Seven Tips Before You Take a Job Overseas

How to Go Away and Come Back Without Losing Any Ground

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Paul Gumbinner
Paul Gumbinner

Jobs abroad can be wonderful opportunities. While the advertising economy is similar here and abroad, people employed in the U.S. in many cases have been offered positions abroad as a way of protecting their jobs and employment. But every silver lining has a cloud. As exciting as these opportunities may be, there are pitfalls, especially when it is time to return home.

Over the years, many executives employed by large, multinational agencies have accepted posts overseas, only to find out that when they return, their skills are discounted. I remember one agency executive who went to Japan at the behest of the president of his U.S. office. He was relatively senior and was being sent to repair a poor relationship in an important market. It was positioned to his U.S. client as a promotion. He did a great job and was ultimately promoted in Japan and became director of account management of the Tokyo office.

But upon his return after five successful years, the same president who sent him there told him, "I don't exactly know what you did in Japan, so I can only bring you back at the same level and salary that you were at when you left." The executive was devastated.

It's not an uncommon situation. Nor is it uncommon to come back to the States to find that you are without a job. I once had a human-resources person tell me that she did not understand what an account person in Eastern Europe did. We simply don't have the fluidity or proximity that is common in most other parts of the world, and as a result, the American advertising market is very U.S.-centric.

If you are considering a job abroad, here are a few tips that will help to enable you to go away -- and come back -- with a minimum of angst.

1. Negotiate your return before you accept the assignment.
Believe it or not, this is often easier said than done. But it's very important, because an international move can be very expensive. More than that, you want to be sure that even if you are gone for several years, there is a job for you when you return or, failing that, an agreement on how your severance will be handled. Your best leverage to negotiate this is once the offer to move has been made but before you have accepted. Sometimes a verbal agreement with senior executives is the best you can do.

2. Make sure you have mentors at home and abroad.
Everyone needs a mentor. They are hard to come by. But you need to find and cultivate people both at home and abroad who know you, believe in you and will make sure you are not forgotten because you are away -- and will be sure you are taken care of upon your return.

Paul Gumbinner is president of the Gumbinner Co., New York. Before starting his executive-search firm in 1985, he spent 20 years in advertising, as an account person in categories including package goods, cosmetics, broadcasting, financial services, publishing, retail and fast food.

3. Visit headquarters and your home office frequently.
Almost all foreign postings come with packages that provide for a certain number of flights home each year. Take advantage of those perks and use them to stay in touch with your mentors and management. Make sure they continue to know who you are, what you are doing and the value you bring to the organization.

4. Stay in touch with the powers that be.
While you are abroad, make sure you are in constant communication with your management. That includes the human-resources professionals at your agency, including those in your home market as well as the international people.

5. Make sure you are working on "transferable" business.
This is something easier said than done. Working on the "Outer Slabovia National Bank" will not guarantee that you will be able to get a job back in the U.S. on a major bank account. But work on a major international account is much more easily understood.

6. Stay up to date on the U.S. market.
Make sure you remain conversant with the happenings here. It is important to subscribe to the U.S. trade and marketing journals and, of course, to read the American press.

7. Learn how to communicate your relevance.
The advertising executive I mentioned earlier was, in fact, working on brands that were leaders in America but were struggling to maintain a foothold in Japan. Upon his return, he could not articulate why or how his experience was relevant to accounts here in New York. Especially these days, with the divorce of media from the creative agencies, good skills are very transferable, but you must be able to explain how what you do or did is appropriate for employment back at home.

It is up to you to plan ahead and keep in touch. The old adage "Out sight, out of mind" truly applies to employees posted internationally. But you can and should minimize that risk.

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