Taking on an international assignment can be both a scary and exciting proposition. But in today's global marketplace, you won't want to let fear get in your way since finance executives without international experience are at a severe disadvantage, say experts. "Taking on an international assignment is a fabulous opportunity for an executive," says Peter McLean, Chairman of Korn/Ferry's financial officers practice. "If you have the opportunity, grab it. The global dynamic is here to stay." While every overseas post is different, there are a number of steps you can take to help you succeed no matter what barriers, cultural and otherwise, await you.
Do Your Homework
Before you leave, you'll want to do as much research as possible. The more you know in advance about the place you are going, the better. Of course, not everything you read in guidebooks or on the Internet will prove relevant to your situation, but at least you'll have some idea of where you are going and what to expect. Even if you expect to be surrounded by English speakers, take the time to learn the language of the country to which you are relocating. There will be times when you'll want to venture out beyond the confines of your office.
"As executives and leaders in global assignments, the key is to bring both technical competence and cultural sensitivity to leading teams, knowing local business and cultural practices," says McLean.
One way to familiarize yourself with the culture is by finding a restaurant in your home city that specializes in food from the country where you will be stationed, says Bernard van der Lande, a director with Stanton Chase International who specializes in global finance positions. "That way, you'll get to know the food and the culture a little bit," he says. In addition, van der Lande suggests reading up on the country's history, finding out what books people are reading and what newspapers are available -- anything you can do to acquaint yourself with your new home.
Give Yourself Some Time, Just Not Too Much
Settling in is not an overnight process so give yourself some time to ease in. If possible, plan to make your move at least a few weeks before the new job is scheduled to start. That way, you can familiarize yourself with the area and its customs before jumping in.
"The most important thing is to integrate yourself culturally as soon as possible so that from a business perspective, you are able to talk a common business language," says Peter Bonfield who was CFO of Bristol-Meyers Squibb in New York for six years before returning to the U.K. last year to work as CFO of Cadbury, his current position.
Once you start to get into a routine, you want to branch out and create a social network. Other ex-pats can be excellent sources of information and can help with tips on settling in. But don't limit yourself to them, say the experts. Get to know the locals, too. "Your success comes from being open to the culture you're being exposed to," says McLean. "Absorb it fully and become a part of it."
One way to familiarize yourself with the local finance community is by joining local finance organizations and local chambers of commerce. For Michael Thorson, the former managing director and president of Banc of America Securities-Japan, it meant joining the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) and the International Bankers Association (IBA). In addition, the Tokyo American Club (TAC) proved a good way to meet other financial executives and share experiences.
But, like McLean, Thorson recommends practicing moderation in spending time with ex-pats. He describes the TAC as a "Little America" in Japan. "If all you do is hang out with other Americans and eat burgers and fries at the TAC, what's the point of being in Japan?" he asks.
Heed the Signs
"If you go overseas, you need to be very sensitive to local customs," says van der Lande. "You need to listen to what people are trying to tell you. What is the message?" Do you need to adjust the way you conduct business? The way you talk to people? The way you make a deal? You'll want to fine-tune your business practices to better fit with those of the domestic culture. Otherwise, you'll find yourself striking out in both business and personal deals. "You have to work at it," says van der Lande. "It doesn't come automatically." Sometimes, it can help to find a local confidante in the office who can "interpret" the signals for you.
"Clearly understanding numbers/financial regulations is only one dimension of being successful in an international assignment," says McLean. "Understanding the culture and business practices is equally important."
For Thorson, that meant taking Japanese language lessons several days a week in his office in front of the whole trading floor. "I got pretty good at the language but would never be mistaken for fluent, and it was obvious to me after several months that I was never going to have the time necessary to achieve that," he says. "But I kept it up for five years, simply because the effort demonstrated my respect and interest in the culture to the staff and to clients. Small signs that you are interested in the local culture and history are significantly appreciated."
The Bigger Picture
When relocating with your company overseas, your professional transition can be smooth if you take the right approach. But family members, a trailing spouse and children, can feel isolated and lost. Try to involve them as much as possible in the move and the preparation. Introduce them to your new co-workers and their families. Have school and daycare plans set in advance of the move.
Making family members feel comfortable and welcome in your new home is essential, says van der Lande who knows of one current client who is getting ready to return to Germany much earlier than planned because his wife is having such a difficult time settling in. "Involve your family as much as possible," says McLean. "You want to create enthusiasm around the move."
Equally important as planning your departure is planning for your return, says van der Lande. Throughout your overseas experience, you'll want to email the home office every few months, keeping your coworkers and supervisors apprised of your latest deals and plans. When it comes to home visits, "make an effort to walk the halls and let people see you," says van der Lande, who considers three years an ideal amount of time for an overseas position. "You can only stay away so long because while you're gone, other people are moving up and you don't want to be forgotten."
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