Supercharge Your Career by Going Overseas

A recent Harvard Business Review article discusses whether rejecting an expatriate assignment can be detrimental to one’s career aspirations at a global company, and having been an expat myself, I feel compelled to comment on the article’s conclusions, as well as add some of my own findings.  

As expected, the authors reached the conclusion that employees rejecting an expat assignment may indeed pay a price for their perceived lack of dedication and flexibility. Specifically, the article discusses an employee’s psychological contract with the organization, which is described as the implied, unwritten agreement about what is expected of each party. While breaching the psychological contract by refusing an overseas assignment may result in the employee receiving decreased personal support and mentoring, not to mention fewer opportunities to advance in the firm, this all depends on the reasons the employee is unwilling to go. For instance, if you are simply unwilling to take the overseas posting because you do not wish to leave your home country, you will likely be seen as lacking commitment, whereas if you refuse an expat assignment because of family concerns or concerns about your trailing partner’s career, you may not necessarily be penalized for saying no. 

Since this sort of logic is common sense, I will not comment on it further, but rather, focus on a rather interesting finding by the authors of the article. Specifically, the authors found that when people go back to their home country after working abroad, they often experience decreased job satisfaction, and sometimes even depression. In fact, according to the above Harvard Business Review article, up to 38 percent of employees returning from an overseas posting may quit in the year following their return. 

I can personally attest to the above claims, but perhaps not for the reasons you may think, and perhaps for reasons other than what the article intended to communicate. For me, going overseas was the best decision I ever made, not just on a career level, but on a personal development and social level, as well. In fact, I had such an amazing experience as an expat that it would indeed be very difficult, if not nearly impossible, for me to go back to my home country on a permanent basis and never be an expat ever again. Thus, the rest of this article will explain my reasoning for why taking an expat assignment might be the best career decision you will ever make. 

There is no doubt that taking on an expat role offers numerous opportunities to get ahead in your career. Before we begin, for full disclosure, while I did work overseas, I was not transferred by a company, but rather, took the riskier step of going overseas first and then finding a job. While I do not recommend doing it this way for most people, the fact remains that working in another country might be a great way for you to surge ahead in your career. There are many reasons why this is the case, but I will focus on just three: to gain valuable cross-cultural and global experience, to take on a demanding role that will help show your dedication and drive to a company that believes in you, and to build a new career in an industry you are interested in but might not have the skills to work in, yet. 

Becoming an expat means that you get to live in a country other than where you came from originally. Thus, this necessarily means that you will get exposed to cultures other than your own. This may not seem so special, especially if you are originally from a country that already has many different cultures within it, such as Canada, Australia, and the United States. However, it is one thing to see different cultures within your own country, and yet another to experience a foreign culture outside of your own country. This is because people who move to another country and live there for a few years invariably become at least somewhat assimilated, and adopt the customs of their new home. At the very least, they are exposed to a culture that is different from their own, and no matter how adamant one may be about staying the same, living in another country changes you in many ways, even if you do not notice it right away. Therefore, second- or third-generation Chinese in the United States tend to be much different from Chinese people in China, and will most definitely pick up American customs as a result of being born in the United States.  

Therefore, living and working with Chinese people in China will be a much different experience than living and working with third-generation Chinese in the United States, even though in both scenarios, you will be collaborating with people who are ethnically Chinese. 

The point I am trying to make here is that to experience many facets of a culture, it behooves you to go directly to the source. But why obtain cross-cultural experience anyway? Going back to the Harvard Business Review article, many companies expect their leaders to work overseas and develop the skills required to lead across different cultures. In my mind, there’s no better and quicker way to do so than to throw yourself into the fray and work in another country.  

Further, by accepting an assignment to work abroad, uprooting your entire life on behalf of the company, and taking on the challenges of living and working in another country, you are communicating to your organization that you are dedicated and flexible. What’s more, if you work at a firm that has global operations, you will find that many leaders may already have international experience, and if you desire to move up the ranks, then it will be helpful for you to acquire that international experience as well.  

