boosting your career with an overseas stint

When I was younger, I was largely unaware and uninterested in the world outside the US until I won a scholarship to study in Germany when I was 15. I had a terrific experience, both personally and academically, that inspired me to continue my German studies and someday return to live and work in Germany. One of the main reasons I went into accounting was the knowledge that it was a worldwide profession – business travel, international business, and so on made it likely that I would have a shot at going overseas sometime in my work life.

During college I decided that I had studied German long enough and that I would fulfill my language requirements with courses in Japanese. This being the late 80s, Japan’s economy was blazing and knowing Japanese seemed like a good idea. However, when I showed up at the registrar to sign up for Japanese I found that the course was full. The university I went to had a fairly limited selection of languages, including mostly the usual suspects – French, German, Spanish and Italian. However, I noticed they had added a course in Russian, so I signed up for that, instead. I had some history with Russian, so I figured I could do fairly well in this language that was, at the time, a pointless diversion.

In the late 80s there was no real reason to suspect that (a) Russia would ever be particularly open to Westerners or (b) a place that would offer any sort of opportunities to anyone other than academics and writers. That would of course change rapidly but at the time it did not seem particularly likely. So I studied Russian, and my professor – Dr. Don – was a real inspiration and one of the two or three best teachers I’ve ever had. He was young, enthusiastic, friendly and had a real passion for languages and linguistics. I stayed in the class past the minimum requirements and went on to be one of the first two Russian minors in the school’s history.

So approximately five years later, in late 1995, I was approached by a partner in the Big 4 firm I was working in. I had told everyone quite frequently that I wanted to work in Germany, and the partners had told me they would keep an eye out. Of course, Germany didn’t lack for accountants so the idea of me working there had a slim chance of success. However, the partner told me that they had received an unusual request from the Moscow office for short-term assistance for any Americans. The partner knew I had a Russian minor, and asked if I was interested.

Of course I was, so I jumped at the chance. I did a phone interview and was all set to go in February of 1996. I flew to Russia and realized on the taxi ride into Moscow that I didn’t even remember the word for snow (“snyeg” if you’re curious). My Russian was very, very rusty. I had a lot of adventures in Russia, both in my initial four month stint and in my return for a year and a half for a different company, and in further visits and business trips there. I will cover those in future posts.

Today, however, I am going to focus on the five most important outcomes of my work in Russia as it has related to my career since. I think these outcomes are critical if you’re considering working overseas, or want a big-time corporate job. I’m not sure working in England would give you the same cachet as more exotic locations like Russia or Indonesia or China, but it might.

  1. I learned a foreign language really well – not just grammar, but some slang, intonation, and so on. This is only moderately useful if the language in question is Russian, but considering Russia has one of the hottest economies in the world and is used as a lingua franca throughout Central Asia, it is more useful than Italian or German.

  2. I embraced a culture and by doing so, became more open to all cultures. I wasn’t close minded or terribly parochial, but I really learned what it was like to be immersed in a culture fairly alien to one’s own. I can’t say I went native. I lived in an apartment that cost 10 times what the normal Russian could pay. I spent more on a meal and drinks on a date than most Russians would see in a month. I had an Internet connection and a state-of-the-art computer. But I did make friends, and spent time at their homes and talking with them and doing things with them on the weekends that a lot of my colleagues – who uniformly didn’t speak Russian – never did. And that experience made it that much easier for me to relax in the future when I went to other countries around the world (although I never got comfortable with midnight steak dinners in Argentina…)

  3. I learned true independence. If you want to learn how to deal with customer service problems in the US, try standing in line at the Russian phone service center and arguing with a 50 year old grandmother in Russian about your disconnected phone bill. And if that example’s too mild, try going cross-country in a four-wheel drive with two bodyguards to a former prison camp surrounded by radioactive wastelands, then eating lunch with a sobbing drunken bank director choking out patriotic Soviet songs while eating toasted pine cone seeds. If you don’t feel a little bit lost during that experience and a little bit more confident about handling yourself after it’s over.

  4. I gained tremendous work experience. I had to constantly work not only on accounting, but on three different types (US, Russian and international), all while constantly switching back and forth between two languages, managing clients and handling a huge workload. I had been managing a staff of maybe 1 person, auditing $2 million dollars in sales per year companies at home. The next year, in Moscow, I was managing 25 people on an audit of one of the biggest clients of my firm in Russia, with audit fees alone of $2 million.

  5. Finally, and most importantly, I created a massive shining bright spot on my resume that, ten years later, still draws more attention, more conversation and more interest than anything else I’ve ever done. I’ve worked since then in locations from Turkey to Argentina, and nothing compares to the shock and amazement your average corporate worker expresses to me when they found out I worked in Russia. It has gotten my foot in the door at several companies; it has wowed recruiters and it has become an endless source of anecdotes that seem to fascinate people (or it could be just that they are polite but I think I can tell the difference).

If you’re planning on getting a job in the corporate world, you should consider a stint overseas, preferably someplace that isn’t ‘safe’. At every step of my career there have been people competing with me for positions, assignments and promotions. Many went to better schools, had more certifications, had better connections or frankly were smarter or better looking. But I have yet to encounter many who could top the conversational firestorm I can usually unleash by dropping “that reminds me of the time I got arrested by Russian immigration on a business trip in Vladivostok” or “at least no-one is getting assassinated like the general director of my client in Moscow” and so on.

I suppose that despite my appearance, my mild southern accent or my calm outward appearance my willingness to go work in the wild East in the mid-90s, when things were just 30 minutes away from total chaos in Russia, makes me look like a super-confident, devil-be-damned risk taker to some people. It’s not true; I am a pretty conservative guy in most of my actions. However, the appearance is enough to provide an ‘in’, and that’s usually what it’s all about in appearance-conscious corporate America.