It’s Monday morning, and your boss announces, “We have an overseas assignment planned for you as part of your development as a high-potential professional. You can take your family, and we’d like you to start in six weeks.” You discuss the offer with your spouse, take a deep breath and accept. But is that the right move? How do you decide whether working and living abroad is smart.
Both professional and personal factors influence successful international assignments. When the job offers professional growth, your management is supportive, and you have some idea of the next assignment, you are halfway to “yes”. Study your company’s international personnel policies to learn what move costs are covered. Understand housing, insurance and car allowances plus payments for children’s education, tax equalization and home leave entitlements.
The personal side is equally important. When some years ago I was staffing for a headquarters operation in London, I interviewed husbands and wives of candidates together. If the working spouse was enthusiastic but the non-working spouse was reluctant or declined to go, I would not make an offer. Overseas assignments succeed best when the family remains together. There is much opportunity for mischief and discontent when mates are long apart. And work performance suffers.
But if the professional side looks bright, and you have an enthusiastic partner, you can embark on a great overseas experience – working, traveling, and seeing how others live.
Over the 15+ years I worked abroad, I’ve observed characteristics that point to expatriate success and failure.
- Bring your home country’s values and standards, but be open to new ideas in the company abroad. If another expatriate has preceded you, learn what changes she made and avoid repeating to local management the same message. Have a spirit of adventure and a willingness to learn local culture. Be a responsible expatriate, and when you observe other religions, governments, ways of living and food, take it in but don’t criticize or make fun. Exhibit non-judgmental curiosity.
- Socialize with host country neighbors, co-workers and business colleagues. Accept invitations you receive. Integrate into the society. You will make some friends for life.
- Travel as much as you can. You will expand your horizons and gain experiences money can’t buy.
- Realize that you are privileged, and enjoy benefits that will end when you return to your mother country. Don’t view these things as entitlements. When stationed in England, I had a car and driver. I knew this perk came with the position and would end when I returned to the U.S. Too bad!
- “The U.S. way is the best way and the only way. Why don’t the locals get it?” I’ve seen this attitude at all levels. Guess what? These expatriates generally flame out and are sent home. Some of our technology and management techniques are superb; but not all. And in this global economy, our partners teach us a lot.
- “Foreign food? Where’s a Big Mac”? While I was posted in Hong Kong, one American middle manager assigned there refused to eat anything but steak and potatoes — and boasted of his view. He was a fool and was sent home early for his attitude, his views on food being the tip of the iceberg.
- Don’t become a homesteader, that is, stay too long. You are overseas because you have special skills to help your company succeed. You developed those skills at home base. They need to replenish from time to time. Some workers fall in love with their countries assigned and may marry a local man or woman. They want to stay, but of course on their international compensation package, not on a local salary basis. On top of a normal three-year assignment, I might grant a one-year extension, once!
It’s often said that the best international executive is the best domestic executive who is open to learn. If you have the chance, take those developed skills and apply them overseas. You will have the time of your life.