As business owners, we are often heads-down — driven and focused on meeting our responsibilities. Leaving your business to go see the world is inconceivable. Or is it? What if it helped you lead your business better?
Travelling to all seven continents (including 80 countries and 47 states) has helped my business thrive. World travel has given me two important tools: A deep appreciation of how great we have it in America and a deep well of insights to improve my business (and those of my clients).
Remember your childhood. On sunny days, Mom and Dad made you go outside and play. Wasn’t it fun? Now that you’re the boss, it doesn’t have to be a summer day. You can get away more easily than you may think — and gain sharper thinking in the process.
Here are 11 lessons from going out to the biggest playground of all: Planet Earth.
Africa: Despite the despair and corruption, there is hope.
During my three trips to Africa, I witnessed pockets of chronic poverty and corruption – especially in Kenya. These lead to great unrealized growth despite abundant natural resources and kind people.
By contrast, in Morocco, King Mohammed VI has converted beachfront land into affordable housing and built the largest mosque outside of Mecca. He has taken steps not just to protect his estimated $2.5 billion of family wealth but also to care for his people. His stated goal is to push the culture into accepting and exercising democratic rights and personal accountability.
Lesson 1: Piety, charity and humility
All three are possible, even when a leader has absolute power and a family business to protect.
Asia and Middle East: Success despite dramatic political upheaval
Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore all exemplified Asia’s remarkable resilience. In the face of profound political change, the successful entrepreneurs I met continually find opportunity.
Personal accountability, demonstrated by growing small family businesses, was prevalent, as was the respect and envy of the United States. It seemed every person said they need America to thrive, recognizing how we benefit the world economy. Otherwise, they claimed self-sufficiency and needed nothing beyond our success.
Lesson 2: Find opportunity in change
Gravitate towards markets your government favors. Make the best of what is happening within your culture. America matters.
Australia and New Zealand: Working with pride and humility
While there are political differences between more conservative Australia and more liberal New Zealand, both countries are growing. Both nations demonstrate an interesting mix of pride and humility. Deeply nationalistic and having sent troops into nearly every major conflict since their founding, humility and working for the common good are strongly emphasized culturally.
Lesson 3: Draw strength from the group
They have an expression, “Don’t be the tall poppy.” Instead of standing out from the crowd, draw your strength from the group. Interestingly, it seems to encourage entrepreneurship there even as it can dampen it in other countries.
Europe: What American entrepreneurs can learn
European entrepreneurs seem to be faring better than we are here in the United States despite their history of high regulatory and resource challenges. They focus heavily on generating short-term results while putting in place the ingredients for long-term success.
Lesson 4: Live in the present, not your legacy
Don’t dwell on the past. Adapt to the inevitable — change, opportunity and the future are synonymous.
Lesson 5: Create opportunity out of scarcity
Europeans have adapted to less as the status quo. They have less space, less disposable income, and less personal freedom. Yet they are arguably just as capitalistic. They live well with what they have. They waste less and seem to make everything count for more. Europeans find ways to charge for value everywhere.
Lesson 6: Live to serve, serve to live
Europeans take great pride in their service professions. Tour cars can drive right up to the door of any attraction in Italy. They are a tight and proud fraternity. Bathrooms are clean, as attendants expect you to treat their facilities well.
Lesson 7: Work and play hard
A Belgian antique trader remarked that as much as everyone loves America, he is worried for us. He said, “You Americans used to say ‘Go Out and Get It!’ Now, you seem to say, ‘Bring it right to me.’” Europeans seem to focus less on how they need government, association or corporate assistance to grow their businesses. They have a way of living life to its fullest, both in terms of how hard they work and how hard they play.
Lesson 8: Focus on the basics
Discover your best and highest use, provide extra value, look for pain and problems in your marketplace, sweat the details, persist, and follow through. Deliver on what you promise. Otherwise, growth is not real or sustainable.
Let’s keep pushing forward. It’s the right way to go, as proven by those who built our country.
South America: Integrating the Old and New Worlds
The beauty and spirit of the people of Brazil persist despite desperate poverty. In Rio de Janeiro, an integrated society of Africans, Portuguese, Asians, indigenous tribes and Europeans are driving progress. Brazil’s abundant natural resources and influx of outside investment are being leveraged to drive economic growth and break poverty cycles.
Lesson 9: Take advantage of opportunity
While the country is reeling from overspending, graft, and an unhealthy preoccupation with sports, Brazil represents the world’s fifth largest country in geography and population, and the seventh largest economy. Their push toward reform is an important example of combining the old world with the new.
Antarctica: Reconciling consistency with adaptation
I toured Antarctica on a cruise ship and noted two extremes. The crew and staff of the ship worked nonstop to create a consistent onboard experience. Antarctic researchers nearby had to adapt to survive as they studied the region.
Despite its inhospitable and dangerous climate, Antarctica has drawn thousands of explorers over the centuries. Ernest Shackleton, the most famous, survived more than 130 days under a rowboat by eating blubber. Their legacy reflects our need to innovate, adapt, survive, and learn.
How do you reconcile consistency with the need to adapt? You really don’t have the luxury of choosing one or the other.
Lesson 10: Managing your way to consistency and adaptation
Create consistency and standardization, even in the midst of innovation. Empower employees and hold them responsible for results. Create a clear business strategy that recognizes shifts in your marketplace.
North America: Land of the free and home of the brave
Our best story is how we leverage freedom, apply our natural resources, and provide distribution to the world’s largest marketplace. Immigrants flock to North America for the one resource their booming economies cannot provide: freedom. Despite its flaws, North America’s democracies and relatively fewer regulations keep our melting pot cooking. The world’s most educated and motivated come here and stay.
Lesson 11: Freedom is the greatest resource
Domestic resources power many of the continent’s businesses, creating economic efficiencies few continents can match. Our transportation and communication infrastructure is highly developed as well. North America allows the world’s producers access to the biggest consumer market in the world. Our liberty created a tradition of the world’s most favorable environment for creating new businesses.
Studying business abroad has led me to develop a sense of gratitude for being blessed to have a business in the United States.