Is an international assignment right for you?

Consider these 5 questions if you’d like to work abroad.

By Jane Sidebottom, AMK LLC, Louisville, Ky. March 11, 2015

A former colleague recently asked me for help in identifying all the things she needed to consider in deciding whether to accept an international project assignment. The position was a 2-year assignment in Paris that would be a nice step up in responsibility and pay. And as a mid-level team leader, this friend was hoping the assignment would advance her career path to a more senior level position upon her return. And well, it was Paris—she was definitely dazzled by the idea that weekends could be spent traveling and exposing her children to the European lifestyle.

In the right circumstances, foreign assignments can turbocharge your career path. The professional challenges that come with prolonged project assignments, business development roles, or operations can put all your skills to the test and help you develop some new ones. Cultural differences, language barriers, limited local resources—especially in developing countries—will force you to use both your technical as well as your softer skills. Success in these types of assignments can cast you in a different leadership light with your company’s senior management, especially when you are able to demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to lead an often diverse team to success—all skills needed for senior management positions. And in your company or field, such an assignment may even be a prerequisite for a senior position.

But before you run out to get your passport renewed and start volunteering for foreign assignments, consider the following:

  1. Is the assignment in a country where you are comfortable working? Examine your personal and professional values and make sure the local business practices and culture align with them.
  2. Where is your internal sponsor/mentor, and who will keep you top-of-mind in the home office while on this assignment? You do not want to suffer from "out of sight, out of mind" while slaying dragons for your company in a foreign market.
  3. What is the duration of the assignment, and what are your expectations upon completion? Make sure you and your employer are clearly in agreement on your specific career expectations when the assignment is complete. This is not just alignment on career advancement but also continued employment. I have seen multiple cases where a colleague returns from an overseas assignment to find there is not a position for him or her at home. This can especially be the case in heavy project-based environments where there is not room for another billable individual on existing projects.
  4. Consider the impact on your family. Ask yourself if your family can survive and thrive in the assigned country. And don’t assume that because the assignment is in a cosmopolitan,westernized country that your family or spouse will do well. The simple act of going to a grocery store to find the makings for your favorite chili recipe or finding a family dentist can be a huge challenge. Consider asking your employer to allow you to take your family to the country before the assignment starts to experience first-hand what life will be like. Don’t just limit your trip to house hunting and visiting your kids’ school options; spend time with other expatriate families to really understand what life is like there.
  5. Consider how your life will change with the international experience. Living and working abroad will change you, and are you OK with that? Everyone I know with international experience has returned to the U.S. with a different perspective that makes their views and decision-making multidimensional, myself included. But if you fear change or are uncomfortable with allowing a different professional and cultural experience to affect you, then an international assignment is probably not a wise choice.

These are just a few basics that can help you determine if a foreign assignment is right for your career and family. Expat Info Desk is a great resource that can help you understand the country, the culture, and what to expect with your international assignment. And I can’t emphasize enough that you must thoroughly evaluate the impact a foreign assignment will have on your spouse and family. After all, they are the ones who carry the responsibility of creating a home/community life while you are at work.

Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small- and medium-size firms. She has more than 20 years of management and leadership experience in both consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland.