By Stephen A. Jones
“I can’t even imagine not having these experiences. I wouldn’t be the me I am now,” says Shikha Gandhi (MAcc 2004), Senior Manager in Deloitte’s Accounting and Transaction Advisory practice in Toronto.
What she’s referring to—and celebrating—is the array of life-changing international work assignments she’s had since graduating from the University of Waterloo.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Deloitte member firms across the globe, whether through project work or longer term exchanges or transfers. I’ve lived in Australia and the UK, and I’ve worked everywhere from Egypt to the US to Finland!"
The 2010 SAF Young Alumni Award winner has served as a team member on traditional audit engagements and on many consulting projects, including taking the leading role on a multi-million dollar, multi-disciplinary, cross-functional consultation helping a client split into two separate companies.
Gandhi hopes current SAF students will take up the uniquely rewarding challenges of studying or working abroad. It was a two-year stint in the UK that proved to be the most formative part of her own wide-ranging experience.
Adaptability—A Key Takeaway
“I was away from home, and I was faced with situations where my natural instinct was to retreat into my comfort zone—my family and friends,” she admits. “But I learned to be resilient. When faced with a challenge, it was up to me to stand up and do something about it. That was a huge growth experience.”
She had always prided herself on her independence. After all, she had lived away from home while attending university and traveled abroad with friends.
“But nothing prepared me for moving half way across the world,” Gandhi concedes, “where even the simple act of getting an internet connection in your new flat takes three weeks—on top of the three weeks it takes to open a bank account!”
The experience also gave her the courage to travel on her own for six months—“just me and a backpack,” she notes with some pride.
The key learning takeaway overall was: Be adaptable.
“The cultural differences were sometimes hugely significant,” Gandhi says, “and I was usually the odd one out or the foreigner. I had to let go of my stereotypes or preconceived ideas, and adapt to the environment I was in.”
Her assignments in the UK and elsewhere have profoundly shaped her professional life. One standout is the many friendships she developed across the world. “I now have an international network to leverage in my career,” she observes.
Not only that. The technical skills she gained have made her a valuable resource for all kinds of niche projects. These skills and her well-seasoned adaptability mean that she’s “ready for anything the market may throw at me!”
Could Gandhi have achieved the same personal and professional growth in any other way? Her immediate answer: a firm No!
The Ideal Experience
As SAF executives plan to offer students more international experience opportunities starting in 2017, Gandhi offers some collegial advice.
“The ideal experience should stretch students outside their comfort zones culturally and technically,” she suggests. “SAF students are amazing, but they mostly tend to stick to their natural environment during their undergraduate program.”
A study exchange opportunity requiring them to immerse themselves—even for a short while—in another country, practice, or environment will help them view their present environment differently, she says.
“International experience, even when working or studying in the same field, allows you to go beyond what is considered normal practice at home,” Gandhi would tell students. “You’ll see what issues matter to people outside Canada. You’ll see what industries matter. You’ll come to understand how different cultures work, professional and otherwise.”
Students need to be curious and ready to ask questions in whatever new environments they find themselves. “Otherwise,” she cautions, “the experience will be lost on you.”
The veteran traveller-manager concedes that long-term international assignments can be mentally and physically demanding. However, she stresses that the opportunities to meet new people, experience new situations, and acquire “some very cool technical skills” far outweigh any concerns.
Not surprisingly, Gandhi is maintaining international linkages in her current role with Deloitte. Her flexibility-demanding busy schedule recently involved flying back and forth from Vancouver to Boston to facilitate a major cross-border project.