Graduates and experienced professionals have long been attracted to large multi-national organisations as a springboard for overseas postings. However time spent working overseas is no longer simply a ‘nice to have’ on our career trajectories and the terms of assignments no longer what they once were.
As a result of significant (and continued) economic downturns, large-scale downsizing, and the offshoring of major components of industries (and whole industries altogether), for many, a move overseas has been one of few remaining options to advance their careers. In fact, PwC reports mobility levels have increased by 25% over the last decade, and a further 50% growth is expected by 2020. Further to this, 71% of Millennials, who will form the majority of the workforce by 2020, would like (and expect) to work outside their country of origin during their career.
So, what does the new age of global secondments look like?
The value proposition for working overseas has fundamentally changed. For the most part, gone are the days of 3-5 year secondments, plump relocation and expatriate packages, and a guaranteed right of return to your country of origin. For starters, arrangements appear to be far more fluid. PwC's report revealed the average length of an overseas posting is closer to 18 months, they are purpose-based assignments, and the destinations extend beyond the ever-popular London and New York to the emerging markets of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
I recently surveyed a sample of my professional network from a range of backgrounds including Engineering, Communications, and Business Development, across a mix of industries in the public and private sectors, who are currently or have very recently returned from living and working in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. I queried them on what had prompted their move, the challenges, surprises, and tips they would share with others considering a similar adventure. The below offers some insight into their experiences.
The respondents relayed many positive aspects about working in these fast-emerging markets and most consistently reported that experiencing a different culture not only exposed them to new people, places, and experiences but also shifted their perspective on their own culture and life. Perhaps unsurprisingly...
‘..the one factor that made their experiences so enjoyable and unique, was the same factor that provided the greatest challenge’.
‘Culture shock’ is commonly understood as the phenomenon of disorientation experienced when transitioning to a culture different to your culture of origin. All respondents agreed the most formidable facet of their time living and working abroad were the cultural differences. And the overt differences such as languages weren't necessarily the most difficult to navigate, but rather the deeper cultural differences in mindset, customs and interpersonal interactions.
Further to this, one respondent reported that as well as taking time to adjust to your new life in a different country, it also takes time to adjust back, and 'reverse culture shock' can be harder than culture shock, because you don’t really expect to be out of place in your home city but..
‘…the experience of living and working overseas changes you.’
It seems successful cultural assimilation is critical to countering what London-based headhunter Hudson recently described as a trend away from sourcing foreign senior executives in emerging markets in favour of local talent. Louisa Wong chairman of Bó Lè Associates, an executive search company in Hong Kong, agrees that frustrations surrounding cultural differences is one of the key drivers for the shift away from hiring expats. Goldman Sachs is one organisation that has for many years facilitated programs to tackle cultural and linguistic barriers and support their top talent living and working overseas.
My contacts offered their own top tips on how to successfully manage cultural differences whilst living and working abroad as follows:
- Do your research. Prepare, learn what to expect, and understand how to act in the new culture. Research before you arrive and observe for yourself on the ground.
- Keep an open mind. Recognise cultural differences from the outset. Be willing to listen, be flexible, and learn from and respect the people in the country you are in - 'you’ll probably learn more from them then they will from you'.
- Make efforts to assimilate. You don’t need to give up your culture entirely, but it is important to strike a balance between assimilating (e.g. conversation skills and eating out with others for lunch if that's what they do) but also staying true to what works for you, your family, and your wellbeing (e.g. work start and finish times).
- Go! If this is something you have thought about - DO IT! Living abroad had been described to one respondent as the ‘University of Life’. They described how their mind had been opened and they'd been exposed to experiences they had never thought possible: ‘Last night I had dinner at a restaurant on the Arabian Sea in Karachi. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider I would travel through and conduct business in Pakistan… Last week was Nairobi, Kenya’.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.