Moving Overseas for a Job: Look Before You Leap

If there were any doubters before, the Great Recession has proven that the world has become a global economy with one interdependent labor pool.

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As a result, the job of a leader has never been more complex, and international expertise is now a prerequisite for most CEO appointments today. Yet, the dearth of executives possessing a truly global mindset and deep understanding of business cultures worldwide has posed a critical challenge for companies looking for people to help them succeed in a tough, albeit improving, economic landscape.

Seeking an overseas assignment as a way of achieving your long-term career aspirations can be a wise move if you pursue these opportunities strategically, and view them from your employer’s perspective. You need to answer the question: How do you contribute more to the success and future of the organization by gaining international experience than you do serving in a domestic capacity?

The answer to this global question starts at home, with you, the employee. You must be realistic and clear about your value proposition and the specific contribution you can make to the organization’s foreign operations. Know yourself, your abilities and your limitations and be honest about your true motivations for wanting to leave.  If you are opportunistically looking at positions abroad primarily as a short-term solution to the relative lack of possibilities at home, you may struggle to make yourself relevant and will face considerable competition from local talent. It might not be prudent to leave home if you can better contribute to strategic priorities by staying put.

Other considerations include:

•The age of your children or parents;

•The degree of contact you will be able to maintain with your professional network at home(including bosses/colleagues at company headquarters);

•The level of job security in the role overseas and plans for repatriation; and

•The impact on your children’s education, your partner’s career, or your own work-life balance.

Even without going abroad, you should spend time building relationships with colleagues overseas to understand their needs and play a leadership role in key projects involving and impacting other territories. This will help you build a case for being posted abroad, hone your influencing skills in an international context and raise your profile.

Indeed, you will need to evaluate whether you have the leadership qualities required for elite roles in diverse and uncertain environments where cultural savvy, curiosity, and a rigorous work ethic are required but do not guarantee success on their own.

If you are uncertain about where you stand on certain elements of your leadership style, seek out some honest feedback from bosses, colleagues and direct reports.  They can help you increase your self-awareness and uncover what might be some critical blind spots.

Even if your overseas role is fairly similar to your current one, you will almost certainly need to do some things differently in order to succeed.  Effectively dealing with some of the challenging, first-time situations you are likely to face will require you to demonstrate learning agility.  Learning agile individuals actively learn from their experiences and are adept at applying principles and rules of thumb they have acquired to guide them through unfamiliar challenges.  To put it another way, they know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

If you come to the conclusion that you are the right candidate for an international position, start by looking at demand. Fast-growing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, China and India) economies are expected to account for a larger share of the world’s output as the recession ends, and the Asia Pacific region still holds promise, with Greater China (including Hong Kong) and Singapore remaining the top picks for expatriates seeking regional or even global roles there.

When you find and accept an attractive position overseas, be prepared to demonstrate a measurable impact that drives the business forward within two to three years, or the assignment will not be the resume-builder you want it to be. To tip the balance in your favor:

  • •Check your assumptions and worldview at the door.
  • •Build some knowledge of the culture or ask for cultural immersion coaching to better your understanding of the underpinnings of the societal and business culture of the country in which you will be based.
  • •Evaluate your company’s global, regional and local strategy and ensure that you are empowered to manage expectations about what it will take to meet the company’s goals.
  • •Research social opportunities to ensure that your family will be able to adapt to life in the new country.
  • •Have a clear agreement with your company about how this assignment will further your career and agree to the terms of your repatriation when the assignment ends.
  • •Formulate a succession plan and ways to develop the leaders of the future who will allow your firm to eventually localize its management team.
  • •Take some time to scope out your role with your future boss before your assignment begins, but also be flexible to change once you arrive.
  • •If you are going to maintain responsibilities in your home country, think carefully about your approach to managing from a distance and how your team members will be impacted.

Once you are on the ground, be open to the idea of staying longer than the initial contract term. While the recommended minimum period to stay abroad on a permanent assignment is two years, over time you may find that your personal development, professional impact and quality of life are substantially higher away from home. If you know positively that you intend to return home for professional or personal reasons, it is important to plan to do so within five years. Remember to review that plan if additional international assignments or extensions present themselves along the way. Keep abreast of developments in your home country and find ways to remain connected to your professional network, possibly through industry bodies, charitable associations or the Internet.

A word of caution: in response to the financial crisis, a number of organizations have downgraded their expatriate packages for all but the senior-most hires. For example, in many cases organizations are now sharing responsibility for housing and schooling costs with executives. While these and other items such as annual leave can be negotiated, make sure that your base salary and bonus are reflective of industry norms. Do not compromise on the basics.

The dynamic nature of global business requires equally dynamic leadership talent, not only to guide organizations out of the current recession but also to propel them toward a sustainable level of peak performance. Contributing to the next wave of recovery and prosperity by applying your knowledge and skills in new markets can be more than worth the risk and ultimately will position you for elite management roles and a enriching lifestyle where both your purse and perspectives expand.

Michael Bekins is a managing director of Korn/Ferry International in Singapore.  He has held local, regional and global roles over a 20-year career with the firm. An American national, he has lived and worked in Australia, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Malaysia, Singapore and Tokyo.

George Hallenbeck is director, Intellectual Property Development for Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting.  An American national, he is currently on his first international assignment and is based in the firm’s Singapore office.