Expert tips to start a successful international career

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Are you thinking of migrating overseas for career development opportunities? Or have you been looking out for international experience that could give you a competitive edge?

International experience can work wonders for your career development. Here, with the help of some of our experts, here are some key considerations to keep in mind before you plan your move. 



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 Hong Kong 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 lateral 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 Joanne Chua, Regional Client Development Director – Asia at Robert Walters. “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.”

Ricky Mui, Managing Director of Robert Walters Greater China, 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 how easy it is to get visas and which countries are accepting foreign talent to come in. “Lots of people want to move here, there or everywhere, but without the right visa or passport, it can be very limiting,” advises Joanne. “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, reach out to 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

Visiting London or Tokyo or Sydney for a short time might you a good feel of the place, but 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 field? How frequently do opportunities come up – and how fluid is the market? How much will you have 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, might become obsolete, 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 available,” says Ricky. 

With technical roles, digitisation, IT, digital marketing and ecommerce, the skills are usually very transferrable and perennially in demand, but within areas such as legal, risk and compliance you need to be a little more careful. For example, each local legislation might have their own data privacy laws and at times the regulations can be very specific to a jurisdiction that they might not be cross-applicable to another jurisdiction.   

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 Hong Kong, for example– where lots of slick systems are in place, and all sorts of tasks and responsibilities are delegated – would be very different to, say, helping set up a company’s new office in Manila, where you might 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 something very easy to 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. 

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 Joanne. “That sense of disconnect from home can be unexpectedly impactful, so if you can find a friend or a colleague on the ground who can show you the ropes, it will make a huge difference”.

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 movement there.” People naturally tend to gravitate towards established migrant communities and researching in advance can provide a ready means of support for new arrivals 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. “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. 

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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