How to Make Your International Assignment A Success

Matthew MacLachlan

29 May 2017

An international assignment is viewed as a must-have milestone on the career path of many a professional. Working overseas is not a bed of roses and is fraught with difficulties – not only for the assignee but also for their family and colleagues.

What Makes an International Assignment a Success?

International Assignment

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, the question of what makes a good international assignee was explored.  Far from living in an expat bubble, most “good” expats are defined as understanding how to appreciate their new environment and learn from the new cultural experiences that experience in their new country.

Five Steps to a Successful International Assignment

1. Recognise There is No One Way How Things Ought to Be

  Successful expats learn to adapt their routine to their environment.

Many expats try to adapt their environment to their routine, which often leads to feelings of frustration.  Successful international assignees learn to adapt their routine to their environment.  This may be as simple as understanding how the rhythm of business is different in their new country and starting work earlier or later.

Or it may be even more concrete.  The WSJ article gives a good example of an expat who liked working from home in the evening needing to change this practice when power cuts made evening working impractical.  Instead of looking at the challenge as a frustration, the evenings were used for quality family time that improved their experience in their new country.

2. Seek New Experiences

Expatriates who wallow in their bubble or choose to stay close to home may feed their misery by not even giving their new assignment a chance.  This is especially true for a non-working partner who is unable to obtain a work visa in their own right and may find employment options very limited.

Successful expats find other ways to engage in their new community.  Learning a new skill or becoming immersed in a new hobby, sport or other activity is also a good way to meet new people.  Choosing an activity that is less known in the expat’s home country gives an additional opportunity to learn about a new cultural value.  Expats may also choose to import an activity from their home country that may be of interest to their new friends.

Asking for help and giving help and support are also excellent ways to get to know new people, increasing the pleasure and success of the new assignment.

3. Going Local

Going local accelerates the learning curve of a new culture, turning unfamiliar and sometimes strange experiences into something that is normalised and makes sense from a local perspective

Going one step further beyond the expatriate bubble usually means going local.  This includes everything from trying new food that is typical of local diets to sending children to the local school.  Going local accelerates the learning curve of a new culture, turning unfamiliar and sometimes strange experiences into something that is normalised and makes sense from a local perspective.  It’s also a good way to understand not only behaviours but the underpinning values for these cultural differences.

4. Blog

Writing about your expat experiences is not only a good record of your experience.  Blogging is also good therapy.  Addressing difficulties and challenges on paper can also provide more clarity.  With the right attitude – blogs should not be dedicated to whinging and moaning if they are to remain healthy – these experiences can also help others who may be about to face similar challenges.

5. Don’t Lose Your Sense of Humour

Telling those stories in a blog doesn’t need to become dry, factual, educational tomes.  Telling stories about your experiences in a new culture are often appreciated more when delivered with a sense of humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation as well.  Making everyday challenges seem more human also make them seem less daunting.

The Great Art of Life

The WSJ author references Montaigne’s quotation “The pleasantest things in the world are pleasant thoughts:  and the great art of life is to have as many of them as possible.”  Successful international assignments also incorporate turning those experiences into mosaics in the great art of life as well.

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