Kelly O’Dea used to think of himself as a Lone Ranger, living and working in countries where only a select breed of American businesspeople had gone before. As president of worldwide client services for Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, O’Dea commutes between London and New York. He’s outside the United States about 70% of the time; for the past 15 years he’s handled assignments in dozens of countries on five continents.
Six months ago, on a layover in the Bangkok airport, O’Dea realized that the Lone Ranger wasn’t alone. He struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to him, an investment banker who was also making the 25-hour flight from Sydney to London. As the two of them talked about their companies’ urgent emphasis on global operations, two others chimed in with similar stories. The four of them soon realized that they represented a completely new kind of business leader: one who is multicultural and multiskilled, who doesn’t regard an overseas assignment as either exotic or traumatic. It occurred to O’Dea that people, just like brands, must be “globalized” if they’re to compete successfully in rapidly changing international markets.
“International work experience is no longer just an option — it’s mandatory for anyone in business,” says O’Dea. “Five years ago, only 6 of our 15 largest clients were actively marketing brands across borders; now all 15 are. So it’s no longer adequate to think about only your domestic market. You need to have a firm understanding of how business gets done in different countries.”
Before you rush off for parts unknown, a few words of caution: an overseas assignment helps only if you do it right. The experience you gain won’t do you much good if you lose touch with the home office. Or if you alienate local businesspeople because you don’t understand the culture. And you’ll find it’s virtually impossible to master the intricacies of international finance or marketing if your spouse is miserable or your kids are complaining about their new school.
To help you understand what you’re getting into, we’ve asked three global workers to share their greatest challenges while on overseas assignments — and their advice for meeting those challenges, along with additional reflections from three experts. Taken together, the tips, tools, and resources you’ll find here are your passport to a new world, a world where business as you have known it will never be the same.
Frans Ryckebosch, 55, founder of China Management Consulting, Westport, Connecticut.
General manager for Xerox in Shanghai from 1987 to 1990, responsible for a $30 million joint venture with two Chinese partners to manufacture and market Xerox copiers in China.
Avoiding the hidden costs of living overseas. Before I took the China assignment, I negotiated with Xerox for a 25% hardship allowance on top of the standard Xerox package. Even so, many hidden costs remained hidden — from the pricetag for new appliances to late-payment fees on bills.
Lesson #1: Visit the country before you negotiate with your company.
The better you know the conditions in the country you’ll be living in, the more effectively you can negotiate a deal that will make you happy. For example, my TV didn’t work in China; I should have negotiated an allowance to lease new appliances when I arrived. I also should have gotten an allowance for calling home, since China’s long-distance charges are far higher than U.S. rates.
Lesson #2: Opt for automatic payment.
It’s hard to keep up with your U.S. bills when you’re living overseas. And when you fall behind, your credit rating plummets. So I had my salary deposited automatically in a U.S. bank, and I used automatic payment whenever possible — or I’d contact the company, explain that I was living outside the United States, and ask for a grace period. I was never turned down.
Coordinates: Frans Ryckebosch, firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Klein, an Ernst & Young partner who oversees the company’s expatriate and global HR services in the New York area.
Advice from the Expert:
When negotiating expenses with your company, focus on the “three-legged stool” of finance: 1. Housing allowance. Negotiate an allowance if your new housing exceeds the cost of your housing in the United States — your company should pick up the difference. 2. Cost-of-living allowance. If the cost of a U.S. basket of goods and services is double overseas, expect your company to reimburse the difference. Data providers such as Organization Resources Counselors in New York measure cost-of-living differences (212-719-3400). 3. Tax equalization. As a U.S. citizen working overseas, you’ll be hit with U.S. and foreign taxes. Typically, you pay U.S. taxes on your annual earnings; your company is responsible for everything else, including U.S. taxes on cost-of-living and other allowances.
Coordinates: Robert Klein, email@example.com
Supporting Your Spouse
Andrea Davis, 54, director of the San Francisco office of Cornelius Grove & Associates, a consulting firm that helps businesspeople prepare for the cultural differences they’ll encounter while working in foreign countries.
Davis and her husband, Del — a marketing executive with IBM — took their three children to Brazil, Hong Kong, and Indonesia on assignments from two to five years long.
