38 AUGUST 2017
for example, asking, “What’s the best way to get this done?”
or “What do you mean by that?”
International assignments also create opportunities for
personal and professional risk-taking. Expatriates (and
anyone who accompanies them) take a risk that they
might not succeed in and adapt to the new culture. I’ve
observed that many return home earlier than expected due
to homesickness or disappointment with the job assignment
or life abroad.
As an expat, there’s a sense of familiarity, comfort and
support working for the same company (albeit, in a location in
another part of the world). However, for family members, life
in a new place can be even more challenging because they
lack such a support system. A few ways to alleviate culture
• Acknowledging the additional challenge for family
• Leveraging the experience of other expatriates who live
there — for example, asking them for advice on schools or
• Taking advantage of the new location by traveling, enjoying
the cultural arts and learning the language.
Many expats (and their families) do succeed and, in the process,
build adaptation and resilience. They become comfortable with
feeling uncomfortable — a useful trait in a career.
CAREER RISKS AND RETURNS
Foreign assignments come with professional risk.
Expatriates assume they will return to great jobs with more
responsibilities, different duties, more prestige or perhaps a
promotion — otherwise, why would they uproot themselves?
But this may not always be the case. Also, returning to a
previous job — and I don’t recommend it — may be too
easy or dissatisfying after the challenge and intrigue of an
Coming home can be even more difficult than leaving for a
foreign assignment — because the expat has grown and
changed, but those at home may not have. People often
expect returning expats to be the same as when they left,
and thus may be resentful of the changes. Additionally,
expats may find that the way of life at home feels different
than before the assignment, and they may have to readapt.
On the other side of risk is return. In addition to personal
benefits, succeeding in a foreign assignment can be an
enormous career builder. Not only do professionals learn new
technical skills — for example, gaining an understanding of
foreign trade regulations or the global economy — they gain
learning agility and coping skills.
The return on risk is not just in substance. Employees’
global experiences can change how companies perceive
them — which can set them apart from the pack. Foreign
assignments demonstrate an ability to overcome challenges.
Because of this, an organization may reward an expat
employee with a promotion or another foreign assignment.
Many people don’t want to live abroad, and many who want
to simply don’t have the courage. Thus, the numbers are in
favor of those who can stomach a few cultural or language
mishaps. When I came back after my first expat assignment,
I was introduced as “the one who went to Germany.” It wasn’t
until that moment that I realized the assignment made me
different in the eyes of my colleagues.
Here are ground rules to improve the chances of success in
an assignment in a foreign country:
• Start with and keep an open, positive mind-set.
• Accept that there might be a letdown at some point after
• Be prepared to learn. Research, or even training, can aid
in thinking ahead.
• Learn the language to help engage and cross the cultural
• Expect to be challenged — and for things to be different.
If you want the assignment to be just like home, you might
as well stay home.
In today’s world, it’s increasingly easier to maintain
connections to friends and family and access goods and
services while away from home. Nevertheless, if a foreign
assignment were easy, everyone would accept one.
For those who want to expand their skills and their personal
brands by succeeding in new situations, adapting to
new environments and overcoming obstacles, a foreign
assignment may be just the right challenge. ISM
Debbie Fogel-Monnissen is CFO at Institute for Supply Management®.
Prior to joining ISM, she was CFO for MasterCard’s international markets
and spent 11 years on assignments in Germany, Mexico and Belgium.