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The Expat’s Survival Guide: Part 1

How to Transition Abroad From Expatriate to Compatriot

Expatriate life: Enjoying a park in Milan, Italy
Transforming your life as an expatriate. Enjoying a park in new home in Milan.

You made the cut, passed all the interviews and landed the expat assignment of your dreams. Your bags are packed and everywhere you turn you hear, “Do you know how many people would die for that job?”

You are probably considered a guru in your field. Your skill set is just what that foreign entity needs to compete in a global market. 

You have arrived; so now what? On your first day reality sinks in. Is this what you signed up for? Now instead of words of praise, your new colleagues ask, “why did you leave America to come here?”

More often than not, I hear about the challenges professionals encounter in pursuit of an overseas assignment. Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to downplay the uphill battle of landing one of these sought-after positions, especially given the current work environment — limited opportunities, protected job markets, and an increase in the number of foreign nationals receiving advanced degrees and work experience outside their home country   — makes obtaining an expat assignment even more difficult. Why recruit overseas when you can hire local talent who undoubtedly understand local and regional markets better than you do?

I am one of those fortunate few. After a 4-month business school internship, I was re-connected, some three years later, with the company that I interned for in Milan. This was not some fluke, but a goal that I worked toward throughout my career. Though the challenge of obtaining an overseas assignment is worthy of an article in itself, I wish to share my experience and pass along some advice for once you set foot on foreign soil.

So, you think the toughest obstacles are behind you. Think again. Soon after the jetlag settles, you will encounter a whole new set of challenges including legal, cultural, social, and, in some cases, language barriers. Below are some helpful suggestions to ease you into your new environment, and make the experience something worthwhile.

  1. Cut through the red tape. Surviving the bureaucracy can be one of the toughest obstacles, testing emotional and physical limits. Your hiring company should address issues such as foreign work quotas, visas, permits to stay, social-security-number equivalents, the currency of your salary, taxes, housing and relocation assistance, health and other benefits, etc. before the job offer is made. Make sure you understand the who, what, where, and when of the above. Even when these issues are spelled out, be prepared for some hiccups along the way. After I learned that I made it into the quota for foreign employees, I returned home for what I thought would be no more than two weeks time in order to obtain a work visa. In the end, it took two months and several visits to my local consulate. At times, I thought that my overseas assignment would end in the waiting room of my local consulate. Even simple tasks of obtaining a driver’s license or opening a checking account can cause headaches. 

    Survival tip: Before accepting the assignment, do your homework. Have a list of questions prepared for your employer. No question is a stupid question. For example, my first paycheck was delayed because I was unable to open a bank account when I first arrived. I needed a permit to stay, a routine document for foreigners working and studying in Italy. However, my scheduled visit to the local government office that handles this procedure was well after my first official payday. Consult other expats, alumni, colleagues, and family members living in the country where you will be working. Also, consult Transitions Abroad's highlighted expatriate websites. Be prepared to spend some time on due diligence, since every country is different. Don’t expect one resource to have all the answers. And above all, be patient.
  1. Observe first then earn the trust of your colleagues. You may be a financial wiz, the best change management consultant or the sharpest marketing professional around. However, if you don’t understand the internal rules or politics, all your know-how and previous success stories will be irrelevant. Here’s where your “soft” management skills will come in handy. Before you charge ahead, assess the cultural norms of your new workplace. This means keeping an open mind. What may have been the best means of achieving success in the past may not apply in your new work environment.  Your first objective is to learn how to navigate your new office terrain. I can not tell you how important this point is. It can take what seems like a lifetime to repair a relationship and regain the trust of a colleague when you fail to recognize the flow of power and question a co-worker in front of others even when done in a professional manner. Needless to say, you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth.  The next time there is an issue that you feel strongly about, you will undoubtedly, think first and take a new approach such as to bring up your concerns in a one-on-one environment.

    Ask yourself the following. Does the local culture permit you to question colleagues or senior management in a group environment? Is your boss hands-off or a micromanager? Are your colleagues/superiors competent from a functional and an industry perspective? Have you joined the ranks of a highly masculine environment? For females, this will change how you approach the workplace and colleagues. Once you get a grip on the office environment, the next step is to adjust your work style. Now that you understand the do’s and don’ts of your new office, you can set a plan in motion to earn the trust of co-workers and superiors. This will be no easy task. From day one, there will be those who will be suspicious of your motives. In this scenario, you must show how you add value to the firm without looking for the high-five or praise of how great you are. This may mean sharing or even passing off credit to a colleague or superior to show that you truly want to be part of the team. However, be wary of those who see you as a free meal ticket.

