Working abroad has huge career benefits

PEOPLE often describe international travel as “eye opening,” but rarely do they say it is good for your career. But research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that people who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity. Better still, it seems that they get promoted faster too – particularly in the field of management consultancy.

Mark Clarke, a senior manager at Accenture, who worked for Procter & Gamble in Geneva for four years in his twenties, says it did his career wonders. “The UK’s high tax, high regulation environment means that the centre of gravity in many businesses is gradually shifting abroad. For employees, this means that if you want to be at the heart of a business’s decision-making you need to relocate.” Simon Kent, the managing director of consulting firm Navigant, had a similar experience: “Working abroad often gets you great exposure to higher level, more complex issues sooner in your career.” He spent just short of three years in Tanzania, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, returning to take his current role and settle down.

It’s not just the greater responsibilities abroad that give ex-pats a competitive edge. As Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, says in the McKinsey Quarterly, business leaders are required to be “frankly, increasingly more global” these days.

And that is certainly the sentiment of Daren Cox, the founder and managing director of Project Brokers, another consultancy firm, who spent time abroad while working for Deutsche Bank. “Having international experience is a huge benefit, especially if you work in a multinational firm or with international businesses. People who haven’t had that sort of experience can sometimes be held back a bit – at least at first.”

There are downsides, however. Clarke warns that staying away for too long can leave you removed from important cultural information at home. “Just think, if you’d been away during the entire X-Factor phenomenon, you would never know that Brits had an appetite for mass phone-in competitions – that’s really important information if you’re involved in marketing.”

You will experience personal difficulties too. “In international business communities, people don’t stick around long. As soon as you’ve made a good friend, they are usually ready to be shipped off elsewhere,” warns Clarke.

But the career boost, Clarke reasons, more than makes up for its drawbacks. Indeed, Cox says he’ll always look twice at a CV that demonstrates some international experience.