The University of Iowa

Leaving your comfort zone

August 16th, 2011

WJBC Forum
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By: Pamela Sweetwood

At a recent conference on international development, one unexpected session involved employers. A panel of business owners was to discuss their current and expected needs in regards to their workforce. The businesses were varied, insurance, manufacturing and e-commerce, each succeeding well beyond the owners expectations. Their companies were able to survive and actually flourish during the recession because of their diversification in other countries. One remarked that his domestic sales fell drastically but he discovered high demand overseas.

The e-commerce business had trouble hiring staff quickly enough in 2010. It was indeed a global market. They were not bound by the local or national economy as they were defeating those standards.

The business owners realized how important their employees were to the equation. Through lessons learned, they realized it wasn’t the college grad at the top of their class that they needed. You see, they discovered one of the best indicators of employee success was having people who had somehow exposure to international travel and other cultures. They understood the lifelong impact this has.

Study abroad was more than an edge. Their argument was the employee could be flexible. They could adapt. With international customers, they sought to understand by listening and problem-solving. They had a wider perspective, expressed patience and could avoid judgment. They were willing to be out of their comfort zone socially and physically. They were capable of working in a foreign environment whether it be a trip or a rotation within the company. They were key to the sustainability of their business.

As strong advocates of international travel, the business owners recognized that was an unusual experience to seek, especially in rural Iowa. But there are opportunities to become culturally aware without travel. What was important was exposure to other cultures, languages, and generally experiences out of their element.

It is super easy and somewhat natural to spend time with those that are like you – hence the social networks, neighborhoods, and lunch tables sharing ethnicity, religious background, etc. I get it. Leaving that comfort zone and interacting with people 1-on-1 is personal growth like no other.

Their advice – seek out and support this wider perspective in generations after yours.

Pamela Sweetwood was an ISU student, like many, who never left town. She works in higher education and has a history with many community non-profits organizations.