Ensure an overseas stint will accelerate your career

Considering a work assignment outside your home country? Engaged in one now? If so, you should be thinking about the job after this one and how to ensure it's a rewarding career move. Invest as much thought and planning in this subsequent role as you did in the first, whether it's another foreign assignment or repatriation.

Don't rely on your company to keep your career on track, says Rebecca Messina, an executive in Paris on her fourth expat assignment in five years with the same large global company. "Although you may have local human-resources personnel in your assignment country, they aren't necessarily looking out for you," she says. "Their priority is the local personnel, so your expat position could be the first to go in a restructuring, and you could go from high performer to jobless."

Similar Beginnings, Different Endings

Failing to plan ahead can stall your career, while taking initiative early on is likely to enhance it. Consider how overseas assignments in Paris affected the careers of three professionals employed by multinational corporations. Then read on to find out what happened behind the scenes to ensure these outcomes.

The first executive, a finance director for a large global company, accepted his assignment in anticipation of a significant promotion within three to five years. But as he reached the end of the five-year term, the company was looking at other candidates to replace him and had no suitable position for his projected career path. He was offered a temporary assignment leading a special project. Three years later, he's still working on it, and his career has lost its momentum.

The second executive was his successor and always a star performer with the company. He, too, accepted the three-to-five-year foreign assignment as finance director. However, he'd never held any position in the company longer than two years without landing a new role offering more responsibility and visibility. The same thing happened with his overseas job: After three years, he became a senior manager with the company.

The third executive experienced what was for him the worst possible career blow. When he accepted a foreign assignment for his multinational employer, leading the integration of a recent acquisition, he was one of two managers competing to succeed the company chairman. He expected to work overseas for two years, achieve the desired synergy from the integration and lead the company upon his return. But despite his achieving the company's goals with a solid performance, his competitor got the top job and he was asked to choose between extending his foreign assignment or taking a severance package. Both were poor alternatives, and he opted to stay on the job. However, he quickly became unhappy, and, after less than a year, he left the company with a severance package.

Actions vs. Expectations

Why were the experiences of these three executives so different? The answer has less to do with their expectations than with their actions and those of other people.

The first executive was never one to call attention to himself or his results. He believed that if he did his job well, people would notice and he would be rewarded. But once overseas, he had few contacts with anyone beyond those required for work. He failed to use his new assignment to broaden his contacts with senior managers and other important players in the company. He was literally out of sight and out of mind.

The third executive gambled and lost big. He believed that when the next chairman was selected, his international experience would tip the balance in his favor. Despite his success, however, his foreign assignment limited the scope of his contribution. His peer did not have the same limitations and during the same time period found opportunities to make himself invaluable to the current chairman and the company. The overseas manager couldn't foresee the future when he accepted his assignment, but, in hindsight, says the outcome could have been predicted, given past experience. The chairman had relied heavily on him and his departure created a void. His peer gladly filled it.

The expat who was most successful went into it expecting it to last only two years, despite the three-to-five-year commitment. As a result, early in the assignment he sought and achieved significant contributions that gave him broad recognition throughout the company. He also looked for opportunities to share and apply his new insights from working overseas.

Relationship development and regular communication were among his strengths. And while he recognized the value of e-mail, he didn't rely on it as a substitute for telephone calls and face-to-face meetings, despite time-zone and geographic differences. He also was regularly in touch with the senior manager and others most responsible for his assignment. He made certain they were aware of his accomplishments and left each meeting with deadlines for achieving his next goal. This allowed him to control the length of his foreign assignment and to position himself for more senior positions when it ended.

Messina also moved on to new and better positions in each ex-pat assignment. "But in every instance, I had to work to make it happen," she says.

Move Your Career Forward

How can you ensure a similar outcome? There's no guarantee, but taking these three steps will help maximize the likelihood of your success:

1. Before deciding to take an overseas assignment, ask yourself these questions:

How long am I prepared to stay in this role?

What do I expect the next step to be?

What was the next step for my predecessor(s) in this role?

What do I need to do to ensure that the outcome is the same or better for me?

2. Once in the role, be sure to do the following:

Communicate often with the people responsible for you having the job in the first place. They have a continued interest in your success.

Look beyond your immediate circle of contacts to individuals within your company who can benefit from the expertise and experience you're gaining. Offer your insights.

Document your accomplishments and always quantify any positive results. Schedule regular reviews not only with your manager but also with other individuals responsible for career development within your organization.

Never turn down opportunities to be in contact. Don't skip conference calls or meetings, even if the subject may not be entirely applicable. There's a reason you were invited. And remember: As much happens in the informal corridor conversations as in the formal meetings, and sometimes more.

Don't isolate yourself. Find at least one opportunity annually to travel to your headquarters or other primary domestic location. Host meetings at your overseas location.

Be visible internally and externally. In addition to developing networks within your company, maintain external networks through alumni and professional organizations. These will allow you to continually benchmark yourself against peers, who may or may not have your international work experience.

3. When it's time to move on, don't be afraid to turn down an unacceptable offer.

If you're an asset to your company and talking regularly with higher-ups, you'll receive another offer, and that's closer to what you desire. Know what you're worth internally and in the broader job market. Repatriation is a perfect time for salary negotiation, especially since you'll lose the expat benefits that came with your overseas assignment.

"The worst thing one can do is just come back because your contract is over," says Yannick Binvel, a senior client partner at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. Be clear about what you want and don't want professionally and personally, he suggests.

Avoid overestimating your capabilities, adds Binvel. "Most times, the company sells the candidate very hard to take the assignment in the first place, so that person may develop an inflated self image at the outset," he says. "The gap between the feeling they had when they went overseas and what they feel when they return is great. And they'll fail unless the next assignment is consistent with their skills and experience."

If your only option at the end of an expat assignment is to return home, make sure the move is good for your career and is as rewarding as your overseas job. Managing your career takes effort -- just ask Messina. But it's well worth your time.

Tanelli is the trailing partner of an expat executive in Paris. She has held management positions at large corporations and has a master's degree in business administration from Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management in Nashville.

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