Right place, right time
Look for international assignments as a way to advance your career, but remember: Success takes both cross-cultural and technical skills.
BY SUSAN LADIKA
For Shane Conroy, PMP, it all comes down to “luck and timing.” The Australian native spent about six months in the United States with Microsoft before returning home and moving on to a number of other firms, including IBM Global Services and Vodafone. His CV is studded with international assignments, and he learned a great deal at every destination.
his next taste of international life came after a colleague at IBM helped bring him into SITA, the world’s largest provider of information and telecommunications solutions for the air transport and related industries. Although Mr. Conroy made his home in Australia as regional program manager, he also traveled around Asia. “This role got me onto the international stage,” he recalls.
His next stop was Singapore, after meeting with the CIO of International SOS, a fellow Australian who was looking for someone with a strong foundation in project management to work in Asia. Later, Mr. Conroy remained in Singapore as managing principal for Asia with PIPC, a specialist project management consultancy firm. “I’ve been lucky so far,” he says. “In some ways I created my own luck by being aware of opportunities. I just wanted larger and larger projects, bigger and bigger challenges.”
“International assignments are a way to take you out of your comfort zone and test your abilities to deliver projects across diverse cultures and time zones,” Mr. Conroy says. “This is definitely a way to fast-track your career if you are willing to keep an open mind and enjoy an adventure.”
While working with Western Geophysical in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia-born Kok Chin Tay wrote white papers and training manuals, putting him on managers’ radar screens. Soon, he was offered a job in London, U.K. “It happened by chance,” says Mr. Tay, now IT director for SBF Entrepreneurship Development Centre Pte. Ltd. “The company appreciated the work I did in Saudi Arabia.”
Capitalizing on opportunities seems to be the case for many project managers who have taken international assignments. “I don’t know if you actually go looking for it if you’re going to find it,” says Kathy Mosgrove, PMP, president of PMI’s Human Resources Specific Interest Group (SIG). Earlier in her career, Ms. Mosgrove, who now is president of HRPM Consulting in Ottawa, Canada, had job assignments as a human resources consultant in Uruguay and a human resources director in Japan fall into her lap.
Although her experiences abroad didn’t necessarily help her advance within her respective companies, Ms. Mosgrove believes her career has benefited greatly from global experience. “I’ve subsequently been invited to speak in England and the United States, and my resume makes a strong impact even locally because of the international experience,” she says.
Due to her own positive experiences, Ms. Mosgrove urges project managers to network with senior management if they want to move abroad. “If they know what you can contribute, they will work with HR to bring you over.”
Have Passport, Won’t Travel
Although international assignments may seem a great way to broaden horizons, they aren’t without drawbacks. While companies often invest a lot to train people and send them abroad, they often don’t provide the corresponding financial compensation. What’s more, an employee may be considered “out of sight, out of mind” if working outside the headquarters’ home country.
Maria Rotundo, an assistant professor of human resource management and organizational behavior at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Canada, urges project managers to pursue the right kind of international assignments at the right time.
Take into consideration each assignment, and how important it is to career advancement by career track examining the skills it will help you to develop and the length of time you will be abroad, she says.
Ms. Rotundo says the perfect time to express interest in an international assignment to your supervisor is after you have successfully completed a project on your home turf. Rather than just stating what you want, she suggests making comments such as: “I really liked working on this project, and I’d like to do more of this kind,” or, “I’m interested in leading a team and mastering new aspects. Don’t just say, ‘I want X, Y, Z.’”
Traditionally, employees have been tapped for advancement by the parent company because they’ve demonstrated a strong mastery of technical skills, but today’s fast-track global projects demand good leadership skills as well. Ms. Mosgrove says it’s crucial to have leadership skills, such as listening skills and the ability to manage diversity, to be successful abroad. “A good project manager is well-equipped to go on international assignments because they already have the skills,” she says.
Some companies are turning to assessment centers to gauge an employee’s strengths and weaknesses in areas such as time management, teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills. Even if you have great time management skills and are a master at delegating responsibilities, you may need to work on developing your interpersonal skills. “My advice is to be open to feedback,” Ms. Rotundo says, stressing that project managers should not become defensive about the results they receive, but use the feedback to polish their skills in areas that need improvement.
Those seeking an international assignment must be adaptable and willing to adjust their management style to fit into different cultures. “Some individuals have never been exposed to the idea of adjusting their style,” Ms. Rotundo says. To prepare for the communication and management style that works best for a given assignment and its stakeholders, project managers can work with outside coaches to hone their skills and further respond to the assessment center findings.
International assignments are a way to take you out of your comfort zone and test your abilities to deliver.
—Shane Conroy, PMP, Managing Principal for Asia, PIPC, Singapore
Yet having strong project management skills alone might not be enough. While some companies offer cross-cultural training before a project manager is posted abroad, many don’t. A survey by ORC Worldwide, an international management consulting firm, found that about one-third of 874 multinational organizations surveyed offered no cross-cultural training.
Mr. Conroy says he received no special training, and when he started traveling, he quickly discovered the differences among Asian countries. “They were very, very different and it was somewhat stressful. In America and Europe, it’s pretty much the same type of culture. A plus B still pretty much equals C. Asia is very different.”
Project managers must realize that an international assignment is much different that simply traveling—working on one is like a high-pressure home away from home. Mr. Conroy says it took him two years to feel comfortable working across Asian cultures, where work habits, team relationships and even basic interaction are handled differently than in Western cultures.
For example, in one country, employees may not say that a milestone is going to be missed. “They only tell you when you ask them if they met [the milestone],” Mr. Conroy says. “If you don’t ask, they don’t tell you. Other cultures will only do exactly what you tell them—no more. Some countries’ cultures are to get everything done now. Others less than a two-hour flight away are more relaxed and will get to it tomorrow—maybe.”
The Same, But Different
Project managers also can better prepare themselves for success in another country by researching the country and talking to citizens of that country to get their view of things, says Sheilina Somani, PMP, head of Positively Project Management, North West London, U.K., and vice president of education for PMI’s Diversity SIG.
When working in a different culture, Ms. Somani warns against using phrases that convey judgment of the culture, such as: “That’s not the way we do it” or “You do things wrong.” Instead, a project manager can say, “I’ve never seen it done like that before,” or may ask, “Why do you do it that way?”
For Mr. Tay, who never had been outside Malaysia before, moving to Saudi Arabia was a culture shock. Although he grew up speaking English in the former British colony, he found that his English wasn’t up to par for an American company, so he spent the first few months improving his language skills. However, project managers working abroad also will be expected to learn new project management terminology—different countries have different jargon for the same concepts.
Susan Ladika is a freelance writer who has worked both in the United States and Europe. Her articles on human resources topics have appeared in HR Magazine and Workforce Management.
<< www.pmi.org << MAY 2005