UPTOWN Professional Nov 18, 2011

Going Places Takes You Places

Consider an international assignment to bolster your career—and change your professional life.

By Billy Dexter
Billy DexterI spent a year in Malaysia on an international project for Motorola prior to my current position as a partner at Heidrick & Struggles. The time in Malaysia was my most rewarding professional and personal experience in a corporate career that spans 25 years.

Today, as a consultant to Fortune 1000 companies on selecting executive talent, I am constantly on the lookout for candidates with similar international positions. Fortunately, a growing number of executives are adding international assignments to their list of accomplishments. The result: more culturally aware senior staff and consultants who possess a global view of business. Many have benefi ted from the expected advantages of travel, while also enhancing their networks and developing a higher profile at work as a result of having this experience on their resume.

Since cross-geographical business operations are commonplace today, a candidate with a better understanding of global markets is given more consideration for executive-level positions. Take the experience of Orlando Ashford, currently senior VP and chief human resources and communications offi cer for Marsh & McLennan. He spent two years in Istanbul as Coca Cola’s HR group director for Eurasia and Africa (responsible for over 90 countries).

“That time gave me the insight to become a truly global senior executive,” said Ashford. “Shortly after I began my assignment in Istanbul, I started receiving inquiries about [Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] positions. Clearly that experience enabled me to secure the C-suite role I have today. Today I lead an organization that does business in over 100 countries. I am a better global leader because I have faced many of those challenges on the ground.”

Senior managers are usually chosen for international assignments because they posses knowledge and skills that foreign nationals often don’t have. On the flip side, many companies don’t provide training for an international assignment because they believe if you are effective in New York, you will be effective in Hong Kong. That means expatriates must be able to complete their assignments with little or no help from above or below on the organizational hierarchy. They must also have the temperament to work in different cultures without losing sight of the business strategy.

Is a foreign assignment for you? Thomas Harvey, SVP of government solutions for AT&T, speaks from experience (he spent a year in Poland when he worked for SBC) and he says it is critical to ask yourself these questions when considering one: Do you easily become frustrated by things that are not done your way? Do you work well with people of other cultures? Will the international assignment have a positive effect on your career? Are your spouse and family supportive of your decision to pursue an international assignment?

“The experience enhanced my profile internally and was very instrumental in me being selected as a corporate officer at AT&T,” Harvey says about his year abroad.

Harvey is far from the only person to hit the radar of many companies while he was working abroad. Which is why I encourage most executives to pursue an international assignment—it could be essential to getting the key to the C-suite.