Podcast

Daniel Torres Dwyer 08 July 2019

Driving a Global Career with Kevin Corning

Going international and managing a global career is not an easy choice, but can be an immensely rewarding one, both at a personal and professional level. To hear more about how to manage career and life choices, we invited Kevin Corning.

Mr. Corning has lived and worked in over 7 countries. He joined the Claire’s board in October of 2018 and was named interim CEO in March of 2019. Kevin is the former EVP International for Carter’s Inc. a global leader in children’s apparel. Previously Kevin spent 20 years working in general management in Asia, South American and Europe for companies such as Nike, Mars and Whirlpool. He also spent 5 years as a US Army officer serving as a helicopter pilot. He graduated from the College of William and Mary and has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

Topics covered in the podcast

  • Mr. Corning’s global experiences
  • Why it is a good career strategy to move internationally
  • Leadership abilities learnt in different markets
  • How having an international profile can differentiate you against peers
  • Balancing an international career with your personal life

 

Daniel:

Hi, I’m Daniel Torres Dwyer and welcome to LS Internationals Career Success Podcast. Going international and managing a global career is not an easy choice but it can be an immensely satisfactory one both at personal and professional level. I would like to hear more about how to manage this type of career, this type of life, actually with one of the most international people I know who’s actually lived and worked in over seven countries even if he’s from the US. This is Kevin Corning who most recently joined Claire’s Board that was in October of 2018 and was actually named interim CEO of Claire’s in March of 2019.  He formerly was the EVP of International Carter’s and prior to that, he has a very interesting history of 20 years working in general management across Asia, South America, Europe for companies such as Nike, Mars and Whirlpool. Prior to his professional career, he actually spent five years as a US Army officer serving as a helicopter pilot. Hi Kevin. Thanks for joining us today. How are you?

Kevin:

I’m fine Daniel. It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you for the invitation.

Daniel:

Perfect. So yeah, today as I said in the introduction, we’re going to speak about your international career and per extension, why have an international career and what it’s all about. How did you start an international career or actually, what made you move internationally for a start?

Kevin:

I have to admit that my desire to have an international career started long before I started to work. It started when I was just a little boy. I was growing up with my parents in Bangkok, Thailand because my father was an army attaché assigned to the embassy in Bangkok and my aunt was a banker based in Hong Kong.  So as a child, I had the good fortune to be able to travel back and forth from Bangkok and to Hong Kong. And I could remember very clearly one night when my aunt was having a dinner party in her apartment, I was sitting out on the balcony overlooking Hong Kong harbor; that was beautiful and as you know and I was about 10- years old I could remember very clearly thinking whatever this lifestyle is, this I want to do when I grow up.  Of course, I was too young to really understand what that entailed but it’s a memory that stuck with me all those years later as I went through college and started my own career. So it was really something that happened to me; when I was quite young that gave me the spark of interest to pursue an international career.

Daniel:

So, do you think that there’s probably an innate element to that desire to move?

Kevin:

I would say in my case there was, so it wasn’t part of any grand plan to build a long-term international career and become the head of international company. It was really just an interest that started innocently as a child and I pursued because it was just something that I found inherently interesting.

Daniel:

Okay. Actually Kevin, would you mind mentioning the countries where you’ve lived and worked?

Kevin:

Sure. Well, I started, my first assignment was in Singapore and I was there for two years before my family and I moved to Hong Kong and then after Hong Kong, we moved to Tokyo, Japan from Tokyo, Japan to Santiago Chile to Sao Paulo Brazil to Basel Switzerland back to Sao Paulo Brazil. From Brazil, we spent a short period of time in the US and then I moved to Bangkok Thailand coincidentally having nothing to do with my childhood and then finally ended up back in the US in Atlanta Georgia where I’ve spent the last six years.

Daniel:

Okay Adam. What did you actually learn in every country?

Kevin:

Well, the first thing you learn is how to work in a different culture certainly and you know, having been in Asia, Latin America and Europe. I got a broad exposure to a number of different cultures. Another thing you learned, you certainly have the opportunity to learn is a foreign language; some are harder than others. I’m happy to say I learned Spanish and Portuguese to the point where I could manage the company in those languages. Some of the languages in Asia a little bit more, actually a lot more challenging and certainly Swiss German and Swiss language was quite challenging; I can’t claim any fluency in that.

