Headshot of Mark Loughridge

Mark Loughridge

Retired CFO, IBM Corporation

Mark Loughridge (Nantes 1975-76) spent his entire career with IBM Corporation, most recently serving as Chief Financial Officer from May 2004 until his retirement in December 2013. As an engineering student at Stanford University in the 1970s, Mark was an unlikely candidate to study abroad for an entire year in France. That experience, however, would plant the seeds of cross-cultural understanding and problem solving success that he drew upon throughout his career managing a large multinational business.

IES Abroad: As a student at Stanford University, how did you choose the IES Abroad Nantes program?

Mark Loughridge: As an engineering student, it was difficult just getting through the requirements for the major. So, generally, people would go to an English-speaking science and engineering school if they studied abroad. Nantes was listed as an alternative, and I thought, “I'm only going to be a kid once. I should do something like this.” I never studied French, so I went into crash course mode and enrolled in a course d'etranger in Montpelier that was primarily for the immigrant population. It was six hours a day, and I lived alone behind this little tailor shop. My friends were all from the University there. In Nantes, I studied at the École National Supérieure de Mécanique. The head of the school was very nice and said, "I want our students to have the opportunity to learn English from a technical standpoint.” So, they gave me a job teaching English in the language lab, and that turned out to be a great way to meet everybody. 

IES Abroad: What the biggest challenge you faced studying abroad and how did you overcome it?

ML: I felt quite confident in my engineering and scientific basis of knowledge. I thought my challenge was going to be French. My French was fine. My challenge was math. If I had known this, I would have been studying more math. The French kids spent a lot more time on advanced math before they applied it to engineering. My ‘ah ha’ moment came in a class on advanced mechanics. We were using problem solving techniques that I wasn't familiar with so I couldn't get the work done. I was using these French textbooks, and I could not figure it out. The French terminology that I was trying to understand was called the vecteur propre. In the textbook, there was a footnote in German. So, I had to get the German textbook, and in that book it said the eigenwert. From there, I went back to English, and it was an eigenvalue, or eigenvector. This was enormous! Once I completed that loop, I knew I had to refresh all my studies on matrix mathematics and then get back to French! Now, I understood what the base techniques were and how to attack that knowledge base. This was critical for me. I needed these credits back at Stanford, and I had to stay on pace and maintain my GPA. I had to learn how to learn that subject matter much more comprehensively than I originally had thought.

IES Abroad: Was there a ‘cultural moment’ while in Nantes that has left an impression on you?

ML: One of the funny stories that happened in Nantes was when I taught this course in English. I was teaching the French students the same things that I needed to know in French, but in English. I needed to know that a vecteur propre was an eigenvector. They needed to know that same cultural translation. So, we worked on scientific terminology. We had a language lab that we did with headphones and tapes once or twice a week. My boss would come in and sit in on the classes. As a break, I found this old Arlo Guthrie tape and put it on instead of playing the educational tape, and the students loved this. I was in the front of the class with my headphones on, and in walks my boss and I thought, “Oh man, I'm going to lose this job!" But every one of these kids started going into their work as if they were listening to a language tape and practicing phrases even though they were listening to Arlo Guthrie. They totally covered for me! And the guy never had any inkling that we weren't doing the English language lesson. The minute he left the room, they were all going, “yaaaa!”

IES Abroad: What skills did you take away from studying abroad that have impacted your career?

ML: If there is a skill that I rely on a lot, it is collaborative problem solving and having a comprehensive view of the problem. That is where I made my mark in my career, and I think I picked a fair amount of that up from my time studying abroad in Nantes. It was the challenge of learning subject matter that was a lot broader and more complex than I had anticipated. Although I worked diligently to prepare myself, I had to be adaptive and flexible. Initially, I didn't know the other students and didn’t have any friends. I couldn't go to them and say, “How do you do this?” They're looking at me like, "Who's this guy, the American?" The professors thought I should know this already, but I didn't know the terminology and the wiring diagrams. I didn’t know how you fit the stuff together. I can't tell you how impressed I was with French education and the student body. They were terrific. That immersive challenge involved backing the truck up to take a larger perspective on the problem and trying to figure out where your real deficiencies were and how to put those in a broader context. How do you find out the elements you are missing? Nobody knows everything. You've got to figure out where your limitations are. Often times, in problem solving, the fundamental challenge to begin with is figuring out where those deficiencies and limitations are and how to isolate them in order to solve them in a broader perspective.

IES Abroad: Does any particular situation come to mind that came along in your career where you used the same strategy?

ML: There are an enormous number of times in international business situations in my career at IBM where I had to look at broad collections of problems in many different countries and languages. That approach and technique of broader problem solving was quite valuable – looking at a problem statement and trying to figure out where you were not as equipped as you needed to be, and pulling people into those teams with the diverse perspectives and embracing that diversity of thought. Sometimes people look at diversity of thought and say, “Well, it would be good to be more inclusive.” More accurately, I would say, is if you don't have that diversity of thought, you are going to miss something. You're not going to have that skill group and ability to completely study and comprehensively analyze an issue. That's going to be the ultimate flaw.

IES Abroad: How important has having an international perspective been for you in your role at IBM? Can you share any specific examples?

ML: I had quite a big responsibility for a manufacturing site in Japan. It was an IBM plant, but it was a joint venture between a Japanese corporation and IBM at the time. To run through these meetings was pretty challenging for both sides of the table. Challenging for me because I’m trying to understand how the program is advancing and performing as well as trying to figure out how these two cultures are getting along and dealing with each other. They're trying to understand me and how I'm perceiving the progress and what my objectives are. Both sides had to take a step back and take a broader view of the objectives, and we had to not get trapped in literal translations of the language. I had a translator and they had a translator. Translators won't pick up the real intent. It was a similar kind of a challenge.

In the context that the big international global companies are working in today, you have to be able to see the other cultural perspective and viewpoints at the table. Having had the experience of being the foreigner at the table and grappling with that improves your ability to understand and collaborate with groups. You are better able to put yourself in their shoes. You may think you are communicating well, but you probably are not expressing yourself as broadly as you need to. It takes a really broad-based collaborative perspective at the table to work through these situations and maintain a level of trust and confidence so that everybody is understanding the true meaning underneath the discussion.

I do think those skills you get early on in your education process play an important role as you go through your career. You learn to better understand those challenges in those cultural perspectives. I don't think I ever would have appreciated how difficult it was to go to a foreign country and study at a university in a different language had I not faced that challenge myself. It’s not so easy. There are a lot of challenges within that context that you don't anticipate and expect. And some of those things can be huge roadblocks. If you get to that point where, “What does a vecteur propre mean?” You're done! You’re going to fail the class!

IES Abroad: What advice would you give today's college student about study abroad?

ML: I often feel that students in the U.S. are in that mindset that we have the best university system. And we do have a great university system here. But going to a university system in another country has tremendous value, as you will see things that you would not have seen if you just stayed within the U.S. structure. You are selling yourself short if you don't find some avenue to experience that. For the student in the U.S. that has that experience abroad, it is easy to say you gain a global appreciation, but it’s a lot deeper than that. Look at how they systematically manage that – how they acquire skills, how they collaborate across their cultures, how they interface with different cultures. And it’s not just the language, it’s a lot deeper than the language – there are many layers behind that. The language is kind of the door that you have to go through, but you really have to work the other layers. It’s of huge value!