Skip to Main Content

Are You Ready for an International Assignment?

August 2015

Any business that operates in multiple countries or is increasing its global footprint needs to make sure that it is positioning its most talented people in the most important strategic roles. This often involves sending a ‘high potential’ on an international assignment in the expectation that they will not only lend their expertise to a part of the business that needs it, but also spread the corporation’s values and best practices to other parts of the organization.

If you are keen to develop your skills and experience in new areas, have an appetite to learn and are ambitious, then taking on an international assignment might be an excellent plan. Indeed, such an experience is likely to become a prerequisite for career advancement at a growing number of multinational companies.

But not everyone is suited to a foreign posting. It would therefore be wise to consider carefully whether you have the personal and professional attributes, let alone the nerve, to transfer abroad and replicate the success you have achieved in your home market.

Identify with the company’s objectives

The first thing to understand is that an international assignment is not just about you – your personal and professional development. It is about how you can apply your knowledge, skills and experience to a new situation for the benefit of the business.

In the Western-dominated world of multinationals, when overseas competition was limited and the stakes weren’t so high, executives would often be sent on postings abroad for their personal growth and to prepare them for greater things. Today, the situation is different. Underperformance in these roles has more serious consequences, so companies can’t take the developmental risks they might once have done.

Understand the challenges

Operating in a new environment takes courage and makes you draw on inner resources that may not have been tested up till now. If you are considering such an assignment, ask yourself whether you have the resilience and performance orientation to succeed. Make sure that you have a solid track record of performance in your established role, because once you become an expatriate the expectations of you are so much higher.

Your experience and achievements to date will have earned you the assignment, but they can also get in the way. Be prepared to shed your preconceptions and reset your expectations. However you are used to working, whatever your leadership style, be prepared to recalibrate your thinking on the basis of what you learn and the people around you.

Be aware that going to work abroad could mean that you lose touch with the power base. As a head-office high-flyer, you may have had privileged access to influential people inside the organisation. That may change once you are out of sight, and so you will need to find new, meaningful ways of maintaining your connection to the centre. This will help with your reintegration if and when the assignment comes to an end and you are brought back to head office.

Family considerations are incredibly important when considering an international assignment. Remember that a significant proportion of expatriate assignments fail, and one significant contributor to those failures is spousal or family issues.

You should insist on a thorough onboarding program since this will play a vital role in helping you settle in and become productive. Some companies are good at this, but many are not. The ‘sink or swim’ mentality is just not acceptable. The difference between success and failure can be as simple as appointing a mentor to help navigate the early acclimation period, but in any case take a close interest in the onboarding process – help design it if necessary.

Key attributes in a ‘global executive’

From many decades observing the careers of some of the most successful international executives, we have identified the following characteristics that an aspiring global executive should cultivate:

Cultural dexterity. This is what sets successful global executives apart from everyone else; it requires a genuine lack of prejudice, an open mind and a willingness to accept and work with differences. Cultural fluency can be difficult for your employer to assess, especially if you have not worked internationally before.

It therefore helps to be able to demonstrate an ability to adapt and be flexible in the course of your career. Perhaps you have made a successful transition between two very different divisions, have moved successfully between staff and line jobs, have led high- and low-performance teams, or maybe have moved extensively within your own country. Any of these would be evidence that you would able to adapt to a new cultural context outside your home market.

Humility. The natural desire to exert influence in a new role needs to be tempered by a willingness to learn. Sometimes the smartest thing is to say you don’t know something. It can be a sign of intelligence, not stupidity.

Listening skills. One of the best ways to be humble and respectful in a new role is to listen actively. One of the main reasons international executives do not work out is that they try to impose their own cultural or world view, trying to make everything operate the way it does in their own market, which is often company headquarters. Be a relationship builder and avoid making snap judgments.

Sensitivity to cultural nuance is a critical quality for any executive operating on the international stage. It cannot easily be taught, although the key is ‘cultural immersion.’ Participating in the local culture will sharpen your understanding and insight. If you were posted to India, for example, taking a genuine interest in Bollywood, cricket and Indian food would increase your chances of gaining acceptance within the company and the wider business community.

Intellectual curiosity is useful at two levels. It deepens the understanding of what drives the local business and what motivates its employees; it also helps develop an appreciation of the broader cultural context. Much of your success and enjoyment will come from having a genuine interest in how people and cultures operate. Be energized by the differences, not frustrated by them or seeking to change them.

Agility is a quality that every global executive must possess. It has multiple dimensions: intellectual, cultural, social and emotional. The most effective executives can adapt their style and approach to what they see in front of them.

One final piece of advice: rather than viewing your international assignment primarily in terms of your own career development, think about how you can use your experience, leadership skills to unlock the potential of the people you are working with. Be sensitive about how you come across (avoid saying “we do it this way back home”) and work on getting a better perspective on your colleagues, their motivations and how these align with the company’s purpose and objectives.