Seven Secrets To Success As An Expat Executive

Six years after university graduation, I was moved to London, Paris, Tokyo and Beijing for work for a global corporation. In each city I took on new roles. Here how’s I made the most of the expat executive expat opportunity.

In this day and age, business travel for a few days and weeks, or even a few months, is quite common. Being an expatriate for a few years in another country? Not So much. And the percentage of business women expats is even smaller. According to a recent survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services, only 18% of international assignees are female. Given this minority, how can anyone, and especially women, succeed as international executives for a few years in a country we have never been to, and possibly not speak the local language?

Six years after university graduation, I was moved to London, Paris, Tokyo and Beijing for work for a global corporation. In each city I took on the role as a manager, though in different departments. Here, seven lessons I learned over the years on making the most of the opportunity.

1. Work hard(er) on your own
My job in Paris involved meeting clients and building a client base from scratch. My French was rudimentary. Around 3 pm daily my head would tense up because I was concentrating so hard on understanding what was going on around me. Forget trying to react.

I was unable to do my job simply because I could not express myself. I cried at home. But I sponged up the embarrassment and asked my colleagues to teach me to say certain things, wrote them down, memorized them and regurgitated the phrases in similar situations. The company subsidized French classes and I took five to six hours a week, either during lunch or after business hours. At home, I watched French news and tried to assimilate the language. I read three newspapers every night. Within three months, I was speaking to clients with ease, and by six months I was debating with my colleagues in French. I even started dreaming in French.

It’s hard. Work harder.

2. Respect local culture
Many expatriate executives make the mistake of arrogance: they land in the new city, new office, with new colleagues, and brutally want to show them how “it’s supposed to be done.” They mock the local culture for inefficiencies and are determined to change it within the two years they are posted there. Most of them leave defeated, and brand the local host country as “hopeless.” I acknowledge that sometimes, executives are sent from headquarters to a country to expand the business, instill the corporate culture, or to improve operations. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s how it’s done that makes all the difference. 

In preparation for Tokyo, I must have read some 30 websites on business etiquette and culture there. I was nervous. On one hand I would like to assert myself as the leader, especially being a female and relatively young in this culture that prefers male and seniority. On the other, I wanted my new team to feel respected. I took my time to get to know them. From Day 1, I took a genuine interest in them as a person and not merely as robots carrying out my orders. I asked them about themselves, their families, their goals, and their frustrations at work. Gradually, they felt at ease with me and instilling changes wasn’t so difficult. In fact, they came and asked me what changes I would like them to make.

If you respect them, they will respect you, and come to trust you. Any changes you need to implement afterwards become natural. Your authority is implicitly recognized.

3. Thrive as the minority
You will probably be the minority of female expatriates in your company. I will not debate whether the glass ceiling exists (I think it does). Despite the perceived obstacles, use your female intuition to serve you as an effective and trusted manager overseas. Carry out your duties over and beyond your targets. I actually found being the only female in the meeting room quite an asset. I stood out, and when I spoke, I stood out even more – and they listened. My different perspective soothed tensions during heated discussions. Limelight was on me. I did well, and it got noticed. I moved up the ranks.

When you shine in the minority, you shine brighter.

4. Rely on other expats​​​​​​​
You will be frustrated. It could be the multiple three hour meetings because that’s just what the local staff did, or it could be taxi drivers skirting on the pavements nearly running you over. Things will not go the way you envisioned to be, and there will be times you lament, “It’s not like this back home in XX, why can’t they just be (whatever you’d like them to be)!”

This is where other expatriates come in handy. I agree with that you need to meet as many local friends as possible in the new country in order to get the most out of the experience. Nevertheless, I also advocate that you have a comfortable cushion in the expatriate bubble. You need people who can understand your frustrations, and that means you need people with similar experience to talk to.

Other expats can keep you sane.

5. Find a mentor​​​​​​​
A mentor is crucial whether you are posted overseas or not. When you are going overseas, reach into your network to find those who can give you suggestions specifically about working overseas, or better still, in the country you are moving to. I was fortunate to find those who have worked in the same country as I was going to, and even for the same company to get a low-down on what to expect.

It doesn’t matter who they are, as long as you can learn from them.

6. Have a life
You have ambitious targets to meet. I did too. But the first few months I was there, I forced myself to leave the office at 6 pm everyday so I can join a gym, meet people, go to club activities, and create a social circle. Friends are important to keep the balance, and to avoid feeling lonely in this new city. Usually people are the most welcoming when you first arrive, so make use of that window to find these friends. Work can wait a little. In fact, when your personal life is going well, work life usually flourishes because you don’t spend office hours pitying yourself for not having any friends.

Don’t bury yourself with late nights at work, you will have many of those, so make finding friends a priority.

7. Know your limits
All the glamour and experience associated with being an expatriate executive is not without sacrifice. With every upside there are hidden costs too. Uprooting myself every two years or so took a toll on me. When I was 23 I thought I was invincible. I thought I could do it, and wanted to do it better and faster than everyone else. I did not manage the stress properly. In fact, I told myself I wasn’t even stressed out but thriving on the challenges. I ignored the frequent colds and stomach aches. I didn’t think packing my home into a container just when I settle down was too much. Consequently, I burnt out towards the end. I plunged into depression and had to take time out from work.

​​​​​​​We all have different limits. Know where yours lies. At some point, you might have to take a break to reset. It’s okay.

Source: Forbes
By: Noch Noch Li

http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2012/03/12/seven-secrets-to-success-as-an-expat-executive/3/#2e20071f3733​​​​​​​

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