Reflections on Lessons Learned While Working Abroad

July 13, 2021

~Jeff Clifton, API Vice President, University Relations

Years ago, I studied abroad in both Madrid and Paris, and these experiences were so impactful that I knew with complete certainty that I wanted to pursue opportunities that would allow me to travel and to continue engaging in intercultural exchange. After graduating from Michigan State University, it seemed as though my dream of landing an internationally focused position either in Washington, DC or abroad was just not materializing fast enough.  Fortunately, a close friend from France made me a life-changing offer to assist him with the production and promotion of official Tour De France cycling gear and apparel.  Although it wasn’t what I necessarily envisioned, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I jumped at the opportunity!

Needless to say, my time abroad as a student never prepared me for what came next! I was literally thrown onto the team of marketing and industry leaders in cycling- and my French was rusty at best. However, after several weeks, my language skills came back to me and I was able to hold my own on the team.  Beyond the cultural differences borne out of different nationalities and languages, there was also a cultural adjustment to working on the Tour de France team. As it turned out, everything I thought I knew about sales and marketing was wrong! As the team would strategize our long-term plan for the various Tour de France stages, what I initially thought was highly heated dialogue and flat-out arguments were in actuality simply cultural differences in business communication.  Was it uncomfortable?  YES!  However, I learned a great deal from my French counterparts about doing business in France.  We simply laid out concepts, ideas, and our differences on the table every day, despite what might be perceived as direct confrontation.  If in disagreement, we would eventually find a resolution and at the end of the day, we always put our differences aside and appreciated one another on the team.  

After months of preparation for the actual race and setting up our team for the Tour de France caravan, we hit the road with the cyclists, ESPN, and all the Tour de France sponsors.  It was a WILD and unforgettable ride where communication and strategy were truly the keys to success for our team. 

I can say without question that my two years with the Tour de France were truly life-changing, and the lessons I learned through the experience have helped shape my career. I definitely learned by doing and by jumping out of my comfort zone. Although those first few weeks were unnerving and a bit scary, the risk I took in accepting that offer led to incredible experiences, lifelong friendships, and a professional trajectory I could never have anticipated. I am so fortunate to still be able to assist our next generation with their goals for cultural exchange and language acquisition in France (and beyond!) at API.  

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