Harvard business school professor Christopher Bartlett, author of Managing Across Borders (Harvard Business School Press, 1989) and Transnational Management (Irwin, 1992), has thought a lot about working overseas. He's also done it. Before becoming a global guru, he worked for ICI and Alcoa in Australia, for McKinsey & Co. in London and Tanzania, and for Baxter International in Chicago and France. He argues that the mythic "global manager" doesn't quite match up with the reality of working overseas.
Global managers are an elite core of specialists at the top of the company.
Smart companies recognize that midlevel people should go global.
"Overseas operations used to be thought of as appendages or subsidiaries to help increase sales; now they're part of a network for accessing knowledge and human capital around the world. Employees in the Tokyo office might know something about product development that you don't, and you need them for that knowledge — not just for additional sales. To be a valuable employee, you need to be exposed to all aspects of your company's operations, foreign as well as domestic."
To get global exposure, you need to work overseas.
Sometimes it's better to join a U.S.-based team that's integrating global operations.
"This might be the wrong time to take a position overseas. Companies like Procter & Gamble, which expanded globally in the 1960s and '70s, are now trying to build on entrepreneurial subsidiaries through better integration and coordination. If that case is similar to your company's, it may be better to find your way onto one of those coordinating committees rather than work in a subsidiary. There are many ways to get international experience without taking a three-year posting."
Networking with the expatriate community is critical.
Networking with the locals is critical. Networking with the local expat community is for your family.
"You take an overseas assignment to grow your skills, expand your network, increase your credibility. If you're working in Malaysia, it's critical that you build relationships with Malaysian buyers and suppliers. These are the relationships that will help you succeed. You can't get an understanding of the country if you're locked behind the iron gates of an expatriate ghetto."
You shouldn't take an overseas assignment until you have enough seniority to make a difference.
The sooner you go, the better.
"Go when you're young, when you can build networks that stay with you for the rest of your life. And when you return, measure success by asking these questions: Have I added skills to my portfolio? Have I built new relationships? Have I increased my credibility within the company? Those are the critical things you need to get out of any foreign assignment."
Coordinates: Christopher Bartlett, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.