making overseas experience count

Erevan city street

(A reposting of what is – in my opinion, at least – an interesting post from 2007, including the original comments)

A reader asked me an interesting question a while back:  “I lived for 2 years in northern Peru as a missionary. Although this wasn’t with a corporation, I still gained tremendous experience and now speak Spanish fluently. How can I make this overseas experience look valuable to future employers?” As I mentioned once in 8 steps to a six-figure career, I think an ‘weird’ assignment like an overseas posting for your company is a great career move. However, just because you spent time overseas in a non-business role doesn’t mean you have to gloss over it on your resume. These can still be powerful resume-boosters if you present them in the right way.

  1. First of all, don’t sell YOURSELF short. Many people in the business world will be convinced that analyzing a spreadsheet is “better business experience” than leading a team of people building a house. They are wrong. When you come across people like this, don’t let them discourage you. Managing a team is managing a team. Analyzing problems and developing solutions are the same skills whether you’re talking about building a house OR building a brand.
  2. Keep “on message”. If your missionary work involved building homes for poor people or organizing a new congregation or similar types of projects, make sure you sell the activity, not the description. What does that mean? Say “organized and led a team of 18 in repairing structural damage to an 1800 square foot building” instead of “helped rebuild a church.” Stay specific. Even people who are IN business make this mistake: telling someone you “participated in a project to reengineer a corporate reporting process” is not as impressive as saying “saved the company $2.3 million per year by making 13 reports paperless.” Participating in big projects may sound grand, but leading a small project with definite, measurable results is far more impressive.
  3. Write it down. Related to the point above, write down everything you did while you were overseas. Try to write a bullet point list, and keep descriptions down to one or two lines per activity. Imagine you are writing instructions to your successor: relay basic information and bare details. Don’t add any extra information. This list is important because it allows you to focus on what looks impressive on paper. Your first, best and often only chance to impress is in a resume; don’t assume that the stories you can tell in an interview will translate well to paper.
  4. Use the experience to show you are independent and a risk-taker. In the reader’s example, northern Peru missionary work is something most people would be afraid to do. Go ahead and play up the independent/risky aspect of it. They don’t need to hear about how the trip had been undertaken by 15 missionaries before you – they need to hear how you spent 3 days in a small village with no phones and nobody who spoke English. Emphasize how risk affected your work.
  5. Language skills, especially Spanish, are staggeringly important – in the right company. They can be pointless in the wrong company. Spanish is often incredibly useful, but I worked with one company that had a minimal presence in the Latin American market and didn’t really care about having Spanish language skills. Identify companies that need Spanish speakers. If the company doesn’t need Spanish speakers, one of your key selling points is worthless, and you should really consider whether it’s worth pursuing work with that company.
  6. Be careful claiming fluency. If you are fluent in a language, say you are fluent. Offer casually to conduct interviews in Spanish or English – hiring managers will be impressed. However, there is a BIG caveat. I can’t tell you how many times I have tripped up people with this question in an interview: if you claim you are fluent in a language, tell me how to say “balance sheet”. Make sure you brush up on common terms. If you’re going to interview with a publishing company, make sure you know how to say “publishing industry” or “royalties.” Don’t assume fluency means native speaker. When I was working in Russia I knew how to say “limited stock share equity” in Russian, but didn’t know the word for “pillow.” The context for fluency can be tricky!

It’s not impossible whatsoever to translate non-business experiences into selling points, but it does require thinking in a different way than you may be used to. Finding a job also requires identifying good opportunities and being realistic. If you think that missionary work is a good first step to being an Oracle database administrator, you’re probably wrong. If you think that management, risk-taking and teamwork are skills that are universally needed, you’re right!