6 Crucial Business Lessons from an Erasmus Exchange Program

Maastricht, Netherlands • October 2015 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

Three years ago I found myself squished on the edge of a dirty old mattress in our homely Dutch student dorm. A bootleg copy of L’Auberge Espagnole was playing on a haggard old laptop and the mix of accents and dialects emanating from the tin-like speakers had my Austrian, French, and Swedish room-mates’ eyes rapt on the tiny 12” screen. The film follows the tribulations of a young man on a University exchange program in Madrid as he tries to acquaint himself with the customs of both a new city and the half-dozen other Western European students he find himself living with. We ourselves has been in that position upon arrival to the southern city of Maastricht just six months before, and as the storyline unfolded rafts of nostalgia waved through our veins. In a couple of weeks we would be parting ways and returning to the daily routines back home; suitcases brimming with memories.

Looking back now, there has been nothing in my life that’s set me up more for the working world than the people I met and the experiences I had during that semester abroad. What one learns from being thrown into a cauldron of such diversity cannot be taught in any classroom, and the personal development that comes with these new exposures is growth on steroids. Here are the six most crucial things I learned from my time in spent in The Netherlands that have proved bountiful in business life beyond higher education:

All Cultures Operate Differently

On a far-too-regular basis I would stagger back home from the pub at midnight to find my Spanish flat mate and her merry band of ‘amigas’ chopping and prepping veg in the kitchen. Likewise, when heading off to mid-morning classes I would frequently pass Marta in the hallway as she declared: “It’s time for my nap!” As a Brit who will rarely have dinner outside the hours of 6:00 and 6:30pm, and regards going for a snooze at 11am the sheer height of laziness, this started off as a bit of a running joke. I quickly came to the realisation however that just because I scheduled my day in a certain way, this didn’t mean it was the ‘correct’ way. Indeed there is no ‘correct’ way to go about structuring your time and everyone performs best when operating on their own personal schedules.

Fast forward then to my current employment where I frequently find myself working alongside people from different cultures who have these ‘alternative’ approaches to time-management and targets. More often than not these approaches also usually conflict with our culturally traditional methods. Having the empathy to realise that these individuals are not trying to be ‘difficult’ or ‘critical’ in any way however, and are just acting how they normally would, has allowed me to work and compromise in teams a lot more fluidly. Sometimes to get the best out of people you have to let them get on with their own thing.

English is THE Language of Business

A major flaw in the British education system is that, despite studying and sitting exams in foreign languages, only a small iota of pupils ever leave school being able to converse with locals in their native tongue. When first arriving in The Netherlands and finding out everyone bar my fellow countrymen and North American compatriots spoke at least one other language I felt extremely ignorant to the level that I was simply embarrassed to be monolingual. This was then only heightened in tutorials when  peers began discussing the answers to complex hedging and derivative calculations in what I would later learn to be only their fourth most spoken language.

What these friends soon pointed out to me however was that although they may well be able to speak fluent Swedish, Belgian and French, these languages were not of any primary use in an all-encompassing international setting. I may well only be able to speak one language fluently, but “English is THE language needed for the world of business.” Over the past couple of years I have managed to navigate my way across South America with intermediate level Spanish, but having recently returned from a Europe-wide training course which was ironically held in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, these words still ring true. Slovenians, Maltese, Bulgarians, and Norwegians could all be found conversing together in one language and one language only: English.

The Benefit of Keeping in Touch

In his bestselling book on networking entitled Never Eat Alone, author Keith Ferrazzi cites a study that found “the ability to bridge different worlds, and even different people within the same profession, is a key attribute in managers who are paid better and promoted faster.”  This concept is defined as ‘social arbitrage’ and explains that the reason persons with these skills are so indispensable is that through their influential connections they have the ability to freely obtain and share the vital pieces information and ideas that help keep organisations ticking-over.

On exchange I made what I know will be numerous life-long connections on every continent on the globe (minus Antarctica) and these have already served to be beneficial for myriad reasons. As every individual has completely different resources and experiences to draw upon, having such a diverse group of friends means that advice on any topic under the sun is usually no more than a couple of e-mails or Facebook messages away. These ingredients make for being a crucial cog in the information gathering wheel, and keeping in touch with others also has the added side-benefit of eliminating the risk of forgetting names and faces.

You Are Always Representin’

Whether you like it or not, when abroad you are representing or breaking the stereotypes of a nation. Being one of only three Scots in a group of 500+ exchange students meant that I was at all times cast as that Braveheart-esque patriot, and there was some unorthodox honour behind that. Not quite the honour an Olympian would feel, but honour nonetheless... even if I never chose for it to be that way.

In the business world you may not have the banner of a nation draped over your back, but you will have the prestige and brand of your company to uphold. I have learnt that whatever you do in work should be congruent to the values of your employer and how they wish to be envisaged by the stakeholders of this Earth.

Comfort Can be Found Even in Foreign Environments

From literally bumping into an old friend on the streets of Budapest; to calling up a mate for a few beers whilst in Copenhagen; to receiving that precious e-mail from another acquaintance stationed in my company’s office in Vienna, the big wide world really does shrink when you get to meet its inhabitants.

My comfort zone was smashed into shards when I first stepped off that plane but I would now classify that unfamiliar Dutch city as a second home. With this it is much easier to undertake new challenges at work, knowing that even if something appears from the outset to be massive step-up, I will eventually get there.

Experience in A Foreign Country Jumps Out on Your CV

No personal development here, but the final crucial business lesson I’ve taken from completing an Erasmus program is that employers go ape-shit for candidates with these types of experiences. For all the above reasons and more, having spent time working or studying in a foreign environment will pay huge dividends when it comes to locking down that desired job. Not only will you have a broad variety of examples to draw from when posed with the now generic interview questions, but you will also be able to bring an edge to the company which only those who have been in a similar boat could fathom.