Tips for a successful relocation abroad25.Jul.2012
Taking an international role abroad opens up unique opportunities for both you and your company. Here Andy Houghton, a Managing Director of YSC, recalls some of his experiences relocating to the US – and offers his tips (clue: showing clips from ‘Little Britain’ isn’t always the answer...)
1. Vive la difference!
Be curious – open your eyes to the new culture, its positives and negatives, and the differences and similarities from home. Suck it all in – there’s only a limited window before you lose that sense of the difference. It took my wife and I around 9–12 months to become completely acclimatised to life in the US. When we became permanent residents after three years, the border guards at both JFK and Heathrow would say “Welcome Home”. You start wondering, where is home? So hang on to that sense of difference. The risk for international leaders is that when you stop noticing, you can’t adapt your leadership to the new context.
2. Prepare to be challenged and to change
Be open to the impact of the move on yourself. See it as a way of reinventing yourself a little. You have to operate in a different context. Get ready for a mindset shift.
3. Do your homework
Canvas the experiences of others and make a conscious effort to read the right books and go to the right events. We found a book called Working with Americans* very helpful (in fact, after seeing it on my bookshelf two or three American clients also bought it – they were curious about what it said about them). I also took advice from a close friend already living in the States – be proactive in learning as much as you can. There are lots of ways to network – I became a member of British American Business Inc (BABI) and found it a great forum to discuss issues that were relevant to clients. But remember it’s not just about the country – it’s also about the region. There is a big difference in the way business is conducted across the States, for example the South and Midwest are all about relationships; the North East is all about pace and speed and getting things done.
4. Throw yourself into the new culture
Avoid the temptation of seeking familiarity by hanging out with fellow expats – but watch the trade-off. Breaking into new social circles isn’t difficult in the US. I remember going out on Valentine’s night and, by the time we’d got to dessert, the couples on either side of us had hitched their tables to ours. But promises of future socialising don’t always materialise (and in this case, didn’t) – mainly because, in parts of the US, friendships are sometimes evaluated on your social standