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Go global – and reap the benefits

WORKING overseas ain’t what it used to be. Back when I began my career with Arthur Andersen, in 1989, an overseas assignment was, for anyone with less than five years’ experience with the firm, virtually unheard of. Now, for most professionals, it’s not if you’ll go, but when.

Such a trend is healthy. We hear cries about the “brain drain” of young talent from our golden shores, but on the other hand we read that international experience is vital to get ahead in business. I side with the latter view. And working overseas helps one get ahead in not just business, but in life.

So, do you just jump on the next plane and spend the next couple of years in London pulling pints? Well, if you’re not too concerned about your career at this stage in your life, sure, that’s an option. But then, you wouldn’t be reading this column, would you?

The message: If you’re considering working overseas, devise a strategy before you leave. Know what you want to achieve. Is your purpose to gain new skills and knowledge, to learn about another culture, or just to take some time out and reconsider this whole thing called life? Or a mixture of all three? Statistics show that you’re likely to end up back in Australia at some stage after a period of time away. How do you want your overseas experience to benefit you when you return?

A couple of weekends ago, The Australian Financial Review ran an article dis-cussing the importance of international experience at CEO level. The article quotes Jon Nicholson, a director and vice-president of Boston Consulting Group: “Boards are looking for people who have lived in a more complex com-petitive environment, people who have more contrast in their experiences and people who have succeeded in another organisation as well as another culture.”

The desire for international experience doesn’t stop at Board level. Recruitment consultants and employers place high value on any candidate who has lived and worked in another culture. However, the ones who really stand out from the crowd have certain attributes. These include:

l Experience relevant to the local market. As a recruitment consultant in a former life, I interviewed hundreds of candidates returning from London, where the Inves-tment Banking sector soaks up about 50 per cent of the Antipodean accounting and finance talent available.

Suffice to say, the London banking market is NOT the Perth market. We are not a financial centre. Specialist skills and knowledge required in the UK financial sector don’t score highly here. Be-ware becoming too special-ised for a market that doesn’t value your special-isation.

l Longevity of tenure with one employer. Quite simply, the longer you work with one organisation, the more res-ponsibility you’ll gain and the more skills you will learn. A resume containing one or two employers over a two- year period will be more credible than one showing five or six short-term contracts with different organisations. But remember, it comes back to your purpose. If your primary purpose is to travel and party while you’re overseas, short-term contracts are the way to go.

l They’ve stretched their capacity. Employers are attracted to people who have deliberately gone out of their comfort zone. Now, you might say that working overseas in itself is extending your comfort zone. And you’d be right.

But the ones who really stand out are the ones who do something a little different than the usual Contiki-style trip.

They may spend a month living in a village in South America to learn more about the culture. Or go commercial salmon fishing off the coast of Canada, just because it’s a challenge.

Pushing the boundaries while you’re overseas shows employers that you have the capacity to handle challenges, to ride through tough times and to deal with uncertainty. In other words, you can cut it.

When is a good time to go? Put it this way, there is no bad time. It depends on your situation and priorities. When deciding, bring it back to why you want to go. Then, what places provide you with the best opportunities? And what options do you have for getting there?

As far as options go, there are generally three paths. One: transfer with your current employer. Easy for some, not so easy for others. Great for career continuity, not so great for flexibility and travel. Two: Find another employer who is willing to sponsor and/or transfer you.

A good option if you have specialist skills and need a visa for the country where you want to work. Three: Resign and go it alone. Riskier, but like anything, if you do your homework and plan ahead, the opportunities are rich and varied once you arrive.

Stay in touch with home base while you’re away. One of the greatest challenges for expats is returning home. Things change – even in Perth – and networks can dry up. If home has been “out of sight, out of mind” while you’re away, chances are that the same will apply to your potential employers.

Choose key people to keep you informed of the changes going on in the business world and your company, and stay in touch on a regular basis. This will give you a head start when you decide to return.

Working overseas, in whatever form, can be one of life’s most rewarding and enriching experiences. Embracing unfamil-iar cultures and new situations is what life is all about. It’s a personal growth thing. Of course the best thing about personal growth is how we benefit as individuals. The side effect? Employers love it too. Go global, and reap the rewards.

n Digby Scott is the Principal Consultant of The Catalyst Group, a career and executive coaching consultancy. Contact him at digby@thecatalystgroup.com.au

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