Skip to main content

International Career Moves: Risks and Rewards

Written by: Rhea Wessel
Published on: Dec 21, 2018


Investment professionals increasingly see an international posting as an essential part of their careers and development. For many, it has simply become a “CV must” to work internationally. But many underestimate the complexity of succeeding when they take their careers abroad.

The trend is gaining momentum. The number of expats who have served five or more international assignments increased from 18% in 2013 to 25% in 2015, according to a global study of expatriates commissioned by Cigna Global Health Benefits and the National Foreign Trade Council. The same survey found that professionals are increasingly working abroad out of choice rather than necessity.

But career paths in one market don’t always translate to others. As with virtually any career track, networking is key, but global mobility requires different networking strategies. The cost of international assignments is much higher—not only for employees but also for employers. The failure rate is much higher as well. And personality traits, such as resilience, can become even more important for success.

For some professionals, the additional risk may be a turnoff, but for others, the risk makes the adventure that much more exciting.

How can you know if an international assignment is right for you? To help answer the question, career experts and practitioners share their insights and personal experiences for this article.

"It's Not about the First Job"

Wendy Kendall, a global leadership consultant and former military psychologist, says, “When it comes to international assignments, people tend to self-select based on their own abilities and confidence, and they usually get it right.”

For Ted Stephenson, CFA, self-selection for a career abroad came easily. It was 1994 and he was 28, with a freshly minted MBA. Stephenson faced a slumping job market at home in Canada. He had lived abroad briefly as a child and had become curious through lots of travel, so Stephenson didn’t think much of packing some bags and heading off for Vietnam with a non-governmental organization (NGO).

At first, he began teaching business in Hanoi; then, he became a financial controller for a $15 million project. “Asian Tigers—I was in the right place at the right time,” he says.

Since starting off in Vietnam, Stephenson has worked in Taiwan, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand and has been back to Canada multiple times.

Stephenson’s advice to those who want to go abroad and aren’t willing to wait around for company sponsorship is to go. “If you’re sitting at home trying to get a job over the internet, it will be very difficult,” he says. “But once you show up at a place, it’s always fairly easy to take one job and turn it into another. I’ve seen many, many people do that successfully. Sometimes it’s not about the first job you get but what can happen next.”

Looking back after spending a third of his life abroad, Stephenson says it somehow all makes sense. First, wanderlust took him outside Canada, but upon return, he faced reverse culture shock and found himself more easily bored. That meant it was time to move back abroad, where the job became more interesting. “When you’re working internationally, when it’s smaller teams, you become the jack of all trades.”

"Exposure and Experience"

Deon Brenner, CFA, a recruiter for the investment industry in Cape Town, South Africa, advises candidates who have gone abroad but want to return to think about shop size from the start.

“Obviously, if someone has worked abroad and specifically if they have worked with a reputable investment bank or asset manager, it says a lot about the exposure and experience that candidate has gained,” says Brenner. “By all means, that candidate is a more well-rounded candidate. From that perspective, having gone abroad is seen as a positive.”

Now comes the caveat. If working abroad means you have acquired a niche skill set, that specialization can be a detriment upon return. For example, financial markets are much smaller in South Africa than in the UK, and one person in South Africa may do the same work as two or three people in the UK. “We call it ‘from cradle to grave’ [meaning a transaction is handled from beginning to end by one person],” says Brenner. “This can create a bit of a problem for candidates who ‘only’ have experience handling one portion of a transaction.”

But going in the other direction is a positive. “It’s beneficial from the large firm’s point of view to move from a small firm to a large firm,” says Brenner.

"Steer Away from Traditional Segmentations"

Vijay Vaishnav, co-founder and managing director of Indusion Consulting, recruits in India and is focused on getting more expats to join firms in the subcontinent. He encourages job seekers to focus on the job and not the location.

As he puts it, don’t go abroad for the “greener grass”; go for the “watery grass.” And as you do that, steer away from traditional segmentations. Choose an opportunity based on your long-term goal and the asset class that you wish to excel in.

Vaishnav speaks highly of career opportunities in India. “There’s so much local money that is basically chasing the asset management fraternity,” he says. “My sense is that there will be more job opportunities in India than in Asia-Pac.”

Vaishnav also points out the “push” and “pull” factors that are a part of every job search. “You need to look at what is the driver for you,” he says. “Is it the location? Is it the role? Is it the quality of the organization, the compensation package?”

"Go for a Quality Network"

Using the right networking strategy is part of the advice that Leila Rezaiguia gives based on her own experience.

Now co-founder and managing partner at Kompass Consultancy, which works with finance professionals in the Persian Gulf region, Rezaiguia was headhunted from a job in the UK to one in the United Arab Emirates before she went independent with her own company. It was her goal to move to Dubai, but looking back, Rezaiguia says she had the wrong networking strategy at the beginning.

When trying to make the initial move from London to Dubai, Rezaiguia had only a small international network and didn’t understand the market. She would send out CVs, but no one would respond. A year later, after building up her network and realizing that she must work with recruitment agencies, she sent a CV and got a job interview within a week. That interview led to her first job in Dubai.

“Whether I’m working with a junior person or a senior person, people really struggle with networking strategy,” she says. “They don’t feel they have the right network, or they don’t actually have one, never mind having an international network.”

Her advice for international networking is to keep in touch with like-minded people wherever they go, often via LinkedIn. Rezaiguia stresses the importance of a good, professional profile picture and recommendations on your profile. “Go for a quality network, not one focused on quantity. Reach out to people and speak up about your interests, passions, and plans,” she says.

"Inherently Destabilizing"

If you thought getting the job and moving to a new country was work, don’t forget about what’s ahead once you’ve landed.

According to Kendall, some companies have failure rates in their international mobility programs as high as 50%. Failure in this sense means the professional did not meet the company’s objectives in being sent abroad. He or she didn’t perform on the job as expected or went home early.

Such failure can be costly. Kendall says companies can spend three times your annual salary to send you abroad.

Because of these risks and the large number of people she works with who struggle with parts of their international assignment, Kendall began researching the role of resilience in international careers.

Not only do people on international assignments face far more complex, asymmetrical, and shifting environments than five years ago, those environments are likely to be multi-dimensional, non-hierarchical, cloud based, and virtual, according to Kendall. This can increase the need for more personal resilience, because the complexity of the job comes on top of the unfamiliarity with the new country and culture. Some expats must also deal with family members who need additional support after being pulled out of their comfort zone.

“Moving abroad is the one thing that a company asks a person to do that fractures personal and professional lives,” she says. “When you’re established in a place, it’s almost like being part of a tapestry. There are all kinds of threads that hold you there—your family, your friends, the reputation you have established. … When you move, you have to snip all of those threads. To re-establish yourself, you have to reconnect all those threads again.”

Whether you’ve gone abroad because your company urged you to or your overseas stint is of your own choosing, you will need to be resilient. Many people simply underestimate the cultural and mindset differences they will face, not to mention such things as schools, doctors, housing, taxes, visas, and transport.

To ease the transition into your new world, Kendall recommends having conversations about how to make the international experience valuable and meaningful, not focusing on what you will leave behind. And look for what is exciting in the job. That’s what taps into your strengths.

“It’s inherently destabilizing to move abroad,” says Kendall, “but leaving something behind can open up possibilities for the future. Moving abroad is a phase of tremendous opportunity. It’s about making sure you position yourself to go up the learning curve rather than fall down into the doldrums.”