Daniel:

I can imagine.

Kevin:

The other thing you learn in your career working overseas is you learn to deal with a lot of complexity. Here to– let’s say how the headquarters of the typical US headquarters of a company operates because often the business models are different, often the economic conditions, the business conditions in the country can be quite complex. They can also be quite volatile.  So you also learn how to be on your toes and managing a great deal of volatility of everything from exchange rate volatility to what’s happening politically.

When I was in Thailand before moving back to the US, I managed through some of the red shirt, yellow shirt controversy.

Daniel:

Oh yeah. I remember that.

Kevin:

When the airport was shut down –

Daniel:

Yeah.

Kevin:

We had a catastrophic flood in Bangkok at that time where one of the factories that I was responsible for was completely flooded.  So you get the unexpected in it overseas perhaps more often than you would in the US and again, depending on which markets overseas. If you’re working in the emerging markets it’s likely to be less predictable than say more mature markets.

Daniel:

And all this knowledge that you’ve gathered all through the years of living in different locations, how has that helped you as a leader or has contributed to your leadership style?

Kevin:

I think from a leadership style perspective you learn to manage the diversity of different cultures. I find that helpful not only when you’re moving around overseas but when you get back to the US and you are now in your own culture, there is increasing diversity in the US and there’s diversity across any kind of workforce in terms of what motivates people, how people react. So I think you develop a– perhaps a higher EQ because you’ve had to learn how different cultures worked work around the world; that’s a big thing.

The other thing is you develop a global view so if you spend your whole career in your own home market, it’s likely that you’re going to think globally and think through global impacts of things that happen. So things today that are impacting businesses around the world or businesses certainly in the US are the imposition of tariffs on a lot of products from China. Now those types of things could be fairly new to certain managers but if you’ve been working in Brazil for instance where you have a high tariff environment that’s something that you’re very accustomed to. So again, you learn a lot of complexity, you learn to deal with complexity and to be very resilient and creative about finding solutions to challenging business problems.

Daniel:

What do you think with all this that you’ve learned, these leadership abilities; over all, what do you think that sets you apart from your peers, in other words other CEOs, other EVPs, Board Members… that haven’t lived abroad?

Kevin:

Well, I guess I would say there are two things; first of all, as I mentioned in the beginning this interest in an international career started quite innocently when I was a child and as I started to pursue this international career, I wasn’t thinking strategically that I’m going to do this job and then move to that job and someday become the head of international for a company. I was really pursuing job opportunities that were interesting to me, is it or interesting to me, brands that were interesting to me and I actually wanted very much to stay away from a global headquarters because I liked being close to the business as of working in a headquarters. It just so happens that if you put together 20-years of working around the world, all of a sudden you find yourself with a skill set and a collection of experiences that can make you very attractive to big multinationals.  So after about 20 years overseas, I found myself looking at an opportunity to head up international for Carter’s based in Atlanta. Certainly would not have had, had I not pursued that kind of diversity of experience.  One thing you benefit and I benefited from it almost accidentally or certainly unintentionally.

The other thing is that– and I alluded to this earlier; if you move around the world for 20- years, you’re going to develop a certain amount of sophistication, a certain global view to things that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do if you stayed in your home market and that just has to do with understanding political situations, business regulations, ways of doing business around the world. That it’s just hard to develop if you’re living in your home market for your entire career.

Daniel:

Yeah, absolutely. Look one concern that I get a lot from you know candidates or people in my network that I speak with when it comes to moving internationally is like what impact it will have on their partner, their kids, on their personal life as a whole. How have you have been able to balance personal life and professional life involving moving a lot around the world?

Kevin:

Yeah. Daniel, I think it’s a very valid question. It’s a valid concern for people as they’re considering a career outside their own market because moving around the world and doing what I did seven countries it’s– I tell you it’s not for everyone and it comes with its challenges for a family.  So in my case, I was married the entire time; our first daughter was born in the United States before we started that international journey and the second daughter was born in Japan. I was fortunate and that my wife had a career that was mobile.  When we started this journey, she was working as an organizational development consultant and was able to start her own business in Singapore as well as Hong Kong. It was a little bit more challenging for her to find employment in Japan and after Japan she evolved and became a schoolteacher and ended up teaching in the schools where our daughters went to school and every stop along the way afterwards.  So in that sense, I was fortunate and that her career was mobile and allowed her to continue to pursue her own interests in her own professional objectives.

