Overseas assignments can be a lot of things: exciting, intimidating, fulfilling, educational, career-enhancing, career-limiting. As with any decision, the first step in deciding whether to accept such a position is an investigation of the pros and cons. You should evaluate an overseas assignment the same way you would any local promotion, transfer, or new job.
These are just a few questions that you'll need to answer:
- Will you learn new marketable skills?
- Will you be recognized for your accomplishments?
- Will you earn raises and promotions faster?
Once you've answered these questions, review the issues particular to overseas assignments:
- Speak to the people in your organization who have completed an overseas assignment, if any—has their career advanced; did their personal life suffer? Find out what they took into consideration in making their decision to go abroad.
- Take a hard look at what the overseas role would do for you professionally. Find out if it's a position that will be available at home when you return, and what the next step would be on your return.
- Ask about your say on the duration of the job—what if you need to cut it short due to a family issue or because you realize you can't stand the new role? On the other hand, what if you find that you love the assignment and you don't want it to end? An IT executive I've known for years is finishing his second overseas assignment. In both cases, he extended the positions beyond the initial term. In both cases, he would have extended them again if he could have.
- Get all the facts on the compensation plan—is it an "ex-pat" or "local" approach? I recommend that you be sure you'll be sent as an ex-pat, and that you negotiate in advance that you'll continue on the ex-pat pay plan. What you want to avoid is the pressure to be paid in the local currency at the local prevailing wage. When you first head overseas, your company sends you because they don't have that talent available locally. Over time, you'll likely be grooming resident IT workers to take over. Here's the rub: Halfway through your overseas assignment, the locals will be half-trained, so you will have lost half your value. This is when your company will try to convert you to the local pay plan. You'll be in no position to negotiate pay plans at that point so you need to get that commitment up front and in writing.
- Spend lots of time examining family issues; this is often the key element in whether an abroad experience is successful. The younger your kids are, the easier it usually is. Do you want your children educated in an American school or in a local school, and can you afford the expense associated with your preference? What will this do to your spouse's career?
- Is there a guarantee in taking the offer—does any promotion or transfer come with a guaranteed fallback scenario should the position not work out? Typically the answer will be no, because no one gets a guarantee in any domestic position. But it's still worth trying to negotiate if the new role is tied to a new business endeavor, for example.
Tips on moving abroad
If you decide to move abroad, make sure you get a commitment of relocation assistance both over and back in advance. Even better, work out a severance package in advance. Here's why: If the worst-case scenario plays out, and you bomb overseas, you will be in a terrible position politically to negotiate anything when you head home.
If you're a homeowner and like the town you will be leaving behind, consider renting out your house rather than selling. If real estate appreciates while you're gone, you may find yourself priced out of the market when you return.
Another home owning tip: Be cautious about buying a home overseas. When you sell the home and go to repatriate your money, you can have real problems if the currency moved against you. A 50 percent swing in four years is well within the realm of possibility.
Even if things go well with the overseas assignment, your political connections with the home office normally decrease over time, so keep in touch with your former office and up to date on who's in charge. After two years overseas, you can expect that half of the senior execs that sent you overseas will have turned over. Their replacements will not know you from Adam. The other half will be a lot less familiar with the look of your face. By staying in touch, you'll have a much easier time on the return into the fold.
While there are no guarantees in life, you certainly should negotiate for whatever commitments you can. Work out an expected career path, or paths, with several layers of management. Then, stay in touch with them as best you can and hope that some of them will still be around when you return.