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Career Accelerator #2: International Experience

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As you can probably tell by the title, this post is the second in a series to explore high risk/high reward situations that have the potential to turbocharge your career. If you haven’t already read the first post on being an Integration Manager I suggest you read it now if not only for the first couple of paragraphs on career pace as it is relevant for this post as well.

For those of you with a strong sense of adventure, love travel, or just want the experience of living and working abroad, you have probably considered an international assignment. I know I have (in fact, all of my company moves were based on the allure of an international assignment…) and am currently on assignment in Montreal, Canada (although 40% of my team is in Lyon, France). Aside from this current assignment, I lived in the UK during my first stint in grad school so I have some experience on this topic.

I know what many of you are thinking: Canada? The UK? Those are barely international assignments as they are so close to American culture. I readily admit that there are more challenging assignments (I have current and former colleagues who were on assignment in China, France, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, etc.) yet the core concepts are the same: you trade the culture and processes you know for a new culture and set of experiences. I can assure you that French, French Canadian and UK corporate culture are very different than American corporate culture and each country will be different in its own way. That’s the beauty of the international assignment; it forces you to look at your business and management skills in a completely new light which will not only make you a more well-rounded, thoughtful leader, it will also position you for success at higher levels in complex, global organizations.

Career Accelerator #2: International Assignment

Why is it a Career Accelerator?

Those of you who already work in global businesses know how challenging it can be to develop, promote and support solutions in a complex global environment. New technologies are democratizing information and breaking down traditional communication barriers. Emerging middle classes in China, India, Brazil and other markets means spending power is increasing leading to exploding demand for western goods and services. But understanding the needs of those markets (whether B2B or B2C) requires deep cultural insight. Further, the workforce is becoming more diverse and successful leadership of diverse organizations, especially those that cross national and cultural boundaries, is becoming a core requirement for leadership roles in large corporations. International assignments provide the deep cultural immersion required to both understand local market needs and the needs of diverse employees. Finally, like integration manager roles, international assignments tend to have a clear end date which will be a great time to ask for/receive a promotion.

Common Pitfalls of International Assignments

Not surprisingly, the research shows that when employees on international assignments fail, it tends to be for personal, not business, reasons (good article here), namely, spouses or family members who struggle to adapt to the cultural change. However, there are other considerations that can impact the success or failure of an international assignment including:

  • Unforeseen financial issues (high tax rates, ability to get credit cards, buy a house/car, etc.)
  • Dealing with government bureaucracies/visa issues
  • Inability to adapt to cultural norms (French corporate culture, for example, is far more hierarchical and resistant to change than US corporate culture)
  • Communication issues including language barriers and/or more subtle cultural cues
  • Environmental differences (pollution, traffic, convenience, etc.)
  • Distance from culturally familiar objects and experiences (trust me, at some point you will crave peanut butter, Oreo’s, or some other food that you will not have access to)

Okay, so international assignments are a challenge. However, I find living and working abroad to be tremendously rewarding and you can too if you follow the steps below to excel in your international role.

  1. Seek to understand before you seek to change. I assume that most of the readers of this blog are familiar with American corporate culture that thrives on constant change and a hard-driving attitude. I can assure you that from a global perspective, American culture is the exception, not the rule. As such, when you start a new role, understand that your team and colleagues are already working within a complex set of cultural norms where they are very familiar with the “rules” and you are not. Try to not have an opinion for the first 60 days. Instead, try really hard to understand why things are done the way there, how people communicate, and what motivates both individuals and the team. If you see something that doesn’t make sense at first, assume everyone has good intentions and the process exists for a reason. Try to understand that reason before implementing any major changes. In short, seek to understand before you seek to change.
  2. Immerse yourself in the culture. One way to narrow the divide between yourself as the “foreigner” on the team is to consciously spend time immersing yourself in the culture. This sounds obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of people on foreign assignment who live in an expat community, have satellite TV so they can watch shows from “home,” and only attend social events that include spending time with other expats. I am currently in Canada and actively follow hockey so I can participate in “water cooler” talk with my colleagues. I have gone curling (it’s surprisingly fun), am taking French courses, bought season tickets for the local major league soccer team (go Impact!) and try to do one cultural event (museum, restaurant, etc.) each weekend. On my first trip to France to meet my team, I took the entire team to watch the local soccer team (Olympique Lyonnaise) play in the champions league. When possible, involve your spouse and family in cultural events to make it more of an adventure. Trust me, nothing will make you more homesick then spending all your time with people from your native country and watching TV from back home. Wherever you are on assignment is your new home–embrace the adventure.
  3. Become a corporate ambassador for your company…for both your native and new location. Said another way, bring the best of your culture, mindset, and customer needs of where you are on assignment back to your local country and vice versa. If you are on a foreign assignment, it is almost certainly because your company wants you to be an advocate for the company in your new location, but they will also want you to bring the new perspectives you are learning in your assignment back to your home base. Be cognizant of this “dual-role” and actively try to foster a strong cross-boarder company culture. Not only will it make you a better employee (and future leader) but it will help the morale and culture of both teams while strengthening the overarching corporate culture. Resist the urge to “go native” and complain about home base (or vice versa). Instead, understand and respect the cultural differences of each and bring the best of both cultures to bear.
  4. Do some research before you go. You know the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The same goes for foreign assignments. It’s impossible to prepare for everything but the goal is to learn as much as possible to minimize unexpected issues. This includes everything from vaccinations to unanticipated fees and expenses, to taxes (painful in Canada…wish I would have done more research on this, so learn from my mistake…), school dates and fees, cultural norms, and rules around transport and ownership of pets. Talk to people who have completed foreign assignments to get their insights. Try to meet people from the country to which you are moving. A foreign assignment is just as stressful and involved as any other move with the added complexity of visa and language issues. The more you can learn in advance, the better off you will be.
  5. Miscellaneous. I tried to think of a catchy title but this is all I could come up with. Below is a list of things you should think about or try to negotiate as part of your foreign assignment that can save you a lot of time, money, or headache:

– Salary gross-up based on exchange rate (you don’t want a reduced standard of living).

– Company paid tax preparation/consultation. Not only are foreign taxes very difficult and confusing to prepare, they can be very expensive. Try to get this included.

– Get an employment contract. Some countries (like Canada) require this. The nice thing about an employment contract is that it gives the employee some protection in exchange for your willingness to uproot your life/family to live and work in another country

– Negotiate a repatriation clause. This is a stretch, but I successfully negotiated this clause into my employment contract. Basically, if I am let go for any  reason, the company has to at least pay to have myself and my property transported back to my home country.

– Factor in vacation/trips back home. If you are from the US, virtually every country will have more generous vacation policies and more public holidays. If you are moving someplace with less, try to negotiate time off and trips back to your home country to visit friends and family. 2-3 trips per year is reasonable.

So, knowing what you know now, is a foreign assignment right for you? The answer will depend upon where you are in your career, your career goals, your family situation and a multitude of other variables. However, if at all possible, I strongly suggest considering a foreign assignment (especially if you are young and/or single as everything will be much easier…) and the tips and insights above will help you maximize your chances of a successful assignment and set you on the fast track to senior management.

If you have any questions or comments either send me an email or leave a comment below.  I would love to help you on your journey to a successful international assignment!

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