I’ve previously written that “one of the best things I ever did in my career was to ‘internationalise’ it”, so regular readers will know that I’m a fan of gaining career experience in different countries. This form of career transition is also a way to disrupt yourself and jump to a new learning curve, helping you put lifelong learning into practice.
The advantages of choosing to live in a new country include getting to travel to new places, meet new people (at work and outside work), possibly learn new languages, and have new experiences.
The upheaval caused by relocating is incredibly stressful though, with even more pressure if your family is moving too. The support of your employer can make it significantly easier, including assistance with moving expenses, visas, finding a place to live in your new country, setting up bank accounts etc.
For employers, the benefits include recruitment of foreign talent, which can bring fresh insights or different skills into the organisation, encouraging all employees to extend their own mindset boundaries. Organisations can achieve this in different ways, including operating across national borders (i.e. being multi-national themselves), and through secondments or assignments, perhaps to/from partner organisations.
Read more to discover research on how living abroad can lead to clearer career-decision making, and to watch a video interview with Heather Brilliant, CFA, about her experiences of working internationally.
Living abroad, self-reflection and career decision-making
The impact of living abroad on career decision-making is explored in a paper entitled “The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity” published in the journal “Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes”. This research was performed by a team of social scientists at Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina.
The study also emphasises that depth (the length of time lived abroad) rather than breadth (the number of countries visited) leads to a clearer sense of self: “The longer people live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections they are likely to accumulate, and, as a result, the more likely they are to have a better understanding of themselves”. This understanding helps with career decision-making too.
Often transitional and disruptive experiences cause confusion and instability, leading to a decrease in individuals’ self-concept clarity. Examples include losing a job, romantic breakups or divorces, or leaving a religious organisation. In contrast, this study makes the case that living abroad is “a rare kind of transitional experience that may actually increase self-concept clarity”. The study concludes that “leaving one’s home country for extended periods of time likely allows people to reap the numerous benefits that a clear sense of self provides, ranging from greater life satisfaction to decreased stress, improved job performance, and... enhanced career decision-making clarity.” In other words, a greater awareness of the types of careers that best match our individual strengths and fulfil our values – a concept that Protagion is very supportive of. The study argues that clearer career decision-making is important against the backdrop of “global competition, technological advances, and less linear, hierarchical, and organisation-centric career paths”.
Experience with and advice on international job assignments
The CFA Institute interviewed Heather Brilliant, Managing Director Americas of First State Investments, about her experiences of working abroad. The video interview is ten-and-a-half minutes long, with a summary as well as more on Heather's background below.
Heather was previously Chief Executive Officer of Morningstar Australasia, where she led a team of financial services professionals based in Australia and New Zealand. During her career, she was also the global director of equity and corporate credit research at Morningstar. She chairs the CFA Institute Board of Governors.
At senior level, Heather has moved abroad twice so far: once with Morningstar to Australia, and then changing companies to move back to the United States. She acknowledges that it is “intensely more difficult to move employers and countries at the same time” because when you move with an existing employer you know how it operates, what is expected in the transition period, and who to contact when you have questions.
The CFA Institute highlights that finance can be a very global career, and that many of its professional members will look to gain international experience during their careers. Indeed, Heather herself studied abroad during university (in Spain), and recognised at an early age that she wanted to have an internationally-focused career.
Taking active steps
She describes the active steps she took to gain exposure to international aspects: starting her career in Corporate Finance, she purposefully volunteered to work on European, Canadian, and Asian clients to “get exposure to different markets and opportunities and how things work”. She also explains: “I covered European equities and tried to get some international exposure in my career path as much as I could. [Later] once I’d already had kids… I was in a role that became global, so I was able to travel to different Morningstar offices visiting with our equity analysts based in Australia… Asia [and] Europe...”
This travel, and her relationships with international colleagues, led to her becoming aware of a career opportunity, and she volunteered herself for consideration to run the Australian business.
Her advice to others echoes her own experiences: “It’s important to seek out those opportunities, but in a way that positions you for potential future success… You have to lay the groundwork for it, and get exposure to experiences your company might need in another market, and start to network with people in other markets so that if the opportunity arises, they think of you.” She also suggests finding your voice and practising expressing what you want in your career: “Your opportunity set will open up if you can express what it is that you want and need.”
Advantages of working in different countries
Heather sets out some advantages of moving abroad for work:
A challenge of working abroad
In the video, she also explains a challenge of moving abroad. She feels that she drifted more than she expected from her contacts, and that it is hard to stay in touch with the home office. She comments: “It takes a lot of very purposeful work to maintain your internal network as well as your external network when you move overseas”.
I agree with Heather on this too. Given my own international roles, I’ve formed connections across many countries, and it is impossible to continue building these relationships face-to-face once you’ve stopped working together. This underscores how important it is to form strong bonds when you are interacting regularly in person – bonds which you can later maintain over the phone and electronically.
To our readers who’ve worked abroad, especially for long time periods: what have your experiences been? Do you agree that the self-reflection leads to better career decision-making? Any other advantages or disadvantages of working abroad in your experience that are not mentioned in this post?