When deciding on whether to accept an international assignment one of the main questions to ask is ‘will it add any value to my career?’ This very question was posed as part of a recent investigation of two scholars from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain and Rouen Business School in France. Monika Hamori and Burak Koyuncu looked into the relationship between international assignment experience and career advancement and discovered some unexpected results.
Given today’s spread of global mobility, expatriation continues to be popular and is widely perceived as positive. International assignments are thought to contribute to one’s global mindset and global leadership competencies, they help to build a worldwide social network of colleagues, and provide a range of new career responsibilities. All these plusses suggest that international experience is valuable, and should therefore lead to career advancement.
Consequently, in line with the widespread perception of international assignments as career boosters, the authors hypothesized a positive impact of expatriation on career advancement. Specifically, they studied different variables related to international assignments (e.g. length and number of assignments) and their influence on career progress, which was measured in terms of the time that the executives took to be appointed to the CEO position from the start of their career. Intriguingly, most of the hypotheses were not supported. The results that are based on the sample of 1001 CEOs from 23 countries show that in reality executives with international assignment experience take longer to reach the top.
In other words, the more assignments one has completed and the more time one has spent outside the home organization, the slower is career progress. The main explanation for these findings may be that international experience removes a professional from his/her headquarters’ social networks. This is consistent with other research that suggests that employees who are more central in a firm’s social network, who occupy more central positions in the organization and who have greater access to resources and information will advance faster (Seibert, Kraimer and Liden, 2001). Similarly, several surveys on expatriate experiences report career prospects as one of the main concerns for accepting an assignment, as quite often expatriates feel forgotten, left out of the loop at their home organization, and are unaware of any career plan upon repatriation.
These results call for several actions to be taken by both the individual and the sending organization. For example, the authors suggest that during the assignment expatriates should ‘select someone in the home organization to provide them updates in the headquarters, visit the home ofﬁce frequently and encourage visits from headquarters personnel, in order to stay active in the social networks of their employer’. On the part of the employer, it is advisable that companies implement more effective career management of repatriates. This will create a win-win situation when dealing with long-term assignments, as these are usually more profitable for organizations than short-term assignments and expatriates will be more willing to stay with the organization upon repatriation. Moreover, it is recommended for expatriates to put the terms of their assignment (e.g. benefits, return date, type of job available upon returning) into writing before departure – although it is clear that these are not written in stone and could still be modified.
In addition, the results show that the more international assignments an executive has completed in organizations other than the current employer, the more time it takes to reach the top. The researchers conclude that assignments at different companies slow down one’s path to the top more than assignments at the same company. This suggests that expatriates need to stay active within professional associations, so that they can more easily change employers upon return if necessary.
The only hypothesis the authors found support for stated that the earlier the first international assignment occurs, the greater is the career benefit. Assignments that started at later stages of one’s career were found to be detrimental to the speed of ascent to the top.
Thus, when answering the question ‘do international assignments add value to one’s career?’ the study findings should by no means be interpreted as negative. The results imply that international assignments do add value to one’s career, although under several conditions. The scholars sum up that ‘while it is important for professionals to obtain international experience, those who embark on fewer assignments, have assignments that last for a shorter time (1 year or so) or gain international experience by staying in the company headquarters and periodically visiting foreign divisions may reach top positions faster’.
Hamori, M. & Koyuncu, B. (2011). Career advancement in large organizations in Europe and the United States: Do international assignments add value? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(4), 843-862.
Seibert, S. E., Kraimer, M. L., & Liden, R. C. (2001). A social capital theory of career success. Academy of Management Journal, 44(2), 219-237.