Expat roles are not only challenging, but a company that sends an employee, and possibly his or her entire family, overseas, is incurring tremendous financial risk. Your company will not only be paying your salary and benefits, but in many instances, be taking on even more expenditures by paying for things such as private school tuition for your children, return flights home every year, and housing expenses. Accepting such a move and doing your best to succeed at it demonstrates your commitment to the company, something that will most certainly help you gain the firm’s trust and help you move up in the organization. While you do not necessarily have to be offered an expat assignment to advance in a company, accepting such an offer and doing well at it will always help your case. Similarly, being offered such a position and rejecting it arbitrarily will almost always hurt your case. At best, management may feel ambivalent about your future at the company. 

But what about people who are not offered an expat position by their current company? Also, what about those who may not yet have the experience to work overseas? Would it also help them to live and work in another country? I can emphatically state that going abroad may be the best decision for people who fall into these categories, mostly because I used to be one of those people.  

Before embarking upon my current career in the IT industry, I had little experience in the field, other than a contract position as a data analyst at a software company. However, a multinational hardware company headquartered in Taipei, Taiwan took a chance on me, despite my relative lack of experience in the software industry, and my total lack of experience in the hardware industry. While my being foreign, as I will explain below, certainly helped my chances, I also believe that my willingness to move halfway across the world and take on such a role, not to mention a great deal of luck, also played a part in me getting the job.  

I used that opportunity to springboard onto bigger and better things, such as positions at Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, both in Shanghai, China. I can honestly say that I would never have had a chance to work at such large companies had I stayed in my home country, especially given my lack of experience and the intense level of competition. However, I built a new career for myself and leaped up several rungs of the ladder simply because I took the risk of going abroad. The reasons I was able to do this are numerous, and in order to help others wishing to take this same path, I will list them here. 

Firstly, overseas firms or companies with offices abroad may be looking for a set of skills that only a foreign person may have, or rather, a set of abilities that a foreign person may be better at. The position I had applied for in Taipei required a native English speaker to create marketing materials, and because there are relatively few native English speakers in Taiwan compared to the population at large, I had an advantage there.  

Next, just being foreign by itself may be considered a valuable asset in many countries. Many companies overseas consider foreign applicants to have better management and communication skills, even though this may not necessarily be the case in reality. What’s even more interesting is the fact that in many countries, foreigners are considered exotic, and to even be seen with a foreigner can help a local elevate their social standing. While I would never condone anyone taking advantage of other people, I see nothing wrong with exploiting one’s own foreignness to get ahead, whether you are an Australian living in Dubai, or a Canadian living in Japan, and so forth.  

Finally, if you work in an industry that is highly competitive or work in a country that has a stagnant job market, it may help you to look for a position overseas. For example, you may have less competition if you are a French national looking for IT jobs in Shanghai than in Silicon Valley. This is because the Bay Area of California is where so many IT job hunters go to look for jobs, thus leaving other desirable locations relatively untouched, and also because you could use the fact that you are foreign to your advantage in Shanghai, whereas you probably could not in Silicon Valley. Also, supposing you are a talented Colombian software engineer, you may be able to find a better position in Toronto, Canada than you would back home, just because the Canadian software industry is likely more developed and offers more high-paying jobs.  

Of course, by offering the examples above, I am by no means making value judgments about any of the locations I mentioned, all of which have their own advantages and disadvantages, and certainly their own charms. Additionally, what’s appealing to one person may be unappealing to another. For instance, I know people who prefer to earn less money and stay in their hometown or home country, than to take the plunge and brave the savage competition and astronomical cost of living in cities like London or San Francisco. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  

However, if you are interested in going overseas, and your company offers you such an opportunity, or you decide to go it on your own, either by applying for jobs abroad or starting a business in another country, there are plenty of reasons why making such a move would help you in your career. As mentioned previously, not only can you learn a tremendous amount about other cultures, but if you are an employee, you can show your dedication to your company and progress further in your career than if you played it safe and stayed at home. Finally, even if you do not have such an opportunity offered to you by your current employer, you can build a new career overseas, and maybe even a whole new life. For these reasons alone, it makes plenty of sense to consider going overseas.  

Thus, if you are ever presented with such an opportunity or feel the urge to actualize your dream of going abroad and becoming an expat, you owe it to yourself to seriously consider making the move. Indeed, there may never be a better time to take the plunge and go overseas, because life is simply too short to fritter away a glorious opportunity to become an expat and enjoy the splendors of a life many only dream of. Despite the many challenges that an expat assignment can present, the rewards are far greater than the risks, and you never want to look at yourself later in your career and wonder what could have been, had you taken that expat assignment. 

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