Written to celebrate Luther College’s 150th anniversary.
“If I would have planned my life, I never would have made it this far.” This expression suits me well and comes from an early memory of watching busloads of tourists on “the trip of a lifetime” screeching to a halt in front of one of the world’s wonders, jumping off, snapping pictures, and then piling back into the bus for their next fleeting glimpse of a world treasure. Those people got to their destination, but missed the journey. I vowed then and there to never let that happen to me.
For me, the seeds for living a global life were planted early. Growing up in Minneapolis, most families spent summer vacations on local lakes or “up north” at the family cabin – not so in the Kraabel family. Barely ten years old, I got my first taste of the world by spending the summer a few kilometers south of the Lebanese border in the small Israeli town of Meron. One of the youngest of a group of amateur archeologists, I followed my father to Israel on a dig he would co-lead with fellow Luther alumnus, Richard Simon Hanson.
That summer in Meron was followed a few years later by a longer stay in Jerusalem, where I focused on exploring the Old City (leading tours through Hezekiah’s tunnel was a favorite pastime), while trying to avoid the school work assigned by my teachers in Minneapolis (a hallmark of my formal education).
Again trailing my father’s work, my junior year of high school was spent “studying” at the Cherwell School in Oxford. As most young Britons leave school before reaching this stage, our class was small and we spent as much of our time on extracurricular activities as we would on our studies. London can teach you a lot when you are sixteen and curious.
A young life with few boundaries left me wanting for structure, so after a short stint at the University of Minnesota, I joined the Marine Corps, intent on seeing more of the world. The Corps lived up to its end of the deal by sending me to Japan, Korea and the Philippines, twice. After nearly four years, plans for a military career were superseded by the idea of returning to college, Luther College to be exact.
One of Luther’s few “non-traditional” students, I split my time between school, a part-time job at United Parcel Service and the numerous social activities one could find in Decorah in the late 1980s. For me, the chance to put into practice at UPS the theory I learned from the likes of Frank Barth, Tim Schweitzer and Rich Leake was the perfect application of a liberal arts education. My grades may have suffered, but I was a better (wiser?) man for managing my education in this way.
My career immediately after Luther was challenging and provided a few entrepreneurial adventures, but ultimately left me wanting. While investigating MBA programs across the Midwest, I came across a number of people studying Human Resources at a Masters level. Intrigued by this combination of business and service, I applied to the University of Minnesota’s HR program, one of the best in the country at the time. I was accepted and, facing another fork in the road, quit work and went back to school full-time at the age of 32.
While at Minnesota, I followed the same recipe of work and study that served me well at Luther. This combination led to a job with AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) at a facility where, four years earlier, they had seen the longest strike in the plant’s history. The risks were high, but the opportunity to make a difference was clearly there. Life in Virginia was good though this would all change one day when I asked the Senior Vice President of HR, whether there was a chance to work overseas. His immediate response was basically “no” but he said to keep on him. Six months later, I received a phone call asking if I was interested in moving to a new business in Tokyo. I was on the ground in Japan less than eight weeks later. What began as a two-year assignment in 1997 continues to this day. In 1999, when AlliedSignal bought Honeywell, I volunteered to move to Singapore. Two years later, the chance to move to China arose. Though expecting our first child, we packed our bags and moved to Shanghai.
Shanghai was tough. The combination of SARS, two new bosses and financial pressures within the company brought my decade-long career at Honeywell to an end. Thankfully, the man who hired me in 1997 had also left Honeywell and was looking for a new head of HR, this time back in Singapore. One door closes, another opens.
After nearly a decade of living in Asia, we, as a family, talked about the next chapter in our lives. With family and friends in Europe, we began looking north and west. Luckily, my work at Ingram Micro had gained some notice and I was approached about a role in Brussels. After a quick trip to Belgium, we made the move. Though off to a good start, (mis)fortune would again intervene, this time in the form of a boss with his own agenda, and one of which I was not a part. In the midst of the financial crisis, living in Belgium and now unemployed, we saw this as a sign to take some time off. We explored Europe for the better part of a year before I began to look for work.
A new challenge, this time with MasterCard, brought me back to Singapore as their Senior Vice President, Human Resources for the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa region. An interesting experience in how organizations deal with change, the greatest benefit of MasterCard was that it accelerated the creation of LeBaark Consulting. Now just over one year old, LeBaark has provided opportunities to work with individuals and corporations alike.
While we live in Singapore, work and life take us to places of which most only dream. Enrolled in an international school, my daughter’s classmates come from every corner of the world and, unlike me, she speaks three languages. Trained as a lawyer, my wife has practiced across the Asia Pacific region in addition to running her own business.
So what has all this taught me? First, take risks. Ask the question no one is willing to ask. Ask for the opportunity that today seems impossible. Ask for the job that doesn’t exist. Questions like these just may plant the seed of future opportunity, in yourself as well as others.
The second important factor in a successful global career is pure hard work. My day begins when business opens in Australia and ends when my colleagues in New York are breaking for lunch. Jet lag is persistent and inconvenient, but not debilitating; it is in my job description. This professional life may not be for everyone, but for me, though the hours may be long and the risks high, the rewards far outweigh the costs.
Finally, this is all about the road less traveled. At each juncture in the stories above, I could have taken the easy, less risky path. In each case, I did not. This is where my Luther experience has benefitted me most. It gave me the skills, and the appetite, to think broadly: to look at all the factors that were in front of me and have the confidence to tackle what was unknown. That education, and this road, has allowed me to visit nearly fifty countries and live over half of my adult life outside the US. I would not have it any other way. Take the chance; you’ll be glad you did.