how working overseas helps your career

kremlin

When I was younger, I was uninterested in the world outside the US. Things changed when I won a scholarship to study in Germany at the age of 15. I had a terrific experience, both personally and academically, that inspired me to continue my German studies and gave me the motivation to return to live and work in Germany someday . 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 on fire, and knowing Japanese seemed like a good idea. But 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. Despairing that I’d be stuck with a “boring” language, I noticed they had a course in Russian, so I signed up for that. 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 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, but at the time the immediate usefulness of Russian was limited. Despite that, 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, accessible 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 my school’s history.

So approximately five years later, in late 1995, I was approached by a partner in the consulting 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 (still doesn’t), 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! 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 rusty, in the sense that the Titanic is now a bit 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 took away five critical points from my work in Russia. I think these points are useful 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. See if the cons – a remote location, some hardships and an oft-over-exaggerated sense of danger – outweigh these pros.

  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‚Ķ)

  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. I created a massive shining bright spot on my resume that, twelve 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 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.

(this post originally appeared on brip blap, in a slightly different form, in July 2007).

photo by Steve

13 comments

  • Pretty neat stuff. I never worked in a field that lent itself to overseas work but I can see how it could help your career if you land in the right place.

  • I wish I had done it earlier in my career, Steve. As I mentioned offline, Prague was great. And don't give up on it once you have gained the experience that you have. Despite your family responsibilities, there is the need to continue that experience throughout your career.

  • I studied abroad and got a lot of the same benefits out of it as you did. I did not learn a new language which sucks but definitely felt more independent and got a better grasp on the world and other cultures.

  • Nice picture from inside the Kremlin! – Maybe you are more of a risk-taker than you think you are. Or else, you taking risk may be more a matter of taking “calculated risk” rather than being reckless.

  • kenyantykoon

    i have always wanted to work all over the world but for some reason i have never got the opportunity. i have only gone to the neighboring country and i have such a desire to work all over the world(in this i am thinking in the line of expansion of my fledgling business ventures). I am still young and i might just get what i want

  • What an interesting story! Very enjoyable read, and good message to impart.

    One thing you might add is that parents with young children should not be afraid to take their kids along on adventures like these. I was two years old when my father, a merchant mariner, took a harbor pilot's job in Saudi Arabia, & a few days shy of three when my mother and I were allowed to join him. We were there for ten years.

    Though Rub al'khali is not a place I personally would choose to bring up a child, growing up overseas was an enriching experience. I saw a lot of the world before I got to high school, with the result that my perspective on many things is different from most Americans'. And yes, I did get a job offer based on that experience, even though it happened while I was a child.

    • @Funny about Money: you make a good point – it doesn't even matter exactly when you have an overseas experience. The implication that a lot of employers take away from ANY overseas experience is that you'll have (for lack of a better phrase) an open mind. That's something that's hard to teach.

  • Pingback: Weekend reading: Don’t get ill

  • I am truly moved, and jealous, of your courage to work overseas. I began my accounting career at PricewaterhouseCoopers. One of the primary benefits of working for such a large international firm is the opportunity to further your professional experience outside of the United States.

    Many of the partners and senior managers I encountered worked outside of their home country at some point. With that being the case, I couldn't help but think there was something to international experience. I didn't stay with the firm long enough to qualify for an overseas stint. That's fine. There's still time. Besides, I probably would've just ended up working in London for two years.

    • Thanks, Shawanda. You're right that working at a Big 4 firm gives you a LOT of opportunities to work overseas. I don't know if there's anything wrong with working in London, by the way – it's one of my favorite cities in the world, despite being English-speaking and “not very exotic.” It's second only to NYC in my mind for a dizzying amount of cultural attractions and a population drawn from every corner of the globe.

  • I taught English in China during my undergraduate college years and I am very happy that I did so.

  • Really a nice and good post.I agree with your posting,overseas working will be help a lot in career building…..