In our differences lie our strengths. This adage holds true in any language, but I find it especially relevant in terms of how we think about building a successful workforce in our global culture. It’s why I promote the values of diversity and authenticity in the workplace every chance I get.
I recently spoke on this subject as I shared my personal and professional journey with an audience at the 2018 Women of the Channel event in New York City. Five of us, all women serving in leadership roles in technology, were asked to talk about defining moments in our lives when we made a leap of faith from our comfort zone to the unknown.
This happened for me at 28, when I decided to explore the world beyond the borders of my home country of Belgium. Life was good there. I was working at Ingram Micro, and I was comfortable. Belgium being a small country, I was keen on expanding my horizons. I had always been drawn to the US since my childhood.
In walked fate in the form of an Irishman sitting at a bar in Brussels. We began dating, and six months later, he was offered a job in Washington, D.C. I had to make a decision. Stay put, or risk everything to move to a new country. It seems like a scene from a movie now, but I packed my bags, grabbed my passport and joined him.I landed in the U.S. fluent in English, but without a visa or a job of my own. So I had to get creative. I used my knowledge of European markets to do consulting for a distributor looking to build a channel operation outside the U.S. A while later, I won the government lottery for a green card, which allowed one of our clients to hire me full time.
I was confident in my work, but I had underestimated how difficult the move from Belgium to the U.S. would be in terms of thinking, speaking, and working in a different language. This was the early 90s, when company cultures weren’t nearly as global as they are today. I felt like an uprooted tree, caught between two worlds – not quite grounded in my country of origin, but not yet fully assimilated into U.S. culture.One manager advised me to adopt more “American mannerisms” when trying for a promotion. I struggled with the idea of trying to become someone and something I wasn’t, and vowed never to say something like that to a member of my team.
It took nearly 10 years, but I finally learned how to strike a balance between adapting to U.S. cultural norms while preserving the qualities that made me feel like me. Sometimes it meant dialing back my more direct Northern European communication style and adjusting my tone to prevent misunderstandings. Other times, the direct approach was useful. Now I know my diversity is a key differentiator and valuable to the teams I’m a part of.
I keep my own journey in mind when I bring people from diverse backgrounds together. We should welcome our differences and challenge ourselves to hire people who may not think, live, and look like us. It not only opens the door to a more interesting, culturally rich workplace, it helps us understand who our clients are and what’s important to them.
Lessons I learned along the way:

  • Cast a wide net. Bring people in from different backgrounds with different perspectives.
  • When making a major move, be prepared to feel unsettled, uprooted. Give yourself time to adjust.
  • There’s always a way around an obstacle. Let creativity be your guide.
  • Learn from bad advice. There’s a lesson for you in there somewhere.
  • No one knows you better than you. Stay true to your core beliefs.

Karine Elsen is the director of marketing for Cisco’s Strategic Partner Marketing and Ecosystem Acceleration Team. Her team builds global marketing plans that are scalable for Cisco’s many ecosystem partners. Karine joined Cisco in 2005, and has had leadership roles across the partner marketing infrastructure, including leading the distribution marketing team, and now heading up the U.S. & Global Partner Marketing teams.