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Should you take your career abroad?

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By Roshan Jayawardena

Pursuing a career opportunity overseas has its fair mix of challenges and benefits. Originally from Sydney, Australia, having lived in Europe and then relocating to the US last year, this is something I myself am well-aware of!

Here, three HR professionals share with me their own experience of living abroad and their advice for those considering making the move.

Michael Brand  Business and Technical Leadership Partner at IBM, has worked predominately in manufacturing and technology industries. Michael has lived in the US and India.

KC Sin – Global Head of Rewards Operations and Talent Mobility, and HR Transformation at BlackRock, New York. KC spent 17 years living in Asia across Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Pramukh Jeyathilak – Global HR Lead, Amazon. Pramukh has lived and worked in India, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, Singapore and the US. He is originally from India.

Anonymous – A senior-level HR professional with over 20 years in HR within the banking sector, who has worked in multiple US cities and spent eight years in Hong Kong.

How did the opportunity to work abroad come about?

Michael – The company I was working for was looking at how to build the corporate DNA in emerging markets. I was part of the team that worked on the strategy and when the time came to action it, I was asked if I wanted to relocate. India was attractive to me due to its growing middle-class, urbanization and young population. I knew it would be a two-year assignment, where upon returning to the US I would be in a different role.

KC – It was easier for me to transfer abroad to a location where my company had US clients. At the time, there was a demand for talent in Asia, so I took up an opportunity in Singapore. I chose Singapore because everyone speaks English and I thought it would be an easier transition In Tokyo it was more challenging from a cultural perspective. With any move abroad, you either learn to adjust to the culture by becoming more patient, or you lose it!

Pramukh – When my company developed an Emerging Markets division with the headquarters in Prague, I was brought over to run it. Later, I moved to Dubai with Microsoft, then took on a regional role for all of Asia based out of Singapore. Finally, I moved to the US as the global head for a division out of Washington.

Anon – I was a senior Human Resources Business Partner covering a client group globally. I had been covering Asia and the opportunity popped up to move. I knew a lot of the people I was to be working with, and had traveled to Asia a few times, which made the transition easier.

What are some benefits to working abroad?

Michael – Putting yourself in a situation that you aren’t used to forces you to grow and change. You have to say yes to things that you wouldn’t normally do and that is where a lot of growth comes from. The biggest benefit is a shift in mindset in how you change and work. How you do an executive search in the US versus India, for example, requires different negotiating terms.

KC –You become more mature, as you have to face big life changes and learn to take care of yourself. It’s not the same as moving away for college! It makes you more rounded and teaches you humility. Professionally, working in smaller off-shore offices, you have the platform to be involved in more things about the business.

Pramukh – We were able to maintaining consistency and control key factors across all locations – such as our children’s education at American schools, and hobbies like golf and music. Once you keep these constant, your location matters less. My advice would be to take the best of what each country offers, and do not compare.

Anon – Learning about different cultures and how things got done was engrossing, exciting and at times, frustrating. Using Hong Kong to springboard for travel is incomparable to the US.

What are some challenges that you faced?

Michael – There are three big ones:

The time difference. It often meant a 9pm conference call on a Friday night. You need to be protective of your personal time.
In India, compared to the US, progress is slower. You need to take time to check and double-check actionables, and adjust your style to be respectful of cultural differences.
Being in an unfamiliar place is sometimes exhausting, so you need to take regular breaks to recharge.
KC – Going to a non-English speaking country was harder than an English-speaking country. Some of the biggest challenges are also the most simple, such as what to eat, and where to shop! Furthermore, you need to rebuild your own network and make new friends – which is challenging but also fun.

Pramukh – The timing of your move is important. It’s easier with very young children. We moved country when my oldest son was a year old. As they get older, they become part of the decision-making equation, and to move them becomes more difficult.

Anon – From a professional perspective, not speaking the language was huge. You can work alongside colleagues, but it takes longer to build rapport and I’m not sure if I ever really mastered this.

How did moving abroad impact your career?

Michael – The experience being abroad was invaluable and a huge career advantage. It made me highly resourceful and able to better understand other cultures. This goes a long way when someone is looking at your resume.

KC – Working abroad has helped my career immensely. If I had stayed in Canada, my career would have been quite linear. When you are abroad, you learn more as you have more trials to go through than being at home.

Anon – I have always been interested in international HR so moving abroad helped, as it depended my exposure.

What would be your advice for someone considering working abroad?

Michael – You need to be vocal that you want to go abroad with your manager and decision-makers in the company. If an opportunity comes up, you should take it. If you don’t love the location, you need to find familiar things – not necessarily McDonald’s but find like-minded people and put yourself out there.

KC – If you go overseas you need to have an open mind. Moving internally is easier.

Pramukh – If you are someone who is career-oriented rather than focused on just a job, lead with the job, not the location. Your career should also reflect how your company operates. If you are working for global organizations, gain global experience will help you better understand the business.

Anon – Moving internally is the easiest. However, don’t wait for the expat package, take the local opportunity if it presents. And remember, it isn’t a forever decision, you can always come back or go somewhere else.

Was it difficult to reacclimatize when you moved back home?

Michael – Coming back to the US was interesting. The best way to deal with it is to continue doing the things you did. I figured out how to keep the same type of momentum.

KC – There was a positive adjustment to the change of pace. In Asia, you work crazy hours, even compared to New York. In the US, my quality of life is better, especially now that I have children. But it took a year and a half to get my bearings.

Anon – I found it difficult coming back. I recommend you find international HR niches and find people that you can talk about the experiences of living offshore with. If in a domestically-focused business, you may find that you are the fish out of water.

Any final words of advice?

Michael – If you have an opportunity to work abroad, dig in and do your own research. The advice I received from the people I would be working with, as well as online communities such as Yahoo expat groups and Internations were particularly useful.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of building a strong social network and putting yourself out there.

KC – Don’t be afraid to reach out to search firms to get knowledge and market data. It is good to make a call and get the perspective when you already have so much on your mind to work out.

Pramukh – Despite the challenges of moving abroad I recommend you give it a go! People get into a comfort zone and don’t know what they are missing. I recommend taking calculated risks. So think global, act local. Rather than imagine, live it.

Anon – It doesn’t matter at what age you go, or whether for a short or long term, don’t let the opportunity to work offshore pass you by. A short-term contract somewhere could be a springboard to another location and opportunity.


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