foreign countries while they lived there than for students who said they had not.

The researchers concluded that expatriate programs develop better managers, and that companies should ensure that the employees they send overseas are integrated into the local culture, not isolated in an expat community. The conclusion I draw from theirs is that a multicultural environment fosters innovation, and that the discussion should hardly be limited to what makes better managers.