By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I am an engineer by training, currently running a big chunk of North American manufacturing for a global Fortune 500 company. Recently, the head of my division has been sounding me out about moving either to Spain, to tackle some productivity issues at a couple of plants we have there, or else to one of several Latin American countries where we are starting up new ventures. (I assume that these particular options are on the table because I’m of Hispanic extraction and already speak fluent Spanish.)
I’m having trouble deciding whether to jump at either of these offers, and if so, which one. Moving overseas for a year or two would certainly be challenging and interesting. But friends of mine, who took similar assignments and later regretted doing so, warn me that I’d be “out of sight, out of mind” back at headquarters and that this would ultimately trip up my career. What do you think? — Not Packing Yet
Dear Not Packing: No question about it, this is a complicated decision, and one that more and more managers are facing. The number of employees sent abroad rose last year for the first time since 2006, says a study from Brookfield Global Relocation Services called the Global Relocation Trends 2011 Survey Report . According to the study, a record-setting 61% of companies around the world expect to ship more managers to foreign shores in 2011.
Those globetrotting managers may have an edge over their stay-at-home peers. International experience is “more frequently becoming a prerequisite” for top-level executive jobs, notes Mansour Javidan, dean of research at international business school Thunderbird’s Global Mindset Institute.
Recent studies suggest he’s right. Executive development consultants Healthy Companies International, whose clients include Intel (INTC), Northrop Grumman (NOC), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and Boeing (BA), examined the career paths of C-level managers at Fortune 100 companies and found that more than 7 out of 10 have held management jobs in foreign climes. That’s up from fewer than 5 in 10 a decade ago.
“In many big companies now, you need at least one substantial international assignment if you want to climb the executive ladder,” says Bruce Raines, CEO of New York City executive search firm Raines International.
Before you start packing, however, consider a couple of important caveats. First, not everyone is cut out to thrive in an unfamiliar place. The Global Mindset Institute has identified three main traits that successful expats share (and a quiz that companies can use to determine whether overseas candidates have them).
The three predictors of effectiveness in a foreign assignment: Solid knowledge of the workings of international business and a capacity to quickly absorb information; openness to different cultures and a knack for adapting to new customs and mores; and “social capital,” defined as the ability to bring people together, create alliances, and influence others who are culturally or politically different.
Without all three of these skills, says Mansour Javidan, “people come home before their contracted time, or they don’t achieve their goals. Business is lost, and professional and personal relationships can be damaged.” So can a manager’s career.
Before you accept an overseas gig, make an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses in those three areas, and don’t hesitate to ask HR if training is available to help you prepare for your new role. At most big global companies these days, it is.
The fact that you already speak Spanish should give you a big leg up. “All managers who take an overseas assignment must learn the language and study the culture,” says Bruce Raines. “I can’t stress that enough, and Americans in general tend to be slower off the mark in this regard than managers from other countries.”
As for your fear that you’ll be “out of sight, out of mind” at headquarters, Raines says you needn’t worry too much: “Before the Internet, people sent overseas were isolated. Now, with Skype, videoconferencing, and all the other technology that’s available, you’re never really out of touch.”
That’s not to say that going abroad poses no risks to your career. You say that your division head has mentioned sending you abroad for “a year or two.” Raines says one hazard he has often seen arises when that year or two turns into five or six.
“This happens a lot,” he says. “By the time you do get back, after a long stint abroad, the organization has changed so that there’s no comparable job for you. So you either take a step down or leave the company.” Gulp.
To be on the safe side, Raines urges you not to take an overseas assignment “unless it is one that will help your career even if you end up leaving your current employer.”
Raines recommends that you try to gain direct responsibility for the company’s bottom line in as large a region as possible because you can transfer those skills to other companies.
Choosing whether to go to Spain or to Latin America, Raines adds, largely depends on your feelings about risk.
“If you’re very entrepreneurial, emerging markets — including Brazil, the rest of South America, Viet Nam, Moscow, China — are the frontier. You can build a huge reputation as a sharpshooter and move up quickly.”
If you’re more conservative and risk-averse, on the other hand, “you may do better in Europe or another established market, where there are already established procedures and a track record.”
One more thing: If you do decide to make the leap, check out Expat Info Desk, a site run by seasoned expatriate George Eves that offers a wealth of wisdom on everything from relocating your pets to hammering out a workable expat employment contract.
Vaya con Dios!
Talkback: If you’ve worked overseas, or have relocated employees to foreign countries, what advice would you give anyone considering an international assignment? Leave a comment below.
More from Fortune:
Working overseas can be a wonderful experience. You might be looking at an overseas job or expatriate assignment with your current employer or you could have found a job on your own. Either way, don't embark upon an overseas employment opportunity without resolving issues related to the type of assignment or employment, your compensation and adapting to a new culture.
Whether you're accepting an overseas job as an expatriate assignment with your current employer or you're contemplating accepting a job with an overseas employer, you need to know how long you'll be there. You decision may depend on the length of time you're going to spend in a foreign country. For example, if you're going to accept a job overseas for the summer months, you might be able to sublet your residence for a short period. However, if you accept a two-year expatriate assignment, consider a longer-term solution to what you'll do with your home while you're out of the country.
Many organizations with overseas locations provide additional compensation to employees who accept expatriate assignments. The money helps you adjust to a new country, which includes settling into a new home, learning a new language, navigating your way through the region and finding suitable schools for your children. They will also pay for your relocation expenses, as well as travel expenses for you and possibly money for house-hunting trips. You'll need to know what amount of compensation you're entitled to in addition to your salary. If you're accepting a job overseas, you need to know your salary, the cost of living and whether the salary you're offered is enough to maintain your standard of living. Also, you need to be aware of your tax liability for income earned in the U.S. vs. overseas.
Before you earn a dime in the host country, you'll need authorization to work overseas. If you've found employment with an overseas company, you must determine whether your prospective employer will assist you in obtaining a work visa. During the process of learning how to obtain a visa, you should also verify that your job opportunity is a legitimate one. If your spouse or partner intends to work, you also need to know if a spousal visa is permitted or available. U.S. employers that send employees on expatriate assignments assume responsibility for their employees' visas and work authorizations, as well as spousal visas, depending on the host country's labor regulations.
Having an illness in a country far away from home can be scary if you're not familiar with the availability of medical treatment and health care in your host country. Sort out any health insurance issues -- check the limitations of your current medical coverage or consider purchasing health insurance specifically for foreign travel and long-term overseas stays. Ensure you are fully covered or that you can access health care while living abroad.
Moving to a new country requires assimilation into a new culture, which can be difficult for some employees, based on the length of the assignment and perhaps the reason for the overseas assignment. Even if your employer pays living expenses and offers additional compensation to make the adjustment easier, you still need to know if your company provides a support system once you accept the overseas job. If you've found overseas employment on your own, you may be left to your own devices to transition into a new culture without much assistance from your new employer.
Returning to the U.S. after a lengthy stay abroad requires repatriation, the process of assimilating back into your home culture. Depending on the extent to which you embraced your host country's culture, repatriation could take time and assistance from your employer, family and friends. Repatriation completes the cycle of expatriation, which is important to the overall experience of working and living abroad.
About the Author
Ruth Mayhew began writing in 1985. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry" and "Human Resources Managers Appraisal Schemes." Mayhew earned senior professional human resources certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute and holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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