Are you ready to work abroad?
There is no doubt that the idea of working in a foreign country holds great excitement for most of us; the opportunity to travel, learn new skills, and grow our professional currency back home is tantalising indeed.
But traversing the oceans for a new job also means traversing different cultures – and success or failure in this respect is contingent upon how well you have prepared for the changes that lie ahead. Those of us who have lived and worked overseas will tell you that these were some of the most amazing experiences of our lives. And alas, some of the most difficult! But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. A little investment of time researching, planning, and preparing for life in your new destination will pay huge dividends in the long run and set you up for a happy and successful time abroad.
The benefits of working abroad
Spreading your wings into a new country brings many personal and professional benefits, including:
- The opportunity to see and explore new countries and customs
- The acquisition of new experiences and skills, including the potential to learn a new language
- New networks, friends, and colleagues
- Improved self-confidence, independence, and a more global mindset
- Greater understanding of other cultural perspectives – ultimately leading to greater ability to empathise and negotiate
- Scope for increased earnings whilst overseas, and increased future career potential
The challenges of working abroad
Of course, all this of this does not come without some challenge. Some things to consider and be aware of before you depart on your new career adventure include:
- The impact of culture shock – and this cannot be underestimated. Living and working overseas presents a myriad of challenges big and small, that you will need to work through in your initial days, weeks, and months overseas. From learning a new language, finding accommodation and schools, through to opening a bank account in a foreign country (where you may not be able to speak the language), purchasing a car, transferring your driver’s license, driving on the other side of the road, working out where to shop (and how to read the labels in a foreign language), to mention just a few. And all this within the context of an administrative system that may differ wildly from what you are accustomed to back home.
- Loneliness – whether you are overseas on your own or with your immediate family, you will find yourself away from your extended family, friends, and broader support network. Your network may also be in a very different time zone making it difficult to facilitate spontaneous catch ups in times of need, or to align calendars for regular calls – both personal and professional. The same applies of course to your family members if they are with you on this assignment.
- A sense of professional displacement – you have most certainly been offered this opportunity because of your demonstrated achievements and performance back home. But think back to your past job moves. You know that awkward feeling when you start a new role and haven’t fully assimilated into the new team and the nuances of your job description yet? Transitioning from the comfort of knowing your place, and value, to the learning curve of a new (and probably bigger) role is always a little uncomfortable. And when this new role is in a foreign country, it is oftentimes considerably more uncomfortable. It can take longer to get up to speed in the new context, where ways of working may be diametrically opposed to what you have previously experienced. The impact of different corporate and national cultures on business models and practices can make you feel like a fish out of water, so being as prepared as possible for this will expedite your progression.
- Not everyone may be committed to your success – I hate to say it, but it is possible that not everyone will welcome a new foreigner into their team with open arms. As is always the case, there may be an individual or individuals within the team who applied for the role you have been granted and feel that you stole their promotional prospects. Or they may feel that your position should be filled by a local and not a foreigner or expatriate. People may not readily share information with you and may passively observe you in a bid to determine whether or not you have the mettle for the position. It can take time and real tenacity to build trust with your new colleagues and demonstrate the value that your diverse experiences bring to the team.
While it is important to be aware of these potential challenges, much of this can also be exciting to navigate, if approached with sensitivity and a positive mindset.
Below are a few things to consider before you embark on your new job abroad….or as you develop yourself for a potential future move.
Planning for working abroad
1. Research the culture of the country you will be moving to (or want to move to)
The deeper your understanding of elements such as the history, social norms and politics of your destination country, the greater will be your ability to build rapport and connect with people respectfully, avoiding inadvertently offending anyone. This will help you build critical networks during your time abroad. Understanding how people work and play (like standard work hours, norms for socializing – or not – with work colleagues, important rituals at work – such as taking lunch together) will help you understand what work will feel like in your new role and prevent unnecessary surprises.
2. Research the culture of the company you will be moving to (or want to move to) If you have an overseas post already secured, or you have set your sights on a particular organisation overseas, invest some time in researching their company culture. What does their website and/or other platforms indicate about their culture? Are their cited values aligned with your own? Can you talk to people within the organisation about what working in this company looks and feels like? If applicable, ask your new manager what it takes to be a successful team member in this company.
3. Understand your own working style
Understanding how you think, and your approach to work is the first step in identifying where you may need to modify or adjust your approach in a different cultural context. Take the time to elicit feedback from your manager, peers, and direct reports about how you work. For example, what kind of leader are you? Are you direct or indirect in your communications? Are you directive or participative? How do you respond to problems? What pitfalls might you face working in a culturally different context where people have the opposite approach to you?
4. Get ahead of the curve with respect to learning the local language (before you go!)
I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to communicate effectively with people in your new environment. Yes, you will learn the language (in time) when you are immersed abroad. But it is very difficult to build relationships with people when you can only communicate in rudimentary ways and the ability to share stories together is impossible. And building relationships in your new post and life is key to your assimilation. Not to mention the day-to-day difficulties of living in a new environment when you cannot speak the language. When working in France a few years ago I couldn’t even set the voicemail on my phone at work when I first arrived because I couldn’t understand the furiously fast Interactive Voice Response! And that is one tiny example of how the simplest things can quickly become overwhelming when you constantly need to ask for help because of the language barrier.
5. Enlist a relocation assistant to help navigate the tactical elements of your move
Engage a relocation specialist to assist you and your family (if applicable) to transition abroad. Having a local expert assist you in the search for appropriate accommodation and schools, and facilitating practicalities such as opening back accounts, will go a long way to streamlining your assimilation into life in your new location.
6. Set yourself some goals for your time abroad
Someone once highlighted to me before an overseas move the importance of identifying your key objective or objectives for your time abroad – and the importance of reminding yourself of this higher goal whenever things were tough. This was the best advice I ever received. Whether your goal is to become fluent in a new language, tick 25 new cities off your bucket list, or gain specific international work experience – it will anchor you and transport you through any moments of culture shock or loneliness.
So should you embark on an overseas post or start to ready yourself for working abroad, I make one final comment. The culture shock passes. The loneliness passes. But the magic, the memories and the invaluable learnings from your time abroad stay with you forever.