Top Ten Tips for the Aspiring International Executive

If you are fortunate enough to be offered an opportunity overseas, be sure to get an accurate picture of the position and your responsibilities before you accept. Your first step is to clarify the following ten points in as much detail as practical, keeping in mind that this list covers the most important elements when you are considering the offer. 

  1. Your position. Request a detailed job description, including the exact title, roles, responsibilities, and the key objectives by which your performance will be measured. If you have a team, be apprised of their levels and titles, years of experience, reporting lines if not 100 percent to you, and overall roles in the office or plant and on your team. You can also use this document in your annual performance review. It will also come in very handy if management changes during your time abroad.
  2. Length of your assignment. There should be a minimum and maximum time allocation for your assignment and a clear delineation of what happens if either is not met. It is in everybody’s best interest to have a plan in place should the opportunity to extend the assignment arise. To that end, determine what criteria would be used to make that extension, and leave yourself some flexibility in case you decide to stay on.
  3. Your reporting structure. Find out specifically to whom you report and where that person is based. Although it is not part of the contract, you’ll also want to know your supervisor’s experience, background, and nationality and — important to try to determine — whether you can learn from this person.
  4. Your expected work schedule. The number of hours in a typical work day differs in markets around the world, as do the number of days in a work week and the days that constitute a weekend (e.g., some weekends are Saturday and Sunday; some are Friday and Saturday). Many times, whether it is formally stated or not, you will be expected to work both the local schedule as well as that of the parent company. In addition, be sure to clarify how much travel, either in-country or out of it is expected of you.
  5. Your new office culture and climate. Ask as many questions as you have abut the internal culture and environment of the office or plant in which you’ll be based, including what issues, problems, successes, and/or failures this location has had in the last eighteen months. You’ll be better positioned to understand how you might be able to make a difference. For instance, if you’re expected to be the heroine of a horror story, you’ll be gearing up differently than if you’re expected to be one of several expats being transferred into an already successful location.
  6. Cross-cultural training. Confirm whether you will have the opportunity to undergo cross-cultural training before your departure. Although some companies have a solid indoctrination program as part of the expat package, many don’t. If yours doesn’t, consider requesting it as part of your package, as studies show that employees who receive solid cross-cultural training tend to transition much better both into a new market and back to the old. There are companies that specialize in cross-cultural training.
  7. Site visit. Determine whether you will be allowed at least one company-sponsored site visit before you accept the offer — preferably with your spouse or significant other if you have one — to explore your potential new home. You’ll need to spend at least three days, although a full week is even better. If the company doesn’t allow such a visit, you should request the opportunity to talk to a few people who’ve lived there, preferably on assignment with the company, so you can gather their valuable information. Or consider financing your own visit if you can afford it. In addition, search websites, rent DVDs, and read guide books both before and after your site visit (or in place of it, if necessary).
  8. Long-term plan. Clarify what the company expects of you when you return, including an indication that you will have a position that is either equal to your role in the new market or a promotion. In addition, request that you be considered for a position that capitalizes on your international skills. Sometimes you may need to stay a bit longer or leave a little early to get the next plum assignment, but if both you and your company want to make the most of your international business experience, it will probably come to pass.
  9. Reasons for the transfer. Do your best to determine all the reasons the company is transferring you and why it believes you’ll be successful. Ask questions of HR, your current supervisor, and others who have been involved in the decision-making process, including the local team in the country and region in which you’ll be working. You’ll want to find out what they expect of you, and the best way to find out is to ask — preferably before or during the site visit. Many times you’ll find that what your head office expects of you is different than what the local office wants or needs. A certain amount of this dynamic tension is to be expected. However, you want to be sure the two positions are not completely at odds with each other, as this will put you in the middle of a lose-lose situation. In addition, ask why your company — both HQ and the local hiring team — believes that you will be successful. Understanding their expectations before you agree can prove critical to success.
  10. Effect on spouse and children. If you are married and/or have children, you must determine whether this position will enable you to adequately fulfill your personal responsibilities. Many times, overseas postings include a great deal of travel, long days, and lots of evening entertaining. Only you can decide if you’ll be able to manage, though many women have done so — and extremely well.


For more information, check out Get Ahead by Going Abroad.