The JMA Guide to International Assignments

The JMA Guide to International Assignments

04 Aug 17 7mins Jon Midmer


Having helped scores of candidates relocate internationally and experienced life as ex-pats ourselves, we understand how enriching international assignments can be. At the same time, they are full of ups and downs and far from easy. No doubt because of this, a Harvard Business Review study reported that 32% of leaders turned down an international assignment because they didn’t want to move their families, and 28% said they had done so to protect their marriages.

Having reflected on our own experiences and canvassed the views of current and former international assignees within the JMA community, below is an extended article on the highs and lows of international assignments, and some top tips for how to get the best out of them.

Professional Highlights

An international assignment can be one of the most rewarding experiences any professional can have. It normally starts from a very good place: being put on one is prestigious and often linked with some sort of recognition, often a promotion. Not only does a posting abroad enable you to have greater visibility with senior management, it also allows you to gain critical experiences that might not be available to you in your home location. Once there, you can often experience the same company or brand in a different stage of its growth journey and, hopefully, make a good impact.

If you are a representative from the “mothership”, not only is the local team expecting you to lead and inspire, the mothership is too! On an international assignment, while you’re given a big stage on which to shine, there’s nowhere to hide. Learning the social and corporate culture of a new country or region focuses the mind on what really matters and the best way to get things done. Having to navigate the culture, regulations, customs and practices of a new environment, meanwhile, can be an enjoyable challenge.

And motivating people who either literally or metaphorically don’t speak the same language to deliver a common goal can be extremely fulfilling. By the end of the assignment, not only will you have grown as a leader, you’ll have gained pride and satisfaction from having helped others grow. As result, your standing and promotion prospects within your company (to say nothing of your employability outside it) will almost certainly have increased. 

Personal Highlights

The personal highlights of an international assignment can be no less rewarding. Whether you’re flying solo, going with a partner or have a family in tow, you can visit places you’ve only dreamed about and fulfil personal ambitions. Sharing experiences with immediate family, extended family who come to visit or new friends you make along the way broadens horizons.

From a life skills perspective, you become very good at making friends, gain confidence in your ability to adapt, and learn how to tackle the unknown. The steep learning curves experienced by executives and their loved ones at the beginning of an assignment are often so huge that it can be an adrenalin-filled ride. We’ve heard it said many times that the greatest thing you learn in an international assignment is resilience.

Professional Lows

For all the good parts, there are challenges in every international assignment. Professionally speaking, there is a heightened risk of failure. When you arrive, not everyone will be grateful for your showing up and people will expect you to prove yourself. Depending on where you’ve come from, the pace of business can be very different, which can make it frustrating if slower or disorienting if faster, and you might miss the internal network that you have leaned on for so long.

Not only this, being away from your home market may limit your network-building ability with those you know best, which can leave you at risk of becoming disconnected if not carefully managed. At worst, it can leave you stranded and unable to get back. Even if you have done well overseas, at the end of your posting you may very well find yourself dissatisfied in the next job, and discover you don’t have the opportunity to put into practice what you have learned while overseas. In the worst-case scenario, you may decide to leave. 

Personal Challenges

It is the personal challenges, though, that can make you think really hard before taking an international assignment. From a relationship perspective, it can be make or break, and many executives we have spoken to privately admit an overseas posting causes greater stress and a bigger impact on partners and children than many publicly choose to acknowledge. It’s common to experience a honeymoon period for the first few months and then hit a real low.

There can be considerable family disruption throughout the assignment, not just at the beginning. Watching children suffer through the transition, particularly while they miss their friends and extended family can be particularly painful. While your resilience will build, moving multiple times can take its toll – as can the fear of something happening to your family while you are living abroad or, worse, something actually happening.

In terms of logistics, schooling is a big issue: local versus international, the system to opt for and the consequences for future schools and universities. Working out how to arrange the everyday matters of utilities, bank accounts, driving licences, healthcare and childcare can also be difficult and, with language barriers on top, potentially overwhelming. Financially speaking, as strange as it might seem, tax implications and differences in costs of living might see you no better off. 

Accommodating Your Partner

Perhaps the hardest personal challenge of all is accommodating your partner. If the partner of the assignee works, they usually need to accommodate the other, which inevitably puts stress on the relationship. Managing a dual-career partnership can be problematic: working permits for spouses (let alone for a civil or unmarried partners) can be hard to secure, which is no doubt why estimates have put the percentage of working partners of international assignees as high as 90% pre-relocation and around 30% post-relocation.

There are feelings of gratitude and guilt for the one whose career has been accelerated by the sacrifice made by a partner who puts their career on hold, and during the time away the formerly working partner might feel like they are living in their partner’s shadow. Heading abroad with a non-working partner can be equally hard as he or she can suddenly feel alienated from family and friends and/or feel a lack of purpose, which can lead to frustration.

Professional Top Tips 

So how to get the very best out of an international assignment? The simplest advice we’ve received from people who have succeeded abroad is to embrace the experience, adapt to the environment and don’t expect it to adapt to you!

From a professional perspective, identify quickly what you want to get out of the assignment (be it building your leadership skills, developing your cultural agility or increasing your visibility within the company) and never lose sight of that.

Working hard to listen to locals to understand how things are done and engaging with cultural norms from where they really start from is vital, even if you intend to challenge them.

We would discourage any international move for less than 18 months, as it can take that long to get (even just) yourself settled and learn how to operate in a new environment. Building a reputation in your home country is one thing, but learning the cultural norms and the consumer dynamics in another is quite another, so it may be best to ask for a significant medium- to long-term posting, even if it brings with it a more uncertain professional and personal horizon.

However long the assignment is, keeping in contact with your home market, by Teams / Zoom while you’re away, and in person when you’re back for a visit, is key. Keeping networked and asking how you can help former colleagues will keep you on their radar.

Personal Top Tips

When you’re deciding whether to take the opportunity, discuss things early enough with your partner to help them accept the change. When you’ve committed, expect the unexpected, be prepared for a roller coaster of emotions and accept that you won’t have the answers to many of your questions, either initially or maybe ever!

Keep a constant dialogue going with your partner throughout the assignment and re-assure them that they can always pull the cord if things get too much.

Find ways to give children some age-appropriate choice control, too. Let younger ones choose which bedroom they have, while older ones can even have the final decision on a set of well-chosen schools if there’s a choice to be made.

When you arrive, don’t try and create what you had at home and be realistic about how hard and expensive it might be: model the worst-case scenario… then add 50%.

At work, if possible, involve new colleagues early on in making your relocation a success, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking your employer to put you on a cultural assimilation course before you “go live” is a great move, and can save embarrassment down the track.

Finally, invest in a nice home and pretend you’re going to live in it for a long time from the moment you land. If not, the situation can feel temporary and you can feel rootless.

Try not to go home for at least the first nine months – better still 12 – so you don't visit loved ones during the rough patch of settling in: it makes homesickness far worse.

Accept every invitation in the first six months as you never know who you’re going to meet, and find a community that feeds your passion: you’re likely to meet like-minded friends that way.

Lastly, arrange visits from family and close friends to look forward to.

Above all, take it one step at a time, and don’t fixate on the end date. The less you enter into the assignment with a clear plan of going home, the lighter the burden you’ll carry while you’re away.

You only live once, and this could be one of the most exciting periods in your life. Enjoy it!