When it's time to come home

Overseas postings can leave you out of touch with changes at head office, warns Joanna Parfitt
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The Independent Online
The chance to spend a few years abroad at the company's expense can seem like a dream come true. With the prospect of no rent or services to pay for, a fat yearly allowance of airline tickets, paid school fees and the chance to save some money, a spell as an expatriate can be tempting.

But if you don't take time to consider the impact your decision will have on your career, then it could turn into a nightmare.

In 1992, Paul Richardson was delighted to be sent to the Middle East by his financial services company, with his wife and their new baby. The opportunity to be general manager seemed too good to be true. He would be able to exercise his talents, implement new strategies and use his ebullient personality to make the company lots of money out of local businesses. Five years later he had achieved just that.

"I was a big fish in a small pond and enjoyed the lifestyle immensely, but it was time to come home," says Richardson. "We now had two children, my wife was keen to pick up her own career and there was nowhere else I could go career-wise and stay out there."

So Richardson came home.

"My achievements abroad count for nothing now," he complains. "I am now a divisional manager and work as part of a team. Being a tiny fish in a huge pond makes me feel really frustrated. My career has regressed.

Before I went abroad I knew that the company had no definite career path programme for overseas staff, but chose to ignore it. Now I'm regretting it big time."

Richardson blames himself. His success abroad had made him arrogant, and he ignored the need to network and research the new job back in England before he came.

"I wish I had been less gullible and more cynical," he says. "Two years down the road I am still unhappy."

Andy Spriggs describes a very different experience. He decided to come back to England in 1997 after spending 10 years abroad with Shell. He had been finding the expatriate existence "shallow". Integration with a local community could be almost impossible and he realised that there was "always a residual background stress".

"Coming back to England was the best thing ever," he says. "Working overseas broadened my perspectives and the fact that I left Shell helped my employability too. Not only had I acquired an enormous amount of technical experience and a superb overview of the industry, but leaving such a top class organisation and moving to Arco Oil has illustrated that I am adaptable and a survivor too."

Anne Isaacs, a director at Executive Action, a career development advisor to senior managers, is adamant that time abroad should be considered carefully and worked into the career development strategy.

"Try to go away for no more than two years, or else you risk losing touch with new developments and your vitally important network of contacts," she says.

"Unless you maintain contact in your home country you will find it difficult to readjust and reintegrate on your return."

"Consider your location carefully," Ms Isaacs continues. "If you spend too long in a place that has totally different working patterns from back home then you could find no market for those new skills when you return. Most European locations are tremendously valuable, however."

People who gain too much experience in one area can find it extremely difficult to move away. Sales and marketing executives become so valuable once they have contacts in certain parts of the world that employers simply want to keep them there.

Ms Isaacs agrees that a good CV makes a huge difference to the success of your job search strategy and that it can be a problem for people who have experienced a mobile lifestyle. Expatriate salary packages do not translate easily into local terms. Foreign companies worked for may be unfamiliar and certain practices irrelevant in the UK.

Executive Action does a lot of work on a client's CV as part of a personalised career strategy.

"Often, when a client has moved around abroad it can be better to focus on his generic skills rather than the locations. In this case we would promote skills on a separate front page," Ms Isaacs explains.

"However, if it is the client's flexibility and mobility within a multinational environment that is his strong point, then the CV would have to alter accordingly."

It is no surprise to learn that expatriates who want to come home for family or career reasons are a growth area for Executive Action.

"Thanks to e-mail and the telephone we are able to conduct successful campaigns without having to meet the individual regularly," Ms Isaacs says.

For more information contact: Executive Action (tel: 0171-299 2900 or e-mail: info@executive-action.co.uk)