International Roles. Career Accelerator or Career Barrier?



Working abroad is a career accelerator, or at least it should be. It takes an emerging leader out of her or his comfort zone like few other roles. Not only the job is new, everything else is too: customers and customs, colleagues, and frequently the language as well. This unfamiliarity further extends into every corner of an expat’s personal live: a new neighbourhood, the lack of a social network, and if they have brought their family, then everything is new for the family, too.

There is no doubt that on-the-job experience, or learning by tackling stretching new roles, is the best way for future leaders to learn. Learning how to deal with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations is not something that you can learn in a classroom.

Given the globalised nature of business, organisations understandably place a lot of emphasis on sending executives across the world in order to develop a cadre of cross-culturally savvy, global business leaders. But as a recent article in The Economist has shown, organisations don’t seem to capitalise on this talent once the expats have returned home.

Failing to Capitalise on International Experience

There is often little or no support for a returning manager and the culture shock they may experience on re-entry can be significant; head quarters back at home can seem a lot more insular once a person has spent years abroad, former networks and important contacts may have moved on and after years away, the new powers that be may not know who the expat is.

Even more worryingly than the initial culture shock, a lot of expats find themselves returning to roles that do not take into consideration the experience they have gained abroad. Many may find themselves simply returning to their old role or returning to no specific role at all. It is not surprising then that returning expats are significantly more likely to leave the organisation once they have returned home.

The Economist article quotes an interesting study by Monika Hamori and Burak Koyuncu of Spanish business school IE which shows that the more time executives had spent abroad the longer it took them to get to the top.

A Stumbling Block for Women's Careers

Despite the evidence that international experience does not always lead to better career advancement, many organisations insist on international experience as a prerequisite to senior roles. The lack of international assignments is often a stumbling block for women’s careers. Not only do they have to content with the same issues as their male colleagues on returning from an assignment, they also have difficulties getting an international assignment in the first place.

Similar to the glass ceiling that can keep women from moving beyond a certain level of seniority, statistics point to what has been called the glass border – the difficulty for women to obtain an international posting. Only about 15% of international postings are taken by women. Women who are sent abroad also tend to be younger and more junior than their male counterparts and less often married and less likely to have children.

Women also often face additional challenges while on an international posting such as succeeding in patriarchal societies, dealing with trailing families and a lack of a social network which can make child care provision particularly difficult.

9 Critical Job Assignments

International assignments are nevertheless one of the nine critical job assignments that my research with 50 senior women has highlighted as an important stepping stone for women getting to the top of an organisation. The international assignment clearly takes the top spot when it comes to providing developmental value for women which include, among other things, the ability to take a more senior role abroad (albeit often in a smaller market) than back at home, the necessity to learn to flexing and adapting one’s leadership style, and gaining an in-depth understanding of international business. Having succeeded in a foreign market also allows a woman to demonstrate grit and resilience.

As one female senior executive put it:

" As businesses become more global,

international experience is increasingly

important. You need to have immersed yourself

in it, touched it, felt it and lived it."

Making International Experience Count

Best practice on what helps leaders with making an international assignment is available but rarely made routinely available to future expats by their organisations:

  • Ongoing readiness assessments as part of performance appraisals to ensure women don’t miss out on the opportunity of international assignments

  • Language, customs and etiquette training for both the manager and her or his family

  • Adequate lead time to help relocate a family

  • Information about desirable neighbourhoods, housing costs, schools, medical facilities, transportation and childcare

  • Clear expectations for the new role

  • Access to a network of former successful expatriates

  • A senior mentor who has the clear mandate to help the expat stay in touch with the home office

  • Careful planning of repatriation to the home country to ensure a challenging role is available that recognizes the expatriate’s additional experience.

Important Questions for Organisations to Ask Themselves

In addition to the very practical actions that organisations can take, another important step is to understand the real value of international assignments. HR Analytics can help organisations understand:

  • How long do returning expats stay with the organisation after their return and if they leave prematurely, what information do exit interviews provide about possible reasons?

  • Do international assignments accelerate or slow down an executive’s rise to the top job in our organisation?

  • What impact do other stretch roles, such as operational experience, change management experience or turnaround experience have on a manager’s career prospects?

  • Do managers with international experience perform better than those without this additional stretch role?

  • What’s the optimum time for a manager to stay abroad? How long does she have to stay in order to develop enough experience without losing visibility and contacts back at head quarters?

A better understanding of whether and how international assignments add value to an organisation and what practical help can be put in place to support managers' successful posting and their successful return will make it easier for organisation to retain valuable top talent, both male and female.


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