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“Diversity Is at the Heart of the InterNations Team” — an Interview with Our Human Resources Team Lead

The InterNations team is a real melting pot of different cultures and nationalities, with 110 members from more than 30 different countries working together every day. As the Team Lead in the Human Resources department, Christa Fellner is responsible for recruiting new members of staff and oversees our personnel development.

1. The InterNations Team is very diverse: People from more than 30 different countries work together every day in the Munich offices. How do you deal with cultural and linguistic differences? Do they present a problem in the workplace?

Everyone appreciates the diversity of our team and in general it doesn’t cause any trouble. In fact, it’s a good thing because it makes us more open-minded and considerate of other perspectives. We’re all aware that there’s more than one way of looking at things, and that encourages teamwork and creates a really positive atmosphere in the office.

2. How do you encourage your team to celebrate their diversity? How do you promote cultural collaboration/harmony/exchange at InterNations?

Diversity is at the heart of our team here, and we think it’s really important to celebrate that. A lot of ideas come from within the team, for example the annual Thanksgiving lunch, which is organised by the Content & Communications Team. The best example, however, was a few years ago, when we did our own InterNations Eurovision Song Contest! We encouraged our team to come together and form groups according to their nationality and perform a song from their home country. It was no problem at all to get at least 13 teams on the stage, and it was so much fun. I was performing for Bavaria — I know that’s not a country, but I felt like it was important that it would be represented as we’re in Munich!

3. Being based in Munich, there are quite a few Germans working for InterNations as well. However, every single one of them has substantial international experience, be it through working and studying abroad, or simply a gap year spent travelling around the world. You yourself have gained international experience studying in Paris. Do you think this has made you a better employer/employee?

Definitely! In fact, I think it made me a better person in general. I arrived without knowing the city or anyone there, which was challenging but it was such an amazing experience. I was so curious to learn about this culture, and learning the language allowed me to make friends — not just from France, but also from Africa and all around the world. I began to appreciate the value of our own background and traditions, and how strange those can sometimes seem to others.  I knew how scary and overwhelming it could be to be alone in a new country. I learned the importance of teamwork and empathy with people from different cultures, and those skills are very useful now I’m working in Human Resources. This new insight was what attracted me to InterNations in the first place. I could appreciate how important the company’s goal was, as I would’ve loved something like this when I was feeling homesick in Paris all those years ago!

4. Some people say that taking the non-traditional path of working abroad can be harmful to your career. What would you say to that?

I would definitely disagree. I find it hard to believe that some people really think you need to stay in one place to progress in a career. It’s essential to experience living abroad at least once, as the feeling of being new in a strange country will broaden your horizons and open you up to new perspectives. These days, we are living in such a globalised world, and technology means we can stay in contact so easily, so the distance means nothing. I would in fact recommend working abroad to everyone.

5. Generally speaking, what do you think are the benefits of an international team?

Having such an international team means that we are always innovating. Some companies have an attitude of ‘We’ve always done it like that so why change it?’, but at InterNations everyone has a different way of doing things, so we appreciate the importance of discussion in order to find a common ground and work out how to get the best result. Everyone gets a say, whether they are an intern or the CEO, because they are all an integral part of our company and contribute to our overall success.

6. Are there any risks or disadvantages to having an international team?

Of course, there can be friction like in any team. It’s important to remain aware that everyone comes from a different background and culture. We all want to get the best results and move forward, but there are different ways of approaching that and finding that common ground can sometimes be challenging. The way you write an email or begin a conversation might cause trouble because the degree of politeness or formality is not what was expected — I’m rather straight-forward, so if there’s something I want to address I tend to jump in and want to get it settled as soon as possible. To some people, that might come across as impolite, despite my best intentions, because that’s not what they’re used to. In situations like that, our diversity means it’s important to speak up about anything that’s bothering you, so that the other person knows how you feel, then you can work together on finding common ground again.

7. How does InterNations in particular benefit from the different cultural backgrounds and the varied international experience of the team members?

I think the diversity of our team is in line with our mission at InterNations. We are a company that connects global minds and brings people together. That’s at the core of our business, and our international team means that we can all identify with that. Of course, we are all individuals, but we realise how important our product is to our team. When we have interviews, a lot of candidates tell us “we really love InterNations, it’s such a nice way to bring people together and get connected”, or “it’s so useful for getting up-to-date information”. You don’t have to convince anyone of the value of InterNations— it forms the core of our identity. I think our diversity also makes us more valuable, relatable and authentic to our members. If the InterNations team were all German, for example, as a member I would think “well, they have no idea what it’s like to be an expat”. As it is, you know you’re in safe hands, because the team have gone through a similar experience to you and are aware of the challenges and also the great moments that come with it.

8. What advice would you give to employers looking to build an international team?

When you’re looking to recruit a new team member, be open-minded. If you’re screening a candidate’s profile, focus on ‘soft’ skills, like proof of emotional intelligence and social competence, just as much as the typical ‘hard’ skills like qualifications and professional expertise. That way, you’re more likely to find someone who will fit in well and help you build a close-knit team who are working towards the same goal. At InterNations, this is reflected in our Guiding Principles, which our team members work by. I’d say it’s important to focus on team compatibility as much as on professional background.



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