Get Away to Get Ahead

Get Away to Get Ahead
Head overseas to boost your career, but be careful where and when you go.

A new survey has found employers consider international experience highly valuable. But the value placed on overseas work varies between industries, with some - such as accounting - even viewing it as a possible disadvantage to climbing the corporate ladder.

In career terms, timing is of essence. While international exposure can benefit career progression, experts from a range of industries advise people to plan carefully to ensure they will be "fully marketable" when returning to Australia.

The global survey, conducted by global recruitment consultancy Robert Walters via a poll across the company's 13 country website, attracted over 6000 respondents and asked respondents how important they felt international work experience was to career development.

Over 75% of the respondents globally said that it was either "essential" (28%) or "extremely useful" (47%). Just 4% of respondents globally felt that it wasn't important at all to have some experience working overseas. Interestingly, there was a great deal of consistency from country to country with just 1% of Singaporean respondents and none at all of the French respondents agreeing that international exposure wasn't important.

But it is not just any international experience employers are looking for. Employees should consider working in markets relevant to their industry. "Timing is [also] very important," says Hays ZMB national manager Rod Ellis. The consensus is that people should gain solid education, training and at least three to five years work experience in Australia before heading off.

If you've timed your move abroad well, it's likely you'll return to receptive employers. "Geoff Morgan once said: 'all good senior managers should have an overseas stint on their CV," says Robert Walters regional director Paul Madgwick.

Brian Russell, managing director of Robert Walters, Australia says: "Competition is tough in many job markets and employers are always looking for that 'something extra.' International experience demonstrates adaptability and a capacity to work cross-culturally, this experience is also seen to develop an employee's knowledge of different processes, systems, legalities and expand communication and negotiation skills. All of which can only serve to enhance a candidate's profile."

Paul says cultural adaptation and change management experience are the two most important skills people gain from working overseas. Exposure to different business processes in large population countries encourages the employee to take a macro, rather than micro, view, he says.

Sally O'Keefe, director of CareerGirl Business Coaching & Consulting, says the value of international experience, "depends on the industry and how a person utilises their time overseas".

"The Australian marketplace was once viewed as inward, small and parochial so in the past any kind of international exposure was advantageous as people would return with a wealth of experience that would help companies back in Australia develop an international focus," Sally says.

"But we are so much more sophisticated in terms of career planning and professional development here now that for the most part many employers are happy for [employees or potential employees] to engage in development here in Australia."

Sally recommends people think carefully about their motivation for heading offshore. "Do you really want to work in New York because it offers a logical career progression or do you just want to live in New York?" Because they are very different things really".

People need to research their industry and be clear about what they will gain from their international experience, Sally says, to avoid making mistakes that could hinder career progress when returning to Australia.

Certain industries, such as hospitality, education, retail, fashion, fast moving consumer goods and in some cases law, place a higher emphasis on international work experience.

"Some parts of the world have a reputation for excellence in certain industries, for example London and New York are highly sought after in the fast-moving consumer goods market," Paul Madgwick says.

In hospitality - an international business about people - there is a lot to be gained by working overseas in terms of foreign language and management skills, Sally says.

Nic Bilenkij, who works for the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai, agrees. In fact, if you want to work for an international hotel company, such as Sheraton or Hilton, you must be prepared to move. "To move forward and reach the top you have to go where you get sent, basically." Nic says it's even better to put your hand up for overseas positions and transfers that will look great on your resume. He encourages establishing a strong network of contacts in the industry.

Teachers are also advised to gain international experience. "Many independent schools would look very favourably upon overseas teaching experience, particularly in developing countries as it indicates a real dedication to teaching," Sally says. This, she says, is vital at a time when many teachers are leaving the profession.

And marketers could benefit from offshore exposure. "I've had clients who have worked for companies like Harrods and Saks; they gain a unique understanding of marketing in different countries and understand that what works in the UK or US doesn't necessarily work here," Sally says.
"[In this case] they become even more articulate when it comes to justifying marketing strategies and offer valuable input to Australian companies."

In the legal world, where you go is vital. New York, London and Tokyo, as international financial centres at the forefront when it comes to quality and volume of work, are cities where lawyers can gain the kind of experience they can't get here says Rod Ellis.

"[Lawyers gain] fantastic experience by going into any of these markets," Rod says. A perusal of partners in most large law firms will reveal a high proportion with experience in these markets, he believes.

But lawyers need to gain a solid track record in Australia before heading off, and establish a "good track record" overseas to really boost their career. "And they can't leave it too late to come back," Rod recommends.

"One of the [attributes] that makes a partner is the ability to generate work and solid contacts - you lose that it you're out of the jurisdiction too long."
The Australian legal market is most receptive to two to four years experience in key international markets, he says.

When it comes to accounting, the story is a little different. Although Paul Madgwick says, "all overseas experience is good", he's not necessarily correct when it comes to public practice number crunching.

Rick Webb, senior associate with Ambrose Recruiting in Queensland, says: "In general mainstream accounting international exposure is not such a value add."

"Knowledge of Australian taxation and compliance issues is sort after in public practice accounting, so international experience is not such a marketable quality," Rick explains. Most accountants who have been overseas for 18 months to two years lose ground when it comes to keeping up with Australian compliance issues, Rick says. And these people will generally find it difficult to return to "bread and butter business services" in Australia.

It's all about planning and timing, otherwise international exposure can actually be a hindrance to career progression, Rick advises. "Those accountants with only limited Australian experience, even if they have worked as an accountant overseas, may find re-entry into Australian public practice very difficult."

The key, Rick says, is forward planning. Accountants need to ensure they have quality education and training and at least a few years of work experience with a reputable firm under their belt before heading off.

Accountant Jonathan Clements agrees. Jonathan has spent the past four years travelling and working overseas but despite having worked as an accountant in London for almost two years, he has now found himself at the same level he was before going away.

"Unless you are fully qualified [as a CPA or Chartered Accountant] and working in a commercial role, when you return to the Australian accounting market you're probably going to be at the same level as when you went away," Jonathan says.

Jonathan admits that his technical knowledge of Australian laws and issues waned while he was offshore. "The work I did OS was relevant, but as far as technical relevancy it's not. Sometimes it comes down to the nitty gritty, and that's the stuff you may not be up-to-date with."

"Heading overseas is definitely not a disadvantage, but in career terms it's not the pot of gold it could be," he says. "It really takes 6-12 months after you return before you're fully back in the game."

If you're working in a commercial role a few years down the track and head overseas to work in management accounting or as an analyst you're probably going to take a big step up when you return, but in pure accounting it's probably better to hang around to move up the ladder," Jonathan says.

"If I was purely career minded I probably would have hung around. With accounting, climbing up the ladder is all about putting the hours, days, years in".
You do gain broader skills that employers see as valuable. Living overseas you gain maturity and a broader outlook, you become more cosmopolitan and that certainly has its benefits, particularly at client functions where you can speak with much more life experience," he explains.

But in the end, Jonathan says life isn't just about your job. "Going overseas is not all about career. It's a horses for courses call. I certainly wouldn't swap my overseas experience for anything.

- Lisa Bjorksten

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