It’s been a uniquely Australian tradition for decades: in an effort to broaden their experiences or boost their careers, Australian CFOs leave their native land to work abroad, then return years later.
These executives’ experiences enrich their lives and expand their perspectives, an especially valuable quality in today’s increasingly global business environment. The benefit may be particularly pronounced in Australia, where a flow of Asian immigrants makes an executive’s broad outlook particularly useful. Yet despite these benefits, some CFOs find it takes some work to assimilate back into Australian culture.
We interviewed eight recent senior financial officer returnees and asked them to reflect on their experiences. They shared with us the best way to approach the career transition, the challenges they encountered, how their time abroad has added depth to their careers and why there truly is no place like home.
Before You Move Back
Give yourself plenty of time
Once you’ve made the decision to return to Australia, it can take a lot of
time and effort to find a position that’s a good fit. Nearly all of the executives
we spoke with underestimated how long it would take to find the right role
back in Australia, with timing ranging from six months to three years. You
can’t just return to Melbourne, for instance, and expect to find a job — it
can be a lengthy, arduous process, so it helps to begin the work well before
you plan to return.
One of the executives returned to Australia several times during his time
abroad to ensure his network stayed current. As a part of his visits, he would
deliberately set aside several days for catch-up conversations with people in
his network. This executive never lost sight of his plan to return to Australia,
and he made a dedicated effort to stay up-to-date on local opportunities,
contacts and market conditions. Even with this level of diligence, it took him
two years to find an opportunity that made returning home worthwhile.
Be clear about what you want
Returning Australian executives repeatedly said it’s crucial to have a distinct
idea of the market conditions that await you when you return. Some
executives find they are misaligned with what they were looking for versus
what clients anticipated they were looking for. Also, these executives told us
they found a shortage of relevant opportunities at a suitable level of scale
and organisational complexity compared to the more far-reaching positions
they left. To combat this, the CFOs we interviewed emphasized the
importance of understanding and prioritising the “non-negotiable criteria”
for their next position. Most returnees felt a degree of professional
compromise when returning to Australia, something they were willing to
accept for the benefit of returning home.
One executive commented that, when she initially moved back from Asia,
she had high expectations for the job she could secure. Her perspective
slowly started to shift as a year went by, and she missed out on a number of
roles. She felt discouraged but remained firm with her non-negotiable
criteria that largely focused on continuing her learning in a CFO capacity.
Eventually, she moved to a different industry sector in a divisional CFO
position. The division was smaller but, with a new industry sector to learn,
she found this to be a rewarding career pivot.
Another CFO who returned from the U.S. was surprised at the extent of
client’s concerns regarding his motivation behind what was perceived to be
a “step down” in responsibility. He was often interviewing for roles in smaller businesses and found he had to repeatedly reinforce his commitment and longterm intent, without compromising his experience as a CFO. He eventually secured an
ASX CFO role in a smaller organisation in a different industry sector.
Don’t hesitate to get help
Given Australia’s geographical isolation, it can be difficult for an outsider to assess the
market from a distance. Things as simple as coordinating the logistics for an interview
process can be difficult to manage, according to one CFO who was based in North
America when he was managing his return. It’s crucial that potential returnees keep their
professional relationships current and take full advantage of a broad network. Several
CFOs said working closely with search firms, professional services firms and former
colleagues made a marked difference. Other returning expats can be another helpful
avenue, as they can provide support and advice.
Take advantage of your network
Overall, this experience provided some returning executives with a fundamental – yet
oddly surprising – lesson: People like to help other people and relish the opportunity to
play a positive role, whether it’s facilitating an introduction, sharing an opportunity or
recruiting you for a position. For one of the CFOs we interviewed, asking people for
assistance wasn’t something he was naturally inclined to do. Through his experience in
returning, however, he learned to readjust his perspective, put his ego aside and start
Challenges You May Face upon Returning
Changed local landscape
For most Australian expats, the idea of “moving back home” creates a positive, nostalgic
feeling of returning to the familiar. Depending on how long you’ve been away, though, the
local landscape may have changed significantly.
