That moment when the idea of an international assignment becomes an offer can launch you into mental and emotional gymnastics. Personal and professional concerns come into high contrast as you consider the impact on yourself, your career and your family.
Research reported in Harvard Business Review found that 32% of those surveyed who turned down an international assignment did so because they did not want to relocate their families and 28% to protect their marriages. About 13% of women (compared to only 1% of men) also reported turning down international assignments due to cultural concerns. Many who do make the leap, however, experience strong professional and personal growth. Even interacting stateside with your company's global operations can build important skills and perspectives.
“International assignments are full family commitments,” said Bethany Quam, Group President, Europe/Australia for General Mills who has worked in Switzerland for more than two years on her first international assignment. Quam will share her experience during the Signature Pre-Conference Session: Global Impact of Women presented by Lamb Weston.
“My top considerations revolved around my spouse being supportive of the move, a deep belief that this would be a good experience for our teenage daughters and that the job provided a differential experience that would stretch my skills and allow me to have a positive impact on the people and business of General Mills,” Quam said.
Session presenter Sharon Miller, a Canadian who, in the past 13 years, has lived in the U.S. and the Netherlands working with Lamb Weston, also urges thinking through all family scenarios. That includes the impact on kids who will move with you and those who may not and how the move might change your spouse’s ability to work and his or her career progression. She is currently responsible for Lamb Weston’s business in Latin America and Asia Pacific as SVP and General Manager, Global Business Unit.
Lynn Keays, VP of Human Resources for Sysco Europe and Global Impact session presenter, started from a similar vantage point when considering both of her international assignments. Originally from Canada, Keays completed a three-year assignment in Houston, Texas and has worked for the past 17 months in the United Kingdom.
“Once I establish that the assignment will provide interesting, relevant work that I’m qualified for, I start by thinking how it will affect my immediate and extended family,” Keays said. “Then, I look at the level of support available from my organization to make the transition successful.”
Wisdom from the Trenches
Keays, Miller and Quam will dive deep into the plusses and challenges of international assignments during their session, but offer a few insights here.
- Talk with past expats. People who have lived in the location you are considering are extremely helpful.
- It may not feel like the same company. Differences in the scale and approach of the company as well as local political, retailer and cultural norms can drive different business conditions.
- Choose your experience intentionally. “International experiences can be narrow or broad,” Miller adds. “If you are curious about working internationally, seek local assignments in your company that give you exposure to different countries and cultures to gain some relevant insights before you make the big decision.”
- A new outlook on the world. “The opportunity to directly experience different cultures and business environments is a major positive of working and living abroad,” Keays said.
- It’s a lot to take in. “There is so much new at one time. It is a growth experience for sure and with that growth sometimes comes growing pains,” Quam said.
- Stretch assignments drive career and personal growth. “Being able to experience different functions, countries and operating models has been critical to my development as a leader,” Quam said.