It's been six months since I've repatriated to the U.S., following three years of work in London and 18 months of studying in Paris. As a result, people have been contacting me from all over the U.S., asking about working abroad: How do they know if it's right for them? Will it help or hurt their career? And once they're pretty far down the path of finding a way over one of our oceans,
What should they ask their companies about their
expat assignment to be positioned for success?
As you know, I love asking for help from people with different experiences and backgrounds. So to get out of my own head and learn from someone else's experience, I called an old colleague-friend Pat Goudarzi. She returned to the U.S. 18 months ago after a four year work assignment in Paris, France. While there, she was charged with organizing, leading, and instilling best practices in her company's European sales team. Pat's shared several years of friendship and wisdom with me, and when I was preparing for my move to London, I relied on understanding her good and bad experiences to make my own transition smooth(ish).
When you're pre-moving-to-a-foreign-country, your head is swirling with both romantic fantasies and very long to-do lists. But Pat and I implore you: do not let the fantasy of your gorgeous new Instagram feed prohibit you from making time to ask smart questions. You should have an idea of how this experience will add value to your life and your career.
Here are five things to consider before, during, and at the end of your expat assignment. These takeaways will help you stay ahead of the game and ensure that living abroad is not only a great life experience but also takes your career where you want it to go.
1. Consider: Is this the right time in my career and life? For Pat, the offer of moving to Paris seemed like it was sent from above. Her U.S. job was feeling stale, and some shifts in her personal life created just the right opening to leave and re-invent her (French) self.
On the flipside, I mentored someone years ago, for whom the timing was all wrong. She was ready to advance her career, but her husband wasn't on board with continent-hopping for six months. Understandably, she chose marriage over career and felt solid about her decision.
2. Articulate skills and objectives that you want to get out of your overseas assignment. Many people mistakenly assume that their company has a grand plan for them. They imagine that the home office c-suite is sitting around a table with all eyes focused on their career plan. As one friend used to tell me, "We're all the stars of our own movie." And that's true; we're the stars of... our own movie. No one else's. The people in home office are not saying, "Jackie needs to develop the skill of ____, so let's put her here for three years, then she'll be ready for ____ when she returns."
As with anything in life, you're in charge of forging your own path. Even if your career plans aren't 100% baked, that's fine! Pick a general direction or skills to focus on, and as you test and learn, you can revise. But I can't say this enough: it's your responsibility to make your own path.
3. Keep in touch. Map out your network, all over the world, then stay in touch. This ties in very closely with #2. Pat suggests, "If you're doing something cool, people will want to hear from you. Executives and co-workers in your home country want to hear what it's like on the ground in other countries.” Being able to talk about something different and interesting makes it easy to set up a quick coffee and stay in front of home country leadership, who will be critical to your repatriation.
4. Plan for your repatriation with more time than you think you need. Pat was given this advice by a former boss: "Give yourself a year to find a job back in your home country." If you're on a three year visa, pick up your networking and look for work back home that excites you at the end of year two. Or conversely, if you want to stay in your new country, scope out the possibilities for that too.
You may be thinking, "But I'll be staying with the same company, so they'll take care of it."
Like we said before, you're in charge of you.
I'll give you another hint: in many multi-national corporations, North America and International human resources are not even under the same management. So will you get a job back in your home country after your company has made an average $1M investment in you? Of course, they don't want to lose that! But will it be the best job for your career in the place where you want to live? In my anecdotal conversations with people: unlikely.
Why would you leave that up to chance?
5. Enjoy your rentrée. Pat was used to a wild travel schedule. When she lived in Paris, in any given week she'd be in at least one new European city, meeting with the local sales team, brokers, and clients. Her virtual scrapbook would surely be titled Wanderlust and include photos of her having meetings, dinners, and breathtaking runs in some of the most picturesque cities in the world (you'll see what I mean below). Although she initially feared leaving that behind, she's now intent on re-discovering the U.S.
Next up: Nashville, right Pat? ;)
But perhaps more important than the places where she makes her home, are the people. I remember over glasses of wine in London one night, she confided in me, "I don't know if I'm ready to go back. I'm a different person now." (I knew this phrase, for the same thing had come out of my husband's mouth).
Fast forward a couple years to our most recent conversation. I reminded her of her former words, and her response filled me with joy,
"I've thought about that conversation many times.
I realized that I had changed, yes.
But what I didn't realize was that everyone else had changed too."
I can't say enough how thankful I am for Pat's influence in my career and my life. I consider her a trailblazer in a conservative financial services industry. She does things her own way, always striking a fabulous balance of business and having fun doing it. She's a true woman's woman, who is adept at throwing industry ladies' teas and enjoying a round of golf with the guys. She's no nonsense when it comes to achieving targets but is always a real person, equally wanting to get the most out of life and her relationships with others, along the way. Thank you, Pat!
PS - If you're wondering how to re-position yourself to work abroad or for a different role, I can help! Let me know if you'd like to work together...
Images from HiP Paris Blog & Pat's life :)