Can a foreign assignment help your career?

The advantages of accepting a foreign assignment generally outweigh the difficulties. Find out what you're getting into before you get on the plane.
Written by Bob Weinstein, Contributor on
There’s no doubt that working in a foreign country can be romantic. Living in a culture that has a different language, different customs, and a different work style is exciting—and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It can give your career a significant boost as well as broaden your horizons. But “global” assignments, as many companies call them today, have a downside, too. It's true that some parts of the world are dangerous for Americans and other visitors, but in most global postings the challenges have more to do with different cultures and different ways of doing business. I’ll describe some of the advantages and disadvantages of working in another country to help you decide if it’s a smart career move.

The big decision: A no-brainer?
The question on most managers’ minds is whether a foreign assignment can boost your career. The answer is “absolutely.” It can be a career catapult, increasing your chances of promotion by as much as 100 percent, according to “expats” (expatriates). Many companies that do a significant amount of foreign business insist that their top executives spend at least a year working at one of their foreign divisions.

So, what should you do when your CIO beckons you to his office to ask if you’d like to spend two years in Taiwan working as a senior manager on a massive project directing Taiwanese software developers? It’s a big decision, but it shouldn’t be that hard to make. Unless you have irrefutable reasons for turning it down, refusing it could be the biggest mistake of your career.

Learn from other expatriates’ experiences
Stan Nowak and Margaret W. Wong second that assessment. Nowak is CEO of Silverlink Communications, a voice applications company serving the health care industry in Arlington, MA. Wong is president of Cleveland-based Margaret W. Wong & Associates, Co., an international consulting and immigration company.

Hard work, good perks
Prior to launching Silverlink, Nowak spent four years working in Southeast Asia for the energy development company InterGen. During his first year he was business development manager assigned to Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Nowak’s job was to identify business opportunities throughout Southeast Asia. Nowak spent at least half of his time in air travel, managing the development of power plants and selling electricity to various governments. His next three years were spent in Bombay as general manager, working closely with the Indian government to develop technology and infrastructure.

Nowak worked torturous hours. Fortunately, he quickly learned to cope with sleep deprivation. With a 10-hour time difference between India and the United States, it was not unusual for him to put in 14-hour days and start again the following day at 5:00 A.M. communicating with his home office via e-mail.

While coworkers in the United States slept, Nowak managed his time so he could direct his company’s business operations in Southeast Asia. Nowak likens it to managing his own business. “You quickly learn to be self-reliant and make independent decisions that normally would be made by someone close to the CEO.”

Nowak worked hard, but he also lived well, which is another compelling reason for taking a foreign assignment. He lived in a spacious apartment that was more than ample for himself and his wife. A servant maintained the apartment and cooked their meals. And Nowak received a cost-of-living stipend from his company, which paid for the apartment, transportation, and other essentials. “I was able to save almost all of my salary, which I could never do at home,” says Nowak.

Learn from the locals
Within two months of arriving, Nowak had adjusted to the Indian style of doing business. On one level, it was just as aggressive as the American business style, yet it was more personal. “In the United States, most business transactions are superficial,” says Nowak. “You meet someone, have a drink or dinner, follow up with another meeting and maybe a phone conversation or e-mail, and hopefully a deal is cemented.”

In India, business and personal relationships are intertwined. Business relationships are based upon trust, understanding, and respect. Business transactions are executed between people, not corporations.

American businesspeople can learn a thing or two from the Indian business style. The Indian style leads to more thoughtful and carefully conceived business deals, according to Nowak.

Such opportunities are increasingly rare
Companies still offer global assignments with enticing perks, yet it’s a lot harder to land such postings than it was five years ago, says Wong. A growing number of companies with overseas operations prefer to cut costs by hiring local residents instead. “Salaries are considerably less than they are in the United States, and companies don’t have costly perks and travel expenses, which can be monumental if the executive has a family,” Wong explains.

Since foreign assignments are more difficult to conquer, they’ve never been more valuable for impressing superiors and potential employers. It’s like a gold star on your resume because it scores immediate points with prospective employers. Expats have a sophistication and worldliness most companies want.

The downside
There’s a downside to working abroad. Nowak and Wong list eight potential problems:

  1. The difficulty of being away from friends and family. It’s especially hard if you move overseas alone.
  2. Problems adjusting to living in a foreign country. Many people have a difficult time dealing with cultural differences.
  3. Extreme disorientation. It can take several days or more to get used to living and working in a different time zone.
  4. A chance of getting sick. Nowak faced exposure to bubonic plague while working in India. In tropical climates, malaria and dysentery are common. Different health care and sanitation practices must be considered.
  5. You’re out of touch with the home office. Many changes can occur in the space of two or three years, such as new management, mergers and acquisitions, and promotions.
  6. Technological change. Technology in foreign countries can be years behind the United States. It could take several months to digest all the changes when you get home.
  7. Your company may be reluctant to have you return. Keeping an experienced employee in an overseas post is often easier than training a replacement.
  8. Returning to your old job could be difficult, both for you and your coworkers.

It was worth it in the end
Looking back, however, Nowak says the advantages of taking a foreign assignment far outweigh the disadvantages because it’s an incredible opportunity to learn and grow. But before you pack your bags, consider this advice:

  • Know what you’re getting into by talking with your predecessors and learning what you can before you board the plane.
  • Get a written agreement outlining the specifics of your stay abroad, especially the timeframe in which you’ll return to the home office.
  • Make sure you receive a liberal expense account covering the unusual needs of foreign postings.
  • Keep your superiors informed about your accomplishments, and keep up with changes back home.

Editorial standards