Leaders across the Ocean: cadets work abroad, experience culture

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Ten Academy cadets traveled to five different countries with the Ambassadors of Inclusion program for four weeks May-June and learned no matter race, religion, background or motivation, good leaders are everywhere.

Cadets traveled to countries such as Spain, China, France, India and Guam and worked for top global organizations to experience diversity in a non-military setting and gain a deeper understanding of other cultures to prepare them for their careers in the Air Force.

"I came to the realization that a good leader is a good leader whether you're working with a global corporation or in the military," said Cadet 2nd Class Moranda Hern, who worked for IBM and traveled to Spain and Slovakia. "At first when I came to Madrid, coming from a military background I was a little startled by their flexible structure. However, as I saw them continually get the job done and do it well, it helped me realize that even if each culture does things a little differently, they can still do a great job."

Hern said the first lesson she learned abroad was to remove cultural stereotypes.

"There are no stereotypes," Hern said. "You should come in with the expectation that people are people and we can build great relationships with someone regardless of their country, background and can learn something new from one another. I really cherished that about my experience with IBM."

Hern said 35 different languages were spoken at the IBM center she worked at.

"I would have dinner with someone from France, Slovakia, Germany, China and regardless of the country, it was really interesting to get to know everyone's different experiences living abroad," Hern said. "Someone I talked to in the Madrid office gave me a great piece of advice. She said, 'Take the best things from each culture and each experience you have and apply them to yourself.' That's the biggest thing I took away from my experience abroad."

Hern said she was able to connect with people from different backgrounds at work through similar core values.

"Integrity, honesty, taking care of your people and being a servantleader is what we try to embody at the Academy and they also try to embody at IBM," Hern said.

Hern said she interacted with her assigned mentor from IBM almost daily and found more mentors along the way from managers to lower- level employees.

"Listening to people's stories and backgrounds was really special to me because I was able to see the value of hard work, especially in Slovakia where there are still people who lived in the communist era," Hern said. "You were able to hear people's stories of overcoming adversity and really embracing their freedoms now."

Hern said she was initially caught off guard by how personable the Spanish culture was, but grew to love it.

"It threw me off right from the start, at the airport, where kissing is the greeting in Spain," Hern said. "Coming from a military institution, that's not a normal greeting, but the more I got to know the people there and their culture, I embraced it."

Hern said her most memorable experience was when she met an employee named Brayno in Slovakia. She said his humility and determination to work three jobs to care for his sisters, nephew and mother had a deep impact on her.

"It was more inspiring than any briefing I'd had or any beautiful thing I saw while there because it was his heart that got him through his hardship and took care of his family," Hern said.

Cadet 1st Class Sarah Haas traveled to Bangalore, India and worked for Ingersoll Rand. She said as a business major, she appreciated that she was able to see how a multi-national corporation worked.

"It was really neat to see how a company assigned people to different sectors based on their strengths," Haas said. "It was just a diverse situation in itself. When we visited the floor line to see how their air compressors were manufactured, there weren't any females and you had people from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds and it was interesting to see how they fit and worked together to accomplish one task."

Haas said the work environment at Ingersoll Rand was similar to the military in the sense that younger individuals were in charge of individuals significantly older and more experienced.

"That is something we're going to face when we become second lieutenants in the Air Force," Haas said. "We're going to be in charge of enlisted members who have had 25 years in the Air Force and are much more experienced than us."

In her four weeks abroad, Haas said she visited New Delhi, the Taj Mahal and attended an Indian wedding.

"I was able to learn a little bit about Indian culture and if I were to come in contact with somebody who is Indian in the Air Force, I would know a little background on their family life and heritage," Haas said.

Cadet 2nd Class Christian Brechbuhl traveled to Guam and worked for Sodexo. He said the experience took his international understanding and leadership skills up a notch.

"The most beneficial experience was working with the frontline employees and learning how to motivate them when their motivations are very different than ours," Brechbuhl said. "It opened my eyes to a different culture and although Guam is a U.S. territory its culture is very different from what we find in the mainland U.S."

Brechbuhl said the biggest difference he noticed in Guam was the emphasis on the family.

"Guamanians priorities are centered around family and they will take time off work, in fact some were willing to quit their job for a period of time for a family event," Brechbuhl said. "It was hard to relate to because especially here at the Academy, everyone is work-driven and work comes first to a certain extent."

Brechbuhl said his time abroad made him a better leader by learning how to motivate someone to do something they weren't motivated to do.

"In the United States money is a great incentive and something leaders can use to motivate their employees to work harder, better and longer but that wasn't really true in Guam," Brechbuhl said. "Making sure they were there for their son's graduation or daughter's dance recital was more important, and that challenge really opened my eyes."

Brechbuhl said after his time in Guam, his main goal as a leader is to share information with others.

"In Guam they were very open with me and told me how their contract negotiations were going, what their challenges were and I think that really contributed to my success there because I felt like I was a part of the team," Brechbuhl said. "I think that's a lesson we can bring back to the Academy and greater Air Force. Unless you have a reason for keeping something a secret, it's a good idea to share it and bring somebody into the fold so they know why changes are happening or why something is the way it is."

Hern said the AoI program with IBM made her a better leader in the sense that now she takes the time to really listen and value others.

"Differences are what make us grow, fuel ideas and IBM really showed that to me. I really hope to incorporate that to my leadership style," Hern said. "I want to encourage everyone here to embrace diversity instead of trying to make everyone the same. It's really important to get to know each other to improve our ideas, culture and the climate of this Cadet Wing and to make us better future officers in the Air Force."

Brechbuhl said he hopes the AoI program will continue.

"I've had the opportunity to travel abroad several times and those four weeks in Guam increased my knowledge of working in a different culture and with different people probably three times as much as those other trips combined," Brechbuhl said. "This experience has made me a significantly better leader."

Academy Chief Diversity Officer Adis Vila, head of the program, said she believes the program is on the right track and looks forward to reviewing the results of an in-depth analysis of the program through the Cross-Cultural Management Institute at Florida Institute of Technology.

"I applaud the cadets who served as our inaugural class of Ambassadors of Inclusion and the multinationals who partnered with us and gave our cadets such growth opportunities."