As corporations expand across borders and move into new markets, the business world is truly becoming a global marketplace. So why limit yourself to working your entire career in just one country? Leaving home in search of new career experiences can position you as a sought-after player in the global economy, and potentially lead to a big leap forward in your career, either abroad or back at home. But fair warning: International assignments are not necessarily for the faint-hearted or unadventurous.
See also: What Are the Best-Kept Secrets for Career Success?
We spoke to three women leaders about why they signed up for international roles, what it did for their careers and what they wish they had known before they went. Each responded with similar, yet unique, experiences, offering up three distinct pieces of advice for those seeking international assignments.
1. Skill up for the global workforce
Cate Huston, a software engineer now based in London, encourages others to take an international assignment because, as she explains, developing a global viewpoint is a definite advantage. "It broadens your horizons and your network," she says. "As a tech worker, I find my international experience helps me be more empathetic." And if your career goal is to advance, enhanced awareness can translate directly into management skills that equip you to lead global, diverse teams.
Marie Pettinos is a senior program director whose career has taken her from the United States to England, Japan, Germany, India and back to the U.S. Along the way, she's become skilled at managing global teams, and now makes daily use of what she learned about how to lead and work effectively in a highly diverse and often virtual workforce. When asked what inspired her to volunteer to work abroad, Pettinos says that initially, it was a great way to travel at the company's expense. "Later," she says, "it became part of my plan to enhance my resume and develop my cultural competence."
"People from different cultures approach problems in different ways," she adds. "My international assignments opened my eyes to being more open to problem-solving methods and being more inclusive in building my teams."
Huston also agrees that international experience is a door-opener for future career possibilities. "When working abroad shows up on your resume," she says, "it tells potential employers that you are adventurous and open to new opportunities. I regularly get approached by companies in Canada and Australia suggesting I ‘come home,’ even though I am neither Canadian nor Australian!"
If you’re up for relocating internationally, get ready for a skills boost that will likely give you a leg up in the highly competitive global workforce.
2. Learn the culture, not the language
If the first thing you do after learning that you'll be relocating to another country is to order an expensive DVD set of language immersion lessons, think again.
Pettinos says, in her experience, you don’t necessarily have to know the language. Instead, it is far more important to try to understand the culture.
"For my first two international assignments," she says, "I spent a lot of time trying to learn the language. I later found that it is more important to first learn something about the culture; the language comes later through immersion."
Min Fang, a cloud technology solutions architect who relocated from Texas to Singapore, observed the same trend in her move. "Southeast Asia is so culturally diverse and evolving at a very rapid pace," says Fang. "I found that cross-cultural awareness and intercultural communication are critical skill sets." In fact, Fang believes these skills are a matter of survival in what she likes to refer to as "The Wild East."
For a shortcut to learn the culture, find a cultural mentor: In other words, ask around to find an employee who is passionate about introducing others to their culture, and chances are they’ll be equally as intrigued to learn about yours.
3. Be aware of the tradeoffs
When considering an international assignment or relocation, it's important to consider the downsides. For starters, there will be things that were easy to accomplish as part of everyday life that will suddenly take on a new layer of complexity while living abroad.
For Huston, living and working abroad means being on a work permit, which can add an extra layer of stress. "We all have days when we fantasize about quitting our jobs," she says, explaining that the stakes for such decisions are much higher when you’re on an employer-sponsored work visa. "On a work permit, this can add anxiety. It also makes tax returns really complicated," she adds. "Ask your company to cover the cost of an accountant."
Huston also advises employees on assignment abroad to consider that annual vacation time can quickly disappear with trips home to visit family — so they should try to negotiate the flexibility to work remotely, if possible.
The final word of wisdom: If you are considering taking that first international assignment, be prepared to get hooked. Traveling and working abroad can be a remarkable way to experience the world and be a part of the global community.
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Jo is Founding Editor of Be Leaderly, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., and creator of the Women’s Leadership Coaching® system, a roadmap for women who want to break into leadership. She has traveled i...More
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