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3M Canada president: Gain a world of experience by working abroad

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Being born in Strathroy and growing up in Southwestern Ontario, I never expected that my journey to the president's office at 3M Canada – just down the road in London, Ont. – would take a huge detour to the other side of the world and back. Nor did I fully appreciate at the time that, by leaving a job I loved in Canada, I would gain valuable international experience to help me to be a better leader here at home.

Just about anyone can benefit from working in another country, whether on a short-term or longer-term assignment. It not only opens up your perspective to new business climates and challenges and exposes you to different strategies and customers, it also helps you to see issues in a new light and provides you with a broader range of possibilities to improve your business.

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In my case, after 12 years in a variety of roles with 3M Canada, my international journey began in 2000 as vice-president of sales in 3M's Electrical Division in Austin, Texas. Six years later, I was in Sydney as managing director and CEO for 3M Australia and 3M New Zealand, before returning home in 2012 – by way of another detour through Austin – to head up 3M Canada.

Austin is one of 3M's global headquarters, so working there put me at the centre of strategy, giving me a broader insight into the company that I couldn't get in Canada. I had to learn to increase 3M's business in fast-growing developing markets such as China while also addressing business realities in more mature markets such as the United States and Europe.

Looking back at Canada from Texas, I could see what we were especially good at: knowing our customers really well and reacting quickly to whatever they needed, drawing in the expertise and services of our various divisions. But I also saw how other 3M subsidiaries served their customers and how some of their approaches could be transferred to other regions and subsidiaries.

When I became CEO in Australia – an economy similar to Canada, with its mix of manufacturing, resource development and service industries – I applied the insights and knowledge I had gained to our operations there. I also got an even closer look at doing business in Asia, as well as a better understanding of how to liaise effectively with the head office in the United States. What I learned in Austin and Australia informs how I lead our operations in Canada.

I'm fortunate to work for a company with truly global operations, which means there are plenty of opportunities to gain international experience. A program we call Extended Business Trips allows some employees to relocate for six months to two years working on an international assignment before returning to Canada.

But even if your company doesn't have the worldwide reach of 3M, you can still broaden your horizons, either through short-term assignments in another country or by taking on roles in other cities or divisions within Canada.

If you want an international assignment, it's important to ensure your company knows you're interested. Whether you utilize your development path to identify opportunities within your own organization; or your interests drive you to take the risk and make the move to a location abroad, the experience is invaluable. From the exposure gained through immersing yourself in a new culture, geography and the resulting difference in strategic approach, you will not only broaden the scope of your resume, you will grow as an individual and a leader. Discuss your aspirations for the future with a trusted mentor and explore the possibilities, in whatever direction your passion points you.

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You'll find that gaining international experience will give you a new perspective on doing business in Canada and help you to better understand what your company needs to do to succeed, at home and in the global marketplace.

Paul Madden is president and general manager of 3M Canada.

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