How to Work Overseas by Transferring Within a Company

This blog post is dedicated to those of you who imagine the possibility of working in different countries absolutely alluring. And I can totally understand that. There was a time at the beginning of my banking career when I considered signing up for what was called an international manager program, which would allow me to work on different parts of the business and move to a different country every 6-12 months, or upon finishing a project. I decided against it but nevertheless moved to 2 different countries afterward, on my own terms. At least that was what I thought back then, but that is a different story for another time.

It looks absolutely fantastic to have a list of different cities and countries you’ve worked in, on your resume. London, UK – Pittsburgh, USA – Shanghai, China. A high-flying career person definitely wants to be able to boast this on her resume. You’ll be among those rare candidates who have a wide range of experiences, cultural knowledge and are likely capable of speaking several languages.

So how can you make this happen for you? Here are some steps that you can take to become an internationally roaming employee:

1. Start by working for the right company

Work for multinational corporations that have major offices around the world. And by major offices, I mean offices with significant size and operations. Don’t assume that any multinational corporation will want to send their employees around the world on a regular basis. There are smaller corporations that do have overseas offices but are very lightly staffed. Oftentimes these hire locally only since the cost of getting a manager from an office in another country is too big. Do some research in advance and find out which companies are open toward international employee transfers, and have the scale to do so quite easily.

2. Work your way up to a mid-management position first 

I don’t know of any company that would let a fresh graduate transfer internationally after their first year of working. Although this may happen in some rare circumstances, which I will get to in the last step. In general, companies allow international transfers once an employee has reached a mid-management position. On average this would take 3-5 years, but again there are exceptions. Lots of them. Having reached a mid-management position, you will already know enough about the company and will have built strong relationships with the local team. This way, once you are overseas, it will be easy to communicate with you.

3. Gather unique skills and experience

When a company sends you overseas, they have a very specific goal in mind. One goal could be that they want you to help implement a project or best practice in the target country, or transfer a skill to the employees or specific department overseas. Another goal could be that they want you to take part in some specific training, so you will come back more enlightened, and more capable of doing your job locally. In the first case, they will only pick you if you possess very unique skills or have gathered specific experiences that will prove useful at the overseas office or branch. This threshold makes sense. You need to have something valuable to contribute if a company sends you overseas. After all, as an expatriate, you will normally be entitled to a lot of extra benefits, and the company is investing heavily in you.

4. Work on projects that extend beyond your local office

Once you work overseas, the local management team or your home office will only be able to communicate with you via e-mail, phone, IM, and video call. And the very occasional visit back home. They need to feel confident that they will be able to communicate easily with you from a distance. By having successfully worked on projects that involve offices in other cities, regions, or countries, you will have proven yourself capable of working remotely. The local management team will have more confidence in you being able to communicate well and reliably, once you’re out of sight. In addition to this, by working on more high profile projects, you raise your visibility in the company. When the time comes to send someone overseas, you could be the first person on your manager’s mind.

5. Be part of a Management Development program

Called differently in each company, management development or international manager programs all aim to develop potential future leaders of the company. By being part of this program, you are automatically marked as someone to watch out for, because you are regarded as high potential. It is usually part of an international management program to send you overseas to one of the group offices in order to train you or expose you to different areas of the business. And this can happen as early as after the first year of working in the company. This is not always the case for graduate development programs, where there is no automatic route to overseas placement. Being part of any of these programs, however, will make it much easier for you. As the company wants to develop you to become a future senior leader, they will appreciate you taking the initiative to expose yourself to the wider business. Remember though, that the entrance into such programs is usually reserved for fresh graduates or very junior managers.

6. Make your intention known to your boss as well as your skip-level manager.

Your manager may not be aware of your intention to work overseas. Usually, international employee transfers have a long lead time. Pick the right time to have a discussion with your direct manager about this, ideally during a performance review. During a positive performance review, to be exact. This is the right time to voice your career goals for the next years.

State clearly what you want to achieve within a set time frame. 

For example, let your manager know that you would like to have the opportunity to work at a group office in China for one year, within the next 2 years. You have to communicate that you are serious about your career goals. And only after you’ve talked to your manager, you can also drop hints to your skip-level manager the next time you talk to her. Decisions about international transfers are rarely made by one person. Making your intention known to several key people within management will speed up the process.

Only the best, most promising, but also most visible candidates will be sent overseas. So remember that on your path towards your international career, you always need to be on top of your game, meaning that you have to perform above average. This way you don’t give anyone in management a reason to not at least consider your request.

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