01/05/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

The Knee-Jerk Reflex of Internationalization

For American companies of all sizes, 2012 will be remembered as the year that forced them to enter the international chase for market shares. While this should be perceived as a positive action, I foresee a problem that too many of my clients can't pinpoint: their lack of international reflex.

Too few Americans have professional international experience, and even fewer have an innate sense of how to lead with cultural intelligence. As such, sending people on international business development assignments to countries they can barely identify on the map will be challenging and not so profitable as intended.

In comparison, many European countries have an ingrained sense of internationalization. No commercial entity (even the smallest shop or café in Brussels or Geneva) can ignore the fact that its market is too small and too multicultural to sustain a business that doesn't include a name and tag line that easily translate, or a sales staff that can't communicate in three or four languages. Internationalization in Europe is a way of life. In the United States, the concept of internationalization is normally considered as an afterthought -- and often due to a foreign customer who's knocking on the business's door begging you to grant her the right to export the product to her market. The economic situation we have experienced for the past four years is, however, forcing many U.S. companies to contemplate a mutation that will allow for a knee-jerk reflex for internationalization. U.S. products are still in demand throughout the world, but we now have to work harder at finding customers than ever before. Competition is fierce, and the knock on the door must come from our own salesperson patrolling the world in search of the next customer. Nobody is banging on our door any longer. We must be proactive, and we must think on international terms.

As such, it's important to pay particular attention to the employees who are selected for international assignments. U.S. C-level executives, especially in mid-size companies, seldom have had international exposure and rarely lead with cultural intelligence. They keep on hiring for technical skills instead of multicultural pedigree. They wrongly assume that everybody throughout the world speaks English (or should) and that being multicultural is the cherry on top of the cake instead of realizing that it's the steel mold that allows the cake to take shape. The abundance of job postings on LinkedIn for international positions that stipulate "foreign language a plus" and "small amount of travels involved" reflect that not enough cartilage has been grown thus far for internationalization to become a knee-jerk reflex. So when things aren't instinctive to the C-executives and the board of directors, where does one start?

To transform a company into an international one, an injection of internationally competent people must be brought on board. For this, the HR Director must have an international background and understand the required traits to succeed internationally, department by department, even if the company isn't international yet. Nowadays, all eyes must be on international expansion; each move must be incorporated into a global strategy. As a bird builds its nest one straw at a time, a company must build its international structure from the ground up -- strategically and methodically, and no longer as a simple afterthought.