CHAPTER 2 CAREER CONSIDERATIONS
IS THIS A GOOD CAREER MOVE?
WILL YOU BE SUCCESSFUL?
Clearly, whether undertaking a foreign assignment turns out to be a good career move or not depends to a large degree on how successful you are once there. Be warned that not all assignments are successful. It is estimated that 20 to 25 percent of all foreign assignments ultimately fail. According to most experts, a "failed foreign assignment" is defined as: 1) An employee who returns to the US much sooner than initially anticipated; and/or 2) An expatriate who failed to meet the goals and objectives of the company. A considerable number of companies will select an employee for an international assignment based solely on the employee's career development, with the idea that the next logical step in that employee's career is going abroad. However, that doesn't necessarily guarantee that the employee is going to succeed in a foreign culture. Consider the following percentages, provided by the Business Council for International Understanding, of expatriates who return to the US prematurely from a foreign assignment: London 18 percent, Brussels 27 percent, Tokyo 36 percent, and Saudi Arabia 68 percent.
Why do a substantial percentage of US professionals fail to succeed in their overseas assignments? Is there a pattern of circumstances that inevitably contribute to this failure? Some surveys indicate that many of these failures were not linked to deficiencies in technical and vocational skills, but rather were the direct result of cultural or family-related difficulties. If I were to present a best-case scenario for choosing the right person for the right job overseas, I would look beyond technical or managerial expertise to other important factors such as education, family expectations, and motivations.
If you have been offered this assignment, no doubt you have been perceived by your company as highly proficient at your job. However, it is in your best interest to consider the possibility that although you are successful in the States, you may not have the personality, motivation, or family situation that will be likely to spell success for you abroad. To send you abroad, your company will incur costs up to three times your base salary. Choosing to accept the offered assignment and then failing at it will certainly cost your career more than would deferring the assignment to someone else. Thus, it is very important to your future that beyond deciding whether accepting this assignment is a good career move, you also make a careful assessment of your personality, personal motivations, and family circumstances to determine whether you are likely to be a successful expat. It is vital that you be strictly honest with yourself in this process.
Consider whether you possess such personality traits as flexibility, adaptability to change, self-reliance, and resourcefulness in the face of emergency. Consider, too, your ability to learn foreign languages and to adjust your communication style to new conditions. Are you comfortable in strange surroundings? Consider, too, your motivations for accepting the position. How much does the prospect of living and working in a strange culture appeal to you? It would probably be a mistake to accept the assignment only for the money or possible career advancement-if the adventure itself is not appealing to you, then the frustrations and difficulties are likely to far outweigh extra money or future gain. If you are married, it is critical that you include your partner in the decision. Without your partner's full support in this venture, success will be elusive. If you have children, obviously their needs must also be considered (see the chapter on Family Matters for more about family issues).
WILL THE COMPANY PROVIDE THE SUPPORT YOU NEED FOR SUCCESS?
As you consider this move, be sure to look carefully at the support you can expect to receive from your company while abroad. Your success or failure on the assignment will depend to a very large extent on how well your company prepares and supports you while abroad. Make no mistake that living in a foreign country is challenging at best, and the more help you get from your company, the better will be your experience. Talk to company employees who have already gone abroad with your company and ask them how supportive the company was for them. Obviously, a significant portion of the support you will receive from your company will be covered in the compensation package you negotiate. Many of these considerations are covered in Chapter 7. However, there are certainly other aspects of company support to assess. Consider some of the following issues:
WILL IT BE DIFFICULT FOR A WOMAN TO SUCCEED OVERSEAS?
Given the fact that women in business often face obstacles due to gender, and the fact that this situation is often even greater in other cultures, perhaps additional attention needs to be paid to the special concerns of women considering foreign assignments. While interviewing women working in the international job market, I often received the interesting response, "You're not a woman. How would you understand my problem?" This is a very good question and serves as the basis for this section. The more time spent by women in the workplace, the more they find that they aren't unique and face the same issues as men. I am not referring to women pioneers in this chapter. Women pioneers, those going into a company or country for the first time where there has been no woman before, face circumstances different from those that follow. I am focusing here on the woman who is not the first one in, but following those who have cleared the way.
The country where you are going has its culture in place and has had for many years. The manner in which women are treated is part of that culture. You will not change it and must adapt to it to make your posting a successful one. Your company should not place you in an assignment where your chances of success are more difficult because you're a woman-unless you know beforehand and go in with your eyes open. The question you should ask yourself is, "Do I have an even chance for success?"
Do your homework and determine the potential obstacles, if any, of this assignment. Consider the culture of the country and its acceptance of women; the culture of the company and its acceptance and promotion of women; role reversal problems of the trailing partner; problems regarding your children adapting, etc. Interestingly, I've seen women who've been more successful in a foreign assignment than they were "back home." So, it's difficult to lump women into a single category as international employees. It is all individual-some will take to it like a duck to water and others will experience nothing short of disaster. The adage "one woman's tea is another woman's poison" bodes well for women working offshore.
I recently read an article giving women advice on how to be successful when working abroad. Ironically, the publication covered points that should also be considered by men who want to be successful. An interesting piece of research was done by a woman in California 15 years ago regarding the ways and styles in which women handle conflict. She observed the different ways women approach combat as compared to men. Boys were found to be more physical and direct in settling their differences from an early age through the teen-age years, whereas girls in the same age bracket were less physical, more maneuvering, and less confrontational. Would the study be the same today with women participating in just about every physical sport and activity? These habits, early learned, follow through to later years and behavior in life and business. The abilities that got you up the corporate ladder this far will probably be those that also carry you overseas. Common sense and adaptability are good characteristics for success wherever you are.
Men from other countries often get their ideas about women from watching American TV and movies. Many men in foreign countries find it strange that women are business executives. Regarding cultural differences in attitudes about sexual harassment, it is often considered a compliment in some countries if a man makes a pass at a woman. If this happens to you, weigh all the facts along with the country's culture before you consider it an insult.
Safety is a major concern for women everywhere. Again, do your homework and get input from your company on how to be safe. It's common sense that a woman wouldn't travel alone on the subway in New York, the Tube in London, or the Metro in Paris late in the evening.
As mentioned earlier, the problems that separate men and women in business and culture become more narrow at home and abroad as women make their impact on today's business. Women are in the pipeline (education, government, and business) and are here to stay.