Farley Blackman didn’t have to think twice about whether he wanted that overseas job.

As soon as Stamford, CT-based General Electric posted the job opening for an IS manager in China in 1994, he was ready to pack his bags. A week later, he was on a plane to Beijing to start his new job.

At the time, Blackman was GE’s IS manager for corporate telecommunications. During the next five years, he bounced around the globe leading the frenetic life of a corporate expatriate, stepping up a rung on the corporate career ladder with each new destination. In 1996, he moved to Hong Kong to become GE’s manager of IS services for Asia-Pacific. The following year, he was on the move again to become GE’s director of offshore development in New Delhi, India.

Last year, Blackman brought everything he had learned stateside and launched his own company, the Stamford-based IT consulting company StrategIM. But he’s still very much the world traveler, shuttling to Costa Rica, India, and Ireland to meet with clients.

Blackman didn’t leave GE because he was tired of globetrotting, but because he was simply ready to take what he had learned and start his own company. Looking back, Blackman ranks his overseas experience as pivotal to scaling the ranks quickly.

“If you’re an executive in a large company, you need to jump on any opportunity,” he said. “You can’t hesitate. International experience helps make you a well-rounded leader.”

What you gain, what you lose
All in all, Blackman ranks working abroad as both a career-expanding and life-enhancing experience, and one that he would repeat. Was it romantic and glamorous? Absolutely. But, Blackman says, the glamour is balanced against a grueling pace and a major lifestyle adjustment.

Blackman thought he had worked hard in the states, but he found he had to work almost twice as hard overseas. To compensate for the 12-hour time difference, he found himself coming to work a couple of hours early in the morning and staying several hours late at night to communicate with his U.S. home office.

His lifestyle changed significantly as well. Because of his long work hours, Blackman had no choice but to cram his social life into weekends—which, even then, proved difficult. And although his single lifestyle gave him the advantage of mobility, it also became a drawback. “A married person has someone to come home to and can share the experiences of living abroad,” he said.

That’s not to say that married couples or families living abroad—especially if only one spouse is the reason for making the move—don’t face their own challenges. They must find acceptable housing, and if they have children, the couple then must find schools and help the children build a social life in a new, sometimes frightening environment.

Understanding cultural differences
Americans taking overseas posts must quickly master the cultural differences related to doing business if they are to be successful. While English is the universal language of business and is spoken in most European and Far Eastern countries, the work pace, style, and customs vary widely around the globe.

In China, for example, business is conducted at a more leisurely pace, Blackman said.

“Americans tend to do everything abruptly,” he said. “In the Orient, the ceremony surrounding business dealings is valued, as is the respect shown to the person with whom you’re dealing. When you hand someone your business card, for example, you do so with two hands, all the while making eye contact. Failure to make eye contact is a sign of disrespect.”

Alex Pressman, president and founder of Redwood Shores, CA-based Uniscape, a creator of multilingual Web sites for companies, had similar experiences. Prior to founding Uniscape, he managed globalization projects for Oracle and Borland and was responsible for producing more than 16 localized versions of global software products. (Pressman is fluent in Russian and English and can hold his own in Spanish.) He has also had extensive international trade experience in Asia, where he held a number of executive positions with Mitsubishi International and Nissho Iwai Corporation.

Like Blackman, Pressman stresses the importance of respecting cultural differences, whether they are business or social protocols. Latin American businesspeople, for example, he says, move at a relaxed and casual pace, which is difficult for Americans to get used to.

“Americans are fanatical about deadlines and getting projects done on time,” Pressman said. “Latin Americans have a much softer concept of deadlines. If something gets done on time, it’s more by accident than by planning. They figure that if it doesn’t get done today, it will be finished tomorrow or the day after.”

Both Pressman and Blackman emphasize the importance of carefully researching the country or region where you’re going to be working so you’re familiar with the customs. Blackman also offers this advice before taking an overseas job:

  • Know what you’re getting into by speaking to people who have worked at the location.
  • Make sure your company has plans to bring you back to the United States. A rough timeline for your travel and return should be established between you and your employer before you leave.
  • Your company should make adjustments for cost-of-living differences and cover all expenses related to the move to and from the foreign country.
  • Make sure you stay visible to your superiors at home. Keep the communication lines open so they’re aware of your accomplishments.

Culture shock
Before taking an overseas assignment, Pressman advises preparing yourself for culture shock, both when you enter the foreign country and when you return home.

“Despite all the preparation for living in a foreign country, you also have to consider you’re going to be changed by that culture,” he said. “It will broaden your horizons and make you rethink what you’ve felt or been taught.”

And returning to your home after a couple of years in another country may make you feel like you’ve been away much longer than that. If you return to the United States after several years abroad, Pressman said, it’s likely you’ll be expected to jump right in and get back to the speed of doing business in the United States. “It can be unnerving because you’re forced to switch speeds,” he said.

Pressman’s advice? “Go into the experience with your eyes and mind open. It can be an incredible opportunity to learn, grow, and enrich your life.”
Have you worked in a foreign country to gain experience? Tell us how the experience affected you and whether you would do it again. Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below. We’ll compile your responses for later articles.