Creating a Global Career

Last Updated May 31, 2007 5:57 PM EDT

Globalization has changed everything, including career development. Today, it is unlikely that anyone will reach the top of large international organizations without having served overseas.

If you intend to climb to the highest reaches of your organization, you will need to consider how and when you will get the international experience you need. If you see yourself as a member of the A-team, proving yourself overseas is a way to the fast track through middle management.

If you're going to go global, there are many factors to consider, besides the organizational challenges you'll face, such as whether or not you and your family can handle the stresses involved in the move.

No matter how skilled you are in your area of expertise, the most crucial aspect of success overseas is cultural adaptation and developing warm interpersonal relationships. If you are not tolerant of differences and comfortable in a non-English speaking environment, or eager to learn new ways of doing things, an international move may prove fatal to your career. In addition, if your family is not 100 percent supportive, and as excited about the intercultural experience as you are, chances are you will suffer serious difficulties performing up to expectations.

What You Need to KnowDo I need to know another language to work globally?

It certainly helps, especially if you want a specific country assignment. Though international business English is widely spoken, your effectiveness will be improved exponentially if you can converse in the local language. Not only will you be recognized as a respectful boss but you will be able to speak to employees at all levels of the organization besides the few English speaking managers. It also speaks well of your motivation to take a specific assignment.

If, on the other hand, you can learn languages quickly and can demonstrate your ability to live anywhere on the planet, you assure yourself of having a major qualifying skill in your pursuit of a global career.

What if I don't have overseas experience?

At least take a vacation overseas but don't just be a tourist! Talk to expats and see what living abroad is all about. You can also volunteer abroad during your vacations.

How would you really know you are interested in an overseas assignment if you have never been overseas? If you haven't traveled abroad or served in the Peace Corp, at least show that you have made the effort to visit different countries, learn a language, have friends from diverse backgrounds, and are motivated. If you work for an organization with many employees assigned overseas, speak with HR about the process of being assigned, and find out how to position yourself for an international posting. Contact people now holding the kind of job you would like to have and find out as much as you can about "living the life" and how you can prepare for it. Don't forget to globalize your resume.

Suppose I get an assignment and don't like it?

That's possible with any job. But because of the very expense relocation costs, before you decide to act on your feelings, be sure they are irrevocable. Leaving an assignment abruptly or cutting a contract short is career limiting in most organizations. Hang in there for as long as possible to see if you can rise to the challenge. Give yourself—and your family, if they're with you—the chance to become accustomed to the new life. The limited nature of an international assignment is easier to endure because there's usually a well-defined end in sight. Remember, your organization wants you to succeed, so if you can identify specific needs that it can meet to assist your adjustment or overcome circumstances you hadn't expected, ask for help.

What to DoStart Now and Focus

If you want an international career seek out employment opportunities in domestic companies with overseas jobs or with foreign organizations (here or abroad). If your current employer has international opportunities, let your boss and human resources, know about your interest and follow their advice about getting prepared for the opportunity.

If your current employer's international presence is limited to a few countries, and you want to stay with the company, learn at least one of the relevant languages.

Volunteer for International Projects

Even if your company has no full-time assignments abroad, it may offer short-term projects. Sometimes, however, they are harder to get since they are like working vacations and many people would like to take part; but volunteer for as many as possible. Besides the obvious advantages of getting overseas experience, even if you don't get an assignment, you are showing your motivation to work abroad.

If you get a short-term assignment or two, you will have more data to determine is overseas work is really right for you. Besides, you will also have impressed the people who will later determine who does go overseas for either long or short-term work.

Examine All Options

If your current employer isn't able to provide the kind of international experience you seek, research other organizations and their international opportunities. Many, international organizations post their opportunities online.

If you care more about living and working in a specific country than you do about working for a particular industry or organization, there are many web sites that can provide you leads.

Become a Global Citizen

Read the international journals pertaining to your field of expertise. Start building your professional body of knowledge and contribute to those journals. In addition to joining your local professional associations, join the relevant international societies. Attend the meetings, submit papers for presentation, and try to speak at those conferences.

What to AvoidYou Forget About the Impact on Your Family

If your family accompanies you overseas, do not forget about their adjustment. For you to succeed, they must succeed. Be sure your organization will assist in your partner's adjustment and possibly help her or him get a job. Likewise, the company should support any accompanying children's placement in a local school. Most overseas assignments that end prematurely do so because a spouse or a child is overwhelmed in the new culture. Either they feel ignored, professionally, or, being torn away from their network of extended family and friends, simply feel isolated. They usually don't have the same supportive interpersonal camaraderie that you enjoy at the office, nor the same prestige and excitement of working at a high-level, career-building job that you do. In fact, if your spouse left his or her career behind to support you in your career, he or she might resent giving up the sense of purpose enjoyed before leaving home. In some countries a spouse may not even have the right to work.

If your employer doesn't have a program specifically designed to help your partner adjust to the new community; such as language classes, a club for partners, or career counseling to help them find employment where allowable, be prepared to dedicate much of your time and energy to helping your partner. This is a vital ingredient to a successful and rewarding experience for both of you. If you have children, they will reflect your response and adjustment to the new experience.

You Ignore the Career Network

Once you are overseas, it is easy to be forgotten by the folks at the home office. Likewise, it is easy to forget them. Granted, the Internet keeps you in touch, and emails fly as fast around the world as across the street, but you risk being passed over for other good assignments and your achievements aren't as visible because you are outside of the face-to-face network. Send word of your achievements (personal as well as organizational) regularly. Get in the habit of emailing a monthly update to all relevant individuals back home. If you can, take trips back to the head office for important gatherings and meetings.

You're Not Ready to Return

Coming home can be just as stressful as venturing out into the world. While overseas, you may have had more power, prestige and impact on the organization than when you return. Even though the global assignment will further your career in the long run, returning home can feel like a loss of stature. That's sometimes called reverse culture shock. This has been most dramatic for students in study abroad programs but everyone who has ever worked abroad also experiences a similar phenomenon. Many people either seek a more visible prestigious position upon their return or another overseas assignment, perhaps with more responsibilities.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Reuvid, Jonathan, Working Abroad: The Complete Guide to Overseas Employment, Revised. Kogan Page, 2006.

Malewski, Margaret, GenXpat: The Young Professional's Guide To Making A Successful Life Abroad. Intercultural Press, 2006.

Web Sites:

Escape Artist: www.escapeartist.com

International Jobs Center: www.internationaljobs.org