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How Living Abroad Prepares You for Leadership

Places to Visit - KefaloniaPlaces to Visit - Kefalonia
Assos village on August 15, 2016 in Kefallonia, Greece. Photograph by Athanasios Gioumpasis—Getty Images

The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Today’s answer to the question, “How does living abroad prepare you for leadership?” is written by Perry Pelos, executive vice president and head of wholesale banking at Wells Fargo.

I was born in Pittsburgh. That’s where my grandfather and father—both Greek immigrants—started a diner in 1950 called Superior Lunch. Although the diner was successful, when I was eight years old, my parents’ dream of returning to the mother country pulled us back to Greece.

They thought returning to Greece would “re-Greek” me, my brother, and my two sisters. Although my parents intended to stay there forever, my siblings and I retained our own dream to go back to America. So in 1977, my parents made the sacrifice to return to the U.S. and give us all a chance at a better life.

Back in America, I felt like an outsider, an immigrant, in my new city, Chicago. I knew the language, which was an advantage, but the culture was foreign to me. On the outside, I was a regular local kid in that Chicago neighborhood, but for those who knew me, I was nervous and, I’ll admit it, even a bit scared. That’s when I learned the first lesson from living abroad that now helps me with leadership: I take the time to listen and understand the perspectives of other people. Listening helps you understand the person you are speaking to, build trust, know their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, get the best out of them.

This was crucially important to me as I reacclimated to living in the U.S. When I moved back, I realized I was lumping all Americans into the same category. I thought they were convinced of the superiority of their own culture and had little interest in other countries or perspectives. By listening, I came to realize that most Americans are not who I’d created in my mind, but actually people just like me who want to engage with the world, learn from others, and celebrate diversity. This made me feel much more comfortable in my new home.

The second leadership lesson I learned from living abroad is to appreciate other cultures and ways of doing things. I have traveled internationally for Wells Fargo for about 20 years. You can find American culture—from hamburgers to lattes to TV shows—all around the world, and so you can stay in your Yankee comfort zone if you wish. But when you demonstrate a willingness to try and appreciate tripe in France or lutefisk in Scandinavia, you’ll grow in the esteem of your hosts and enjoy the kinship that comes with being a fellow global citizen.


Lastly, I’ve learned the importance of valuing individuals, rather than treating them merely as parts of a greater whole. For example, prior to moving to Greece, I had parochial view of Greek culture. I thought of Greeks a bit like the characters from My Big Fat Greek Wedding—loud and undisciplined, yet warm and loyal. The truth proved to be much more subtle as I got to know them as individuals. I realized that an unlimited number of flavors existed within this community.

While stereotypes do occasionally ring true—like those firm German handshakes—in reality, everyone is molded by their own specific, personal experiences. In any company, especially a Fortune 500 company with a huge customer base, you need to ensure that your organization welcomes people with diverse perspectives and experiences.

I’m sad to say that Superior Lunch and its incredible sandwiches are no longer there. But leaving Pittsburgh and traveling the world allowed me to collect a wide range of experiences, which taught me to work hard, listen to people, appreciate their culture, and value their uniqueness. With these principles, you can lead any team, anywhere.