A number of CFO returnees said reacquainting themselves with the new Australian
market was very challenging. When you’re abroad, it’s difficult to stay abreast of local
nuances such as market activity, remuneration, how competitive the candidate landscape
has been and what organisations are looking for in an executive.
A finance executive we interviewed commented that he and his wife undertook
“enormous” amounts of due diligence to ensure their move to Asia would be successful.
When they moved back to their home country, however, he had a false sense of comfort
about what awaited him, and he neglected to be as diligent. As a result, he had a harder
time finding a job than when he moved abroad.
Be prepared to prove yourself
The experience you gain overseas will undoubtedly help you thrive
professionally and give you broader insight, scale and cultural agility.
Unfortunately, some companies might not recognise these benefits
immediately, or may not see your experience as transferable to their
particular situation. They may struggle with the idea, for instance, that
executives who were successful in the United States, Asia or Europe would
want to return to Australia and accept a smaller role.
As a result, you may have to “re-prove” yourself to be accepted back into
the local market, especially for domestic companies. This was especially
painful for one executive to hear, having returned to Australia from a large,
stand-alone CFO role in Europe. He was confident his success in a more
complex environment offshore would make his reintroduction to Australia
fairly straightforward. Instead, he encountered uncertainty and a lack of
understanding of his achievements that led him to pause and reflect:
Was he showcasing his experience and intent in the most appropriate way?
He altered his CV to highlight information that he had assumed was
“common knowledge,’ and he took more time during interviews to
explain his experience and how it relates to relevant Australian-based
organisations. In the end, he was able to secure a group finance role in an
ASX20 listed company.
A number of CFOs highlighted that local market caution was a common
frustration. Clients can be risk averse at the CEO, CFO and board levels, and
broadening their exposure through factors such as international relocation
costs or a lack of recent local experience is something they tend to avoid.
To counteract the hesitancy you might experience, highlight the relative
strengths and benefits your overseas experience could bring, and make it
specific to their business. This may outweigh some of the perceived risks
and tip the balance in your favour.
“Know that the place you’re returning to is a much smaller destination then
where you are coming from,” shared one experienced finance executive who
came back to Australia from Asia. Because of this variance in scale,
domestic organisations often look at different skillsets than those favored by
multinational corporations, and the value they place on your international
experience may vary. This can potentially limit the number and types of
opportunities that are available when you return.
One CFO who had just returned from the United States commented that “it
was a different world” coming back to Australia and actively looking for
work. He knew he would never be able to compete with the size of operation he had left, so he deliberately sought broader CFO roles in complex businesses, targeting
organisations where he felt a strong affinity with the corporate culture and values. He has
since secured a stand-alone CFO role and has happily discovered that the challenges of
his new position are commensurate to his previous role.
The Benefits of Being Gone
Before you start questioning whether the overseas experience is worth the challenge of
planning a return, consider the following: Although coming back to Australia was not an
easy experience, the returning executives all described their international experience as
beneficial on many levels. They have confidence in their offshore experience and the value
they offer, even in the most steadfastly Australian companies.
They are much more aware of cultural differences in organisations operating across
multiple geographies, and the important factors that motivate and drive decision making
with stakeholders in these environments. They have tackled complex problems in highly
dynamic and large-scale organisations, and bring an acute understanding of how
businesses operate, grow and change in these conditions. They develop robust
leadership styles that are both resilient and agile, and capable of creatively and
collaboratively solving problems.
This newly gained experience also extends beyond the professional boundaries, as
executives are also settling themselves or their families into a completely new social
environment. They are expanding their views on how the world works, how to build
relationships and how to be successful in different contexts. This exposure invariably
helps executives develops confidence through being able to deal with issues in a mature
and objective way, and by bringing a stronger emotional-intelligence dimension.
As one executive said in closing, “the personal richness gained from living, working
and succeeding offshore cannot be replaced by any form of domestic experience. You