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Luiss Zaharia credits her move to a managerial position in the banking sector to the ‘soft skills’ she acquired in the Business Edge program.DEBORAH BAIC/The Globe and Mail

When Luiss Zaharia moved to Canada in 2002, she knew that she would have to work her way up the corporate ladder, but she never imagined that it would be so difficult to find a career that matched her qualifications.

In her native Romania, she worked at Bancpost, a Bucharest-based bank, where she held a post equivalent to vice-president of operations. Though she made only about $400 a month and struggled to get by financially, she had an MBA in banking and stock exchange management, and managed eight of the bank's branches.

She certainly had the know-how, she thought, for a job in Canada's financial services sector. When she went to interviews in her field, however, hiring managers would turn her away, saying she did not have enough Canadian experience.

"I said 'I'm so sorry, I don't know what is different in Canada. A cheque is a cheque everywhere in the world, a payment is a payment everywhere in the world, a deposit is a deposit – it's nothing different.' "

After a series of odd jobs, she finally landed a co-op placement at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, followed by a data entry position with AGF Trust during the 2004 RRSP season. That led to a position as a mortgage officer, followed by a promotion in 2006 to a supervisory position. But four years later, Ms. Zaharia felt stuck in that role, unable to advance.

"I knew that I had to work hard – I've worked hard, and I still have to work hard – but I was also aware that it may be something more, and I couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was," she said.

That's when Ms. Zaharia decided to enroll in the Rotman School of Management's Business Edge program, a six-month course held on evenings and weekends designed to provide internationally educated professionals with the soft skills needed to advance their careers in Canada. The executive education program, offered through the University of Toronto's business school, provides classroom instruction and one-on-one coaching about the 'unwritten rules' of the Canadian workplace – from networking tips to culturally appropriate communication skills.

"If you want to have a job, yes, you can have a lot of jobs, but if you want to have a career, you have to have the soft skills to understand what is required from you and how to navigate," Ms. Zaharia said.

Established as a pilot program in 2008 and developed in 2009 with funding from provincial and federal governments, the Business Edge program is open to immigrants with strong English-language skills who were trained abroad and have worked in Canada for at least a year.

Sabina Michaels, Business Edge program manager, said the curriculum is advanced because students already have a basic understanding of Canadian workplace culture.

"Every IEP [internationally educated professional] who comes into the country through the skilled immigrants category definitely has very high qualifications in terms of education and technical skills, but the interpersonal skills and the soft skills is where they always come up with issues," explained Ms. Michaels, who immigrated to Canada herself in 2003 from India. "For the manager, it's very hard to figure out – is it because of their personality or is it cultural? Where [the issue] is cultural, providing them with that support and feedback really makes a huge difference."

Ms. Michaels said that nuances in Canadian business culture can be difficult for new immigrants to pick up on. For instance, Canada is less hierarchical than many European and Asian business cultures, and promotions are given to those who pursue responsibilities, as opposed to those who work hardest at their assigned tasks.

"Feedback in Canada is just so different from many parts of the world," Ms. Michaels said. "It is just so indirect that very often many immigrants miss the cues completely."

Furthermore, while North American business culture values small talk and networking in the workplace, others look down on interpersonal office relationships.

"I think a lot of it does come down to communication, and understanding how to communicate differently in a Canadian corporation, whether it be through e-mails, face-to-face meetings, or when you're doing a one-on-one with your boss," said Julie MacDonald, a mentor for the Business Edge program, who worked with Ms. Zaharia. "Understanding how the Canadian corporate culture works, I think, is critical to anyone's career, whether they're born in Canada or they're from another culture."

More than a decade after arriving in Canada, Ms. Zaharia has her career back on track, now in a managerial position, and said she is confident that she will continue to excel.

"The only regret that I had is that I didn't [enroll in the program] earlier," she said. "That would have saved me a lot of pain."

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