We were also lucky with our children.  It just turned out that our children were adaptable; they liked variants that the family policy was that we enrolled them in local schools in every country with the exception of Thailand.  So starting really in Japan when they were school-aged, our oldest daughter went to a Japanese school.  She was the only foreigner in the school.  So an interesting experience for her, a fascinating experience for the family and it also developed in her a great ability to learn languages because from Japan we went to Chile so she had to learn Spanish in the Chilean school and then Portuguese in the Brazilian school.  So those are some of the advantages that a family can experience particularly if they’re willing to enroll their children in local schools. There are always international options so if you’re interested in and having your children learn in their native language, you can do that in most cases but those were some of the advantages for us. But I will say this kind of lifestyle is not for everyone because you don’t have the continuity of staying close to your family or staying with friends that you may have grown up with that are very important to you. You have to be willing to embrace new experiences every few years.  And for those who are open to that, it can be incredibly enriching and rewarding but I think it is something that think people have to think carefully about before they make a commitment to making a move like that.

Daniel:

Yeah, no I think it makes a lot of sense but it’s amazing especially the fact that you enroll them always except for Thailand into local schools, not everyone does that so that’s a very interesting part Kevin.

Kevin:

It is unusual and I realized that we were the exception in doing that and you know people have often thought wow that must have been very difficult for your children and I would just say that our children didn’t know any better; they just thought that’s the way it had to be. So, we moved into a new country and walked into a new school they realized that there’s going to be another language there and they just got with the program and after some period of time they were able to adapt and speak the language.  So that’s been a great experience for them but it wouldn’t work for all children.

Daniel:

Yeah, makes sense. What would your advice be to someone that doesn’t want to relocate nor has many doubts about it? And I speak with a lot of people that are under this circumstance so I would appreciate your input and they would more so.

Kevin:

Well as I said, I think it is important to consider the consequences of taking an international assignment and I would put them in two buckets. I would say that they’re the personal and family considerations that we just discussed; so that’s really a very personal discussion that the executive has to have with their family, with their spouse and with their children to get a sense of the family’s willingness to take on a challenge like that. If you’re going to do it, you have to focus on the positive. And another positive that can happen that I didn’t mention about is, it often creates a very strong family bond because as you travel around the world as a family or even if you just take one international assignment, you know that it brings the family together because at least initially you’re going to feel like it’s you know just the family, that’s all you have; is each other if you move into this new culture. And I think that can be quite positive experience for families and over time you realize you’re going to make friends and you’ll have level of integration with the local culture but there’s still a dynamic that happens for families that I think it’s creates quite a strong bond which I think is positive.

On the professional side, the positives are clearly the ones that I talked about.  You’re going to get new experiences, you’re going to see new business models, you’re going to learn to deal with different levels of complexity, you’re going to learn to manage cross culturally; those are the reasons to do it. The things that you have to think through are what your long-term plan here. In my case, I wasn’t worried about having the company and bring me back to the United States; I would say that that’s the exception. A lot of people want to know how long they’re going to be abroad and what they can look forward to and moving back to their market.  Frankly, not a lot of companies do this well. They can move people outside their markets well but it’s often much more challenging for an expat to repatriate because if you’ve spent three or four years abroad with a lot of experience more experience and you’ve had in your career, I think you expect and rightfully expect to have some level of promotion or broader experience, broader responsibilities when you move back. Not a lot of companies do that well so, I would advise people to have a very candid conversation with HR, with management of the company to get a sense of how they look at repatriation. If that’s the executives goal because if you really want to come back to your the company that brought you overseas it’s important to get aligned on expectations. I would say that that’s very important.

Daniel:

Yeah, absolutely. Well look Kevin; this was super interesting so thanks a lot for your insights.

Kevin:

Daniel, it is my pleasure. I consider myself lucky that I got to achieve the dream that I had as a 10- year old son and I’m happy to share that experience with you.

Daniel:

Yes, I know it was very interesting and I’m very fortunate as well to have you here today. Also thanks to our listeners and we’ll see you in the next edition of our podcast bye. Bye.