A Successful International Assignment Depends on These Factors
February 14, 2014 Editor 0
What are your thoughts on international assignments? Take our survey and let us know.
The prospect of an international assignment can be equal parts thrilling and alarming: Will it make or break your career? What will it do to your life at home and the people you love? When you’re thinking about relocating, you start viewing questions of work and family — difficult enough under ordinary circumstances — through a kind of high-contrast, maximum-drama filter.
As our article in the March issue of Harvard Business Review shows, senior executives who successfully combine their professional and personal lives make deliberate, strategic choices about whether, when, and how to work abroad. Of the 82 leaders we surveyed, 32% said they had turned down an international assignment because they didn’t want to move their families, and 28% said they had done so to protect their marriages. Virtually none of the men had turned down an international assignment because of cultural concerns, but 13% of the women had. In short, executives aren’t jumping at every opportunity to relocate, even though international assignments are popular because of growing world trade, saturated domestic markets, and increased competition.
If you have a partner or spouse, and perhaps children, what factors should you weigh when offered a position in a different country? Consider the impact it will have on your own human capital — that is, your ability to achieve your goals and dreams — and on your family’s human capital.
Your Human Capital
Your human capital amounts to all the resources you bring to the table — your skills, experiences, and networks. It’s your capacity to get things done, to be an effective agent on the job and in your life. It’s your engine, your juice. You are reading this blog post right now in the hopes of increasing it.
Clearly, an international assignment can burnish your skills, deepen your experiences, and widen your network. But it can also put you at risk of failing at your company and of weakening your professional and personal relationships back home.
In general, the more carefully you plan for change, the better your chances of wisely managing your human capital in an international post. If you relocate, you’ll need to adapt to differences in language, etiquette, industry regulations, and so on. Before deciding whether to accept such an assignment — and certainly before embarking on one — do your research to avoid being blindsided by the unexpected. Understand in detail how the job would differ from your current one and how it would be similar. What would your success metrics be in the new position? To what extent does your company maintain a consistent corporate culture across regions? Is it a strong culture, with a sense of belonging and well-defined procedures? Or is it more of a loose confederation of relatively independent subunits? If the latter, investigate the subculture of the branch you’re thinking of joining, just as you’d do if you were joining a new company.
And don’t forget that an international assignment also involves coming back. Develop a plan for staying in contact with valued colleagues and mentors in your home country while you are away, or you may find your return to be nearly as difficult as your departure. Expatriated workers, even those who do well overseas, are often dissatisfied with their assignments upon return and feel that they do not have the opportunity to put what they learned into practice. And some expats decide to leave their companies.
Your Family’s Human Capital
When executives relocate, “trailing” loved ones are at high risk of dissatisfaction. That’s actually one of the most commonly identified reasons for failure on a global assignment. A partner or spouse who relocates has a lot to lose in continuity. Typically, there’s no local corollary for his or her own job, networks, and relationships back home.
Don’t rely on your organization to preempt or solve that problem. Despite the crucial role played by partners and spouses, many companies do not include them in the selection process or in whatever pre-departure training is offered. So it’s on you, the executive, to bring your family members on board and engage them in the process of researching your potential new home.
Anecdotally, we’ve found that some of the most successful overseas assignments involve partners who use the move to navigate a transition of their own. Can your partner take advantage of the time abroad to earn an advanced degree, enter a new industry, learn a new skill, or raise young children? If so, this might be the ideal time to accept an international assignment. It could be an adventure and an opportunity for the entire family — not a sacrifice everyone else is making for your career.
Researching the potential move should be a family project. Any connection to the new country is good. Partners and spouses who speak the language have much more positive experiences than those who do not. Do you or your partner have any extended family or old college roommates where you’re thinking of moving? Are there worship centers for your religion or alumni clubs for your alma maters? Even a little bit of familiarity can go a long way toward making a new place more manageable.
If you have children, engage them in decisions about your global move, such as picking the right school. And try to relocate at a time when it will help, not hurt, the human capital and relationships they are developing. Children can benefit from the chance to learn another culture — and parents can benefit from the fact that kids will always pick up new languages and technologies faster than they do. However, the executives we surveyed and interviewed have advised against moving teenagers. They feel that teens should be allowed to form the crucial building blocks of their adult human capital — friendships, social skills, academic and “life” competencies — in the environment where they’re likely to live as adults.
Take our survey to help everyone learn more about how managers perceive overseas assignments. In the coming weeks, we’ll write about the responses we receive from readers on hbr.org. We’ve learned a lot from the leaders in our research sample — and we’d like to compare your perspectives with theirs.Thriving at the Top
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