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Why international experience might be the competitive leadership edge you need

Executives with international experience are increasingly seen as a competitive advantage for the organisations they lead.

International mobility is an important career goal for 63% of the Australian workforce, and for 89% of Australian millennials, according to two studies by PwC.

We asked two AIM Members what their international leadership experiences have taught them about management and leadership in international markets and here in Australia.


Sean McCreery (FAIM) runs the Table Games operation for Venetian Macau Limited, a role which covers 1,635 table games and several thousand team members in Macao, a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

McCreery has been in the role for 12 months, following a two year stint on the strip in Las Vegas and a twenty year career in the casino industry around Australia.

The international experience, he says, “is priceless. I have picked up skills you couldn’t learn in a text book.”

“I am a better manager and a better leader having been taken out of my comfort zone and put in an environment where people work and think differently. I have a different perception on things.”

McCreery started in the industry with a part time job at the Adelaide Casino to tide him through his student years. He never left the industry, and has held senior management roles with casinos in Adelaide, Melbourne and on the Gold Coast.

He believes working first in Las Vegas and now in Macau has made him more thoughtful about how he leads teams, and more open to adapting his style to get the best out of the people he works with.  “In the US I had to learn to be more hands off, more of a leader and a strategist. I learned that my job was to give direction, to provide genuine leadership rather than rolling my sleeves up and getting involved in the implementation side of things,” he says.

Macau has taught him to question his communication style, critical given the predominantly local workforce.  It has also given him a much greater understanding of the cultural norms and service expectations of an Asian and particularly Chinese customer base.

“I have had to learn to moderate my style, and to present and talk differently. I am less making statements and more about asking questions. It’s about trying to pull opinions out of people. People are often reluctant to state their point of view because they don’t want to be wrong.”

McCreery says that as a leader, unless he works to extract everyone’s position on a problem, it is too easy for his point of view to be taken as the only answer. “The risk is that if I say black is white, then that just gets accepted,” he says. “And that doesn’t always give the best outcome.”

For now, Sean McCreery sees his career remaining in Macau, but he says what he has learned during his time in Macau would change his approach as a manager should he ever return to work in Australia.

Sturt Eastwood FAIM, CEO, Diabetes NSW & ACT

Sturt left school at sixteen and worked his way up through technical and operational roles in Telstra to build an international leadership career that has spanned continents and industries. Sturt has run businesses in markets as diverse as the Republic of Kiribati, Hong Kong, Qatar, India, London and of course Australia and has leveraged his experience to hold regional and billion dollar global roles as well.

One key lesson Sturt has taken from his international leadership experience is the need to balance the ‘management’ versus ‘leadership’ equation in the context of location and task. “You have to flex between hands-on management and the empowerment and leadership of others piece,” he says, “and that depends on the capability of the country, the culture, the time envelope and the job that needs to be done. Not one size fits all.”

Sturt’s diversity of experience has taught him, “that you just don’t know everything and there are many, many ways to skin a cat.”  As an example, “I clearly remember a conversation in Hong Kong where we were pushing hard to finalise a deal.  We had time pressure and budget cycles to deal with.” Sturt mentioned to one of the local contacts that things really had to move along. “Time,” he said, “is money.” The response, “No, money is money.” was a comment that has stuck with Sturt ever since: so many of our assumptions are cultural. Even ‘time’ can have a different value. Sturt contrasts this with his experience in the Pacific Islands. In response to Sturt’s urgent enthusiasm to see things progress and deliver impact and improvement, a local colleague pointed out, “We’ll see another one of you (Australian Executive in the Telstra joint venture) in about 18 months. In the meantime, the fish will keep coming, the coconuts will keep dropping.”

“You have to leave all your biases and preconceived ideas about the way the world works and really get to know the culture you are working in. Only when you know that can you begin to shift the agenda.” It’s a learning that Sturt says equally applies between the cultures in different businesses within in the same social context. “In any business, people are wise to understand the organisation’s culture before they start to move it in the direction it needs to go.”

Sturt also reminds leaders returning to work in Australia that it takes time and effort to adjust. “You come back a much better, more rounded individual, but in many cases your support networks have moved on. You need to reposition and re-establish yourself in many respects. I was away for ten or more years and had let my domestic networks lapse.  Quite frankly by time I returned there were very few people at relevant levels that even knew who I was.”

Sean McCreery, AFAIM, Senior Vice President Table Games, Venetian Macau Limited

Sturt Eastwood FAIM, CEO, Diabetes NSW & ACT

Our full conversation with Sean McCreery and Sturt Eastwood will feature in parts 2 and 4 of our International Leadership series, on Insight Edge, the Leadership Podcast. Listen online, or subscribe to the full series on iTunes.


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