10 tips for starting a successful international career

Man on City Street

Considering a move overseas to develop your career? Here’s what you need to know… 

International experience can work wonders for your career development. Here, with the help of some of our experts, we look at some of the key things to think about if you’re planning a move overseas… 

Be clear about why you want to work overseas

A key question to ask yourself is: Is it about my career or about the lifestyle? If you like the idea of working by day and hitting the beach straight from the office, then a move from New Zealand to Sydney could be right for you. But such a move may be less dramatic in terms of your career development, as you’re likely to be making a sideways move.

Keep an open mind about your choice of location

If you’re primarily interested in international experience as a way of accelerating your career trajectory, it pays to look beyond the obvious locations. “If you go for somewhere that’s very well established, you’re likely to have lots of competitors, and it’s harder to see results,” says Singapore-based Joanne Chua, Robert Walters’ client development director for Southeast Asia and Greater China. “So be adventurous and consider tapping into emerging markets like Thailand, Vietnam or the Philippines. On this new frontier, the market is not as mature but there’s less competition and plenty of opportunities – not to mention fascinating local culture and heritage.”

Louise Campbell, managing director of Robert Walters Ireland, agrees. “In an emerging market, you may be part of a smaller, newer team – perhaps even helping get an operation off the ground – and you’ll have much higher profile, greater levels of responsibility and will develop experience and expertise much more quickly.”

“A lot of people are swayed by glamorous locations with reputations for their vibrant lifestyle such as Tokyo, Singapore or London, but in places like these, you’re likely to be a smaller fish in a big pond, and if you’re ambitious, a dynamic city lifestyle won’t be enough in the long run. Look at territories where you have the potential to advance.”

Start with the constraints

Depending on where you reside currently, your options for moving overseas may be limited by your passport and visa options. “Lots of people want to move here, there or everywhere, but without the right visa or passport, it can be very limiting,” advises Helen Swithenbank. “So, start by thinking, What passports do I hold and where could I actually go? How easy would it be for me to secure the paperwork I need for my dream move?’ Once you know your constraints, you can start to plan and research more realistically.”

Consult with your employer

If you’re considering applying for an internal move within a global company, make use of your HR or talent development team. Sit with them and ask for their advice about how suitable an international move might be for you, and what sort of progression you could expect within the organisation as a result. 

Do your research

So you might have been on holiday in London or Hong King or Sydney, but while this will give you a good feel for the place, there’s a lot more information you’ll need to make an informed decision about your move overseas. What’s the job market really like in your space? How frequently do opportunities come up – and how mobile is the market? How much will you need to make to cover rent and essentials like food and public transport? How many hours a week are you likely to be working? A good recruiter can advise you on all such points, and if they’re a global consultancy they can be working for you both before you leave and after you land. 

Think transferrable skills

If your plan is to go and work abroad for a few years but then come back to your home country, make sure that you’re not applying for roles with skills that are too niche, could become obsolescent, or simply won’t be much sought-after back home. “Make sure you don’t have a role that is so locally specialised that there’s no equivalent when you move back, and you end up having to take a backward step because there’s no equivalent job for you back home,” says Louise Campbell. 

With technical roles, digitisation, IT, digital marketing and ecommerce, the skills are usually very transferrable and perennially in demand, she advises, but within areas such as legal, risk and compliance you need to take care. Some local legislation, for example around data privacy, will have its counterpart in any territory; but some legislation and regulation is so specific to one jurisdiction that it doesn’t really translate to another.    

Don’t expect like for like – but keep your eye on the prize

 It’s not just your destination that could change radically when you make an international move, but the nature of your work too. Being a manager that’s part of a well-oiled, 40-strong team in an established market like Frankfurt, for example– where lots of slick systems are in place, and all sorts of tasks and responsibilities are delegated – is very different to helping set up your company’s new office in Manila, say, where you have a skeleton staff and you’re building things up from the ground. 

In such a situation you’ll need to be able to wear many hats, act on your own initiative, and get your hands dirty. It’s a tough challenge, and not one that everyone could pull off. But if you can report on delivering a positive outcome – for example, ‘I hit the company target of turning a start-up team into a fully operational unit in 12 months’ – you will have gained exceptional experience and significantly boosted your attractiveness to hirers, both internally and externally. 

Don’t get too stuck on a specific job title when looking for an overseas career move

Find a friend to show you the ropes

“What people often don’t factor in is how much they will miss their friends and family and how hard it can be to get yourself settled into a new culture and country where you don’t really know anyone,” says Helen Swithenbank. “That sense of disconnect from what means home to you can be unexpectedly powerful, so if you can find a friend of a friend or a colleague on the ground who can show you the ropes, it makes a huge difference – just practical things like where to shop or how to get a good mobile deal.”

This is especially so if you’re thinking of making a permanent move, she adds: “Think in advance how you can build up and grow those relationships – even knowing just one person can make a massive difference to your landing.” Nationalities naturally gravitate to established migrant communities, and researching these can provide a ready means of support for new arrivals too. 

Make sure your loved ones are on board

Candidates often look for international experience when they’re younger and less settled in life, and there’s a good reason for that. Moving overseas is a big upheaval, and if you have a spouse and children there are a lot more factors to consider. But every candidate will need to factor in the effect of their move on their loved ones, and make sure that they are fully on board with your plans. It’s also worth thinking about how best to keep in regular touch with the people you’ll miss most too. 

Be prepared to take one step back to move two forward 

Don’t get too stuck on a specific job title when looking for an overseas career move, advises Joanne Chua. “If you’re making a serious move and you’re looking at the bigger picture, don’t get stuck on trying to find exactly the equivalent role. There are lots of unknowns when you relocate, and companies want to minimise the risk of failure for you, so they may advise you to start one rung lower to give you the best chance of success.” Approached in the right way, embracing such a move can reap dividends: “I’ve seen many cases where a candidate has taken what looks on paper like a small demotion, but seen that as an opportunity to expand their horizons and really get their head around a job – before rapidly advancing to a position beyond their original one,” she says. 

Helen Swithenbank agrees. “Sometimes, you may need to make a lateral or even a small backward move to prove yourself in a new market – especially if, say you’re moving from managing a team of 50 to a team of 15. But in the long run this can be a good thing, what with the new culture and environment to get your head around – especially if you intend to stay for the long term and really establish and develop yourself.”  

In addition to the career boosting benefits, working overseas also gives you a fantastic opportunity to develop a true local experience. So, look beyond your colleagues and expat community for ways to build your connections more broadly, learn the local language and be open to trying something new - you never know what you might discover or where these new experiences and connections might lead you later on.

 

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