Dealing with culture shock. My husband traveled almost 80% of the time when we lived in Brazil. I was really isolated. IBM didn’t give us any advice on what to expect or how best to adapt. It took me six months to adjust, and I was really a burden on my husband for those six months.
Lesson #3: Think creatively about finding work.
Work gets you involved with other people. By talking to other mothers at my kids’ school in Sao Paulo, I got in touch with the American Women’s Association. (A support group for expatriates, they have offices in almost every country where there’s an expat community.) They helped me get a job teaching English in corporations in Brazil. I also studied Portuguese — a good way to meet Brazilians. But don’t expect someone to tell you about job opportunities. You need to do a lot of digging.
Lesson #4: Don’t go 100% native.
We decided that we weren’t going to become part of the expat culture, where you live and work with other Americans and all you know are other Americans. We really wanted to get immersed in Brazilian culture. So we sent my three-year-old to a Brazilian nursery school, even though he didn’t speak Portuguese. Big mistake. For the first three months he never spoke at home. He didn’t know whether his language was English or Portuguese. We threw ourselves into much heavier culture shock than we ordinarily would have encountered, and that was devastating for our family. It’s better to go fifty-fifty: get to know the American community as well as the native community.
Lesson #5: Think of your assignment as permanent.
When most people take a job in another country, they don’t commit to making friends because they think the other person might get transferred. That was certainly true of me. For the first six months I was always thinking we were going to leave. I really encourage people to assume that when they arrive in a foreign country, they’ll be staying there awhile. Otherwise they’ll say no to things that are just fabulous opportunities.
Coordinates: Andrea Davis, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cornelius Grove, author (with Hu Wenzhon) of Encountering the Chinese: A Guide for Americans (Intercultural Press, 1991; 800-370-2665).
Advice from the Expert:
Three tips to help spouses find meaningful roles for themselves while living overseas:
- Full-time employment. More than 10% of the people we deal with find some kind of employment, even if they don’t have working papers.
- Self-employment. Do something entrepreneurial like Andrea Davis did — while living in Hong Kong she started a clothing export firm.
- Unpaid employment. Sometimes U.S.-based companies employ each other’s spouses as volunteers doing important work, such as editing the company’s newsletter.
Coordinates: Cornelius Grove, email@example.com
Understanding the Culture
Shobhan Porter, 27, an associate with Global Partners in Boston, Massachusetts.
Project director of 79 volunteers in a public health program administered by the nonprofit Amigos De Las Americas, whose primary project was vaccinating dogs and cats in Ecuador against rabies.
Overcoming cultural differences in the workplace. Ecuador’s national director of epidemiology didn’t understand our project. One day he drove into town and decided to revamp the entire program; we had to put our immunizations on hold until he fully understood our goals. We lost valuable time because we didn’t communicate effectively. I also worked with a male nurse who ran the local pharmacy. That arrangement seemed unethical to me. He could prescribe any number of drugs and the patient would have to buy them from him. But when I brought it up with his supervisor, he just laughed. It ruined my working relationship with the nurse.
Lesson #6: Get to know the politicians who affect your business.
I should have had someone with influence introduce me to the director of epidemiology. I’ve often seen Americans skimp on cultural formalities — like getting introduced to local people who can help you — because they’re squeezed for time. But the time you save upfront is not worth the pain that can come later in a project, when local people interfere because they didn’t get their say.
Lesson #7: Don’t jump to conclusions.
I judged the nurse without dealing with him directly. It turns out that in South America, it’s not uncommon for a doctor or nurse to prescribe drugs and also run the local pharmacy. I learned the hard way: get as much information as possible before you form an opinion.
Coordinates: Shobhan Porter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Squires, corporate anthropologist at Andersen Worldwide.
Advice from the Expert:
- Get a broker. When you arrive in a new country, find a veteran expat who can get you up to speed on how things get done.
- Get a “Culturgram.” A four-page profile of a specific country, a Culturgram includes a map plus briefings on customs, lifestyle, the economy, health care, and travel. They cover more than 140 countries. (Available for $4.50 each from the Kennedy Center for International Studies at Brigham Young University; 800-528-6279.)
Coordinates: Susan Squires, email@example.com