What You Need to Know About Working Abroad

Working abroad is something few people have the chance to experience in their careers.  Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work overseas at different companies and in multiple roles.

For those considering a career adventure overseas, the first things they tend to focus on are accommodations, transportation and money. After that, finding solutions related to taxes, healthcare and the big move comes next. The reality is that all of those items are probably the easiest things to manage in the transition from home country to overseas workplace. Many fail to foresee the challenges of working with different people and in different cultures.

For those in the United States and Canada, the differences between the two countries are not a complete culture shock.  However, the broader the adventure, the greater the cultural difference one encounters.  I am often asked what it was like to work abroad. What challenges can one turn into opportunities when working overseas? Forget all the administrative items noted above.  Here are the three major pieces of advice I have for any job seeker considering a career move abroad.

1. Dip Your Toe. Don’t Dive Right In.

Taking time to understand the business culture applies to any new job and certainly more so when it comes to working in new countries. Before you dive into a role, take the time to understand the team dynamics and performance expectations for you to be successful working with your new colleagues.

A good piece of advice is to request a shadowing session before you make a final commitment.  If this isn’t possible, set an expectation with the new company that for the first week or so your goal will be to understand the working dynamics of the local culture. During this period you should watch and listen with a strategy in place to see how your experience and working style can be recalibrated with that of your new environment.

In meetings, listen to how teams interact with each other and try to understand the decision-making process. Explore the following as you delve into the local business culture:

  • Determine the Business Culture by observing how locals prefer to meet and interact. Make notes on whether or not the overall culture is laid back and relaxed or a more rigid and action-item focused.
  • Take Note of Protocol and cultural differences even before you arrive. Some cultures have traditional ways of addressing colleagues by surname or varying gestures for greeting people by handshake or exchanging of formal business cards. Make sure you comply with these cultural distinctions.
  • Observe and Respect Hierarchies within a team, company or community.  Some cultures have very open-door policies where team members can interact equally regardless of title, gender or seniority.  Others are more formal, such as when a business meeting cannot commence until the most senior attendee speaks. Understand these nuances and incorporate them into your behavior, even if they are not aligned with your past business experiences.
  • Understand the Buy-In Expectations of the local culture for decision-making by taking note of what is needed by team members to validate ideas.  If big data in formal presentations is what people bring to the meeting to discuss issues, make sure you deliver. Listen and observe how ideas are brought to the table to get buy-in from the team. Adjust your style accordingly.
  • Continuously Adapt Your Working Style throughout your engagement to be respectful of the local culture and business. If you sense that you may have crossed a line “culturally,” make amends quickly and don’t repeat this behavior again.

The key takeaway here is to respectfully observe and listen and not enforce your style of work into the new environment.  According to John Coleman and Bill George from the Harvard Business Review, it is important to “resist that temptation by observing, listening, learning and understanding rather than judging.” They suggest that you “use your insights to improve local ways of operating but don’t rush to criticize,” which is advice that works domestically and internationally.

2. Park Your Process…But Bring Your Goals & Objectives

Process-driven business models are great, but they don’t work in all cultures. This is a major problem for people moving to new countries where the business lifestyle may be less structured. Before you try to enforce some great process that worked back home, remember to adapt yourself to the local business style and park your processes.

I remember working in Greece a few years ago where many of the meetings involved a three-hour long casual discussion over coffee. The first 30 minutes were primarily geared towards relationship building and determining the degree of trust around the table. It was also highly unstructured. Business was discussed, then it was moved off the table to discuss local politics, and then put back on the table again before a casual discussion arose around soccer.

Walking into such a meeting with a set agenda and a defined process would have been disastrous. What a team meeting in North America would have accomplished in 30 minutes took three hours in Greece. However, the overall goals of the meeting and final outcome were equally successful.  The following week I met with a group from Munich to discuss the very same business proposal and needless to say it was a very different experience.  The meeting took 20 minutes and was more of a question and answer session followed by handshakes and light discussion about the pros and cons of the newly designed Lufthansa lounge at the airport.

The secret is to understand the objectives you want from the meeting and to use these as a checklist, not a road map. If you work with the flow of the local culture while mentally addressing the key topic areas—even if not in any sensible order compared to what you are accustomed to—you will be far more successful.

Park the process but hang onto the meeting goals. Take the time to accommodate the local business culture needs. Don’t park you goals and objectives. Realign them around the local preference for discussing them and getting buy-in or answers.

3. Be Local and Humble

I remember my first project meeting in the Caribbean back in 2001. I had arrived two days earlier, reviewed all the documentation, briefly met the team at a formal cocktail reception and began firing off meeting invites that evening. The first recurring meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. local time, and I had the boardroom reserved. I arrived 10 minutes early, set up the projector, opened the files on my laptop and waited for the invited team members to arrive. I waited 20 minutes.  Then another 25 minutes. Fifty minutes after the original start time, the first team member arrived.

The next morning I entered the project room and made an announcement. The day’s meeting was cancelled, and I wanted the team to take me “liming,” with all expenses covered by me.  We left the offices at 5 p.m. and headed out on an eight-hour tour where we went to one team member’s favorite roti shop, then to a pan yard and off to hear another team member’s band play at a soca club. I learned the difference between tourist beer and real hardworking local-man ale, got plenty of cheers when I confidently downed some scotch-bonnet laced sauces with ease and even learned some great tips for “whining” like a local. One great evening and $100 later, I went to bed to be fresh and ready for our 10 a.m. team meeting the next day. I arrived to that meeting to see that everyone had arrived on time, laptops open and ready to get to work.

The lesson here is that trust and respect in a local business culture are not something you gain simply by the resume you bring with you from overseas. You have to earn it. Many people travel abroad and make the mistake of thinking that they can walk into a new culture and prove themselves with their knowledge. That simply isn’t the case. Showing a true interest in the local culture and people with a desire to learn goes a long way towards how successful you will be with your business objectives and goals abroad. Being humble and becoming “a local” will help you more than any prior business experience you bring to the table.

Lastly, Balance Yourself and Your Family Needs…

One additional and final item to consider is your personal mental health and family well-being. This is equally as important and plays an important role in how you will work with others in your new environment. For those who are embarking on such an adventure for the first time, Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign’s book Living Abroad: What Every Expat Needs to Know is one I definitely recommend reading before you leave.

As a psychologist and expert in expatriate and cross-cultural psychology, she provides a great resource for understanding the various emotional highs and lows you may experience as you transition into your new home abroad. Depending on the length of your assignment, you will need to adapt to the realities of the local culture and understand the pressures on yourself and your family. This book is probably one of the best resources to help you through this.

So before you pack your bags, remember: flexibility and an open and healthy mind are important. Adapt to the local culture while keeping your business sensibilities in check. After all, the outcome is what is important, and the road to get there can be an  adventure. Don’t miss out on the journey.