A Ticket to Riyadh: The Benefits of a Global Firm

July 2, 2024

Hello! I’m Alexa, a consultant based in the Singapore office. This is my first full-time job since graduating from college, and I've been with the firm for three years now. From the start, I expressed my desire to work in a foreign country for an extended period to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone. Last year, the firm supported this professional goal by assigning me to a six-month engagement in Riyadh. So, I packed my bags and off I went!

Being away from home and familiar surroundings was tough, but having a supportive team, a realistic running routine and a lot of chocolate made a huge difference. My managers were very open with their observations and often offered appreciated insights on work and personal habits. This experience taught me a lot about my professional and personal self. I value the transparency and flat hierarchy here, where colleagues tell you what they observe, which you might not even have realized. While it's ultimately up to me to decide how to implement their advice as I know myself best, I value their good intentions and recognize the opportunity for improvement. Especially in the early stages of your career, I think it's beneficial to adopt a sponge-like approach, absorbing feedback and learning from those around you. This practice will yield long-term benefits. So instead of feeling bad for not knowing better, focus on moving forward. It’s a good thing that you’re trying to be your best professional self. I usually take the time to reflect afterward, which helps me identify any root causes so I can address them if required.

For example, I discovered that I had some less helpful thinking patterns that stopped me from being a better version of the professional self that I’m striving toward. This realization didn't happen overnight; it was through reflecting on various engagements that I concluded I wanted to work on this root cause because the rewards would be tenfold in the future. This particular engagement just accelerated the “aha” moment to identify this root cause, as I was put in a new environment with a lot of unfamiliarity. After this experience, I focused on consciously developing helpful thinking habits to advance both professionally and personally. I believe people can change, & one’s work can improve with the right targeted practice if one actively wants to grow and put their mind to it. It will take time, and sometimes the process is not exactly linear, but it’s possible. (Yes, neuroplasticity!) That’s what I enjoy about this job—you are made aware of your strengths and, more importantly, your areas of improvement.

This experience also taught me to be more communicative about the specific support I need from others, including from those back home. My managers often asked how they could better support me as I navigated this new experience. I found it hard to verbalize it well, but also realized it’s counterproductive to stay reticent.

One of the highlights of this experience was meeting and interacting with people from different cultures and seeing new parts of the world I’ve never explored. KSA is rich in culture, and I had the opportunity to experience local customs and traditions (e.g., Arabic coffee) firsthand. Some clients also shared their experiences of living in their hometowns (other KSA cities) with me. I was eventually very comfortable with Arabic greetings toward the end! I also visited several countries in the region like Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Oman on my own over the weekends, which was incredibly eye-opening. Despite some challenges like food poisoning incidents and a broken ankle from my own version of a “Petra marathon”, it was all worth it because I met many interesting people by chance who shared their stories and perspectives with me. While connections made on these trips were fleeting, their stories & good memories we had (e.g., helping each other up & down steep paths, finding our way to the exit of a tourist site) stay with me. I love visiting the museums to learn about local culture because it’s so different from where I grew up. I also adore animals so riding camels in Egypt, visiting a turtle hatchery in Sri Lanka & seeing so many animals casually strolling next to the car in some places made me so happy. These experiences reignited a lot of childlike curiosity I used to have about the world, situations & people. When you’re working long hours, sometimes you forget that there are many beautiful things to see & interesting people you can meet & learn from in the world. And sometimes you only realize this in hindsight. You can learn something from everyone you meet and everything you see.

P.S. If you’re like me—you can’t drive and are traveling solo to places where needing a car to get around is required yet Uber is not practical, consider ordering a car through a trusted hotel. It’s a bit more expensive but you can try to negotiate the price, I’ve succeeded before. Keep in contact with the hotel concierge in case you need help. This is safer, easier if you cannot speak Arabic, and potentially makes life easier (e.g., the hotel can help coordinate with the driver, especially if you leave valuables in the car). In some countries, there are no streetlights & it can feel scary at night, so I do recommend not staying out past a certain time in such areas if you’re alone. Also, when traveling in the Middle East, pack an abaya and/or conservative clothing along, as some places you visit may require that —it’s important to respect their cultures. Do also pack a thicker moisturizer & a lot of sunblock - summers there are brutal, my friends were a little shocked when I came back three shades tanner!

Reflecting on the growth I’ve made through such past experiences only reminds me to focus more on the good, even when things may feel tough sometimes. There are still many parts of the world I haven't explored and a lot of professional and personal growth I want to achieve. I'm very excited to continue this journey with the unwavering support of the firm, & I hope maybe you’ll join us here too!

Alexa Ong

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