    Survival tip: If you don’t know the business culture of your new country in which you accepted your expat assignment, find out. How do you ask? Conduct first-hand and second-hand research. What does this mean? You must talk to former and current employees and better yet, from the expat community. Also, see what you can glean from the company’s website and press coverage. For example, if you read more than once that the company is late on a product launch; conduct your own market intelligence. You might find out that the problem lies in limited resources or an extremely bureaucratic system. 

    A good place to start is with the work of Geert Hofstede. Professor Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values affect workplace cultures. His research is based on the analysis of IBM employees from more than 70 countries. Hofstede uses six cultural dimensions to compare workplace behavior. Using Hofstede’s model one can compare the cultural norms of two different countries.  For example, if we compare the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) for Italy and the United States, you can see that Italy has a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace. Thus, if you are moving from the United States to Italy, the environment will be rule-intensive and more bureaucratic. A comparison between Italy and the United States serves to illustrate the idea. 
  1. Form a network outside of the office. I cannot stress how important this is. Even when you really enjoy your colleagues and workplace, external outlets are a must. These outlets can come in the form of professional associations, alumni clubs, leisure activities, or volunteering; anything that can help you develop a social network.

    Survival tip: before you leave for your assignment put together a list of groups and contacts such as Americans, Republicans/Democrats and US Chamber of Commerce: International Affairs. In addition, look for local or regional social/professional networking groups. For example, in Milan, the Professional Women’s Association (PWA) fosters personal and professional development through monthly after-work events. Establishing a well-rounded network including friends from the local and expat community will give you the balance that you need. Your local network will provide the insight that only native-born citizens can, while your expat network can offer a shoulder for support and advice for challenging issues that only foreigners experience.
  1. Don’t fall into cultural traps. Stay away from comparing your new host country or office to that of your last one. While it is natural to refer back to what you know best; the person who regularly starts or ends a conversation with the following statements, “this is how we used to do it in my last job” or “where I’m from this is how we do it,” will be labeled not only a constant complainer but also someone who can’t adapt.

    Survival tip: if you catch yourself going down this path, make a note to stop yourself. Easier said than done. However, before you dig a hole too deep, try to approach your work from the perspective of the local culture. What might have seemed logical in the past could well be illogical in your new work environment. You might need a new means to achieve your desired end result. This could mean getting support and buy-in from other sources outside of the obvious chain of command. An offline conversation, lunch or even a coffee with influential co-workers/superiors might be necessary to get a project up and running. In the end, the last thing you want is to be seen as is unhappy and unable to grasp the point that you are no longer at home. Furthermore, stamping your feet because you cannot do things your way is likely to drive a wedge between you and your colleagues. Remember, your current situation will be different from your last one and must be treated as such. Of course, you can apply your skills and past experiences to your current role but how you choose to implement your ideas will greatly impact the likelihood of your success.
  1. Speak the same language. Do your best to learn the language and the local culture. You will quickly find out, as I did, that business communications (verbal and written) will be very different from basic language skills that you get by with at the market or in leisure travel. You will have to work on your language skills regularly if you are not a native speaker. Be prepared to dedicate time to this endeavor. It will be critical to your survival. Also, the more you learn about your new home, the better you will be able to fit into your new environment. Understanding the history, current events and politics of your new country will help you to assimilate. Following major events are important for everyday conversation.

    Survival tip: read the local papers, watch the news, take language lessons, and again get advice from other expats. There is nothing worse than being on the periphery of a community. You could end up there if you lack the ability to communicate in the local language. Get involved in after-work social groups, join a gym, enroll in an evening or weekend course, etc. — any extracurricular activity which can serve as both a personal outlet and means by which to improve your cultural knowledge and language skills. Look for local resources that cater to expat communities and help integrate foreigners into the local community. 

While living abroad might seem to present many uphill challenges, the potential return can be “la dolce vita,” a priceless experience that delivers professional and personal rewards.

Leslie Strazzullo
For more by Leslie in this series, see:
Expat's Survival Guide Part 2: How to Search for International Jobs
Expat's Survival Guide Part 3: Women and International Jobs
Expat's Survival Guide Part 4: How to Survive Change and Uncertainty While Living and Working Abroad
Expat's Survival Guide Part 5: How I Found an International Job After the Financial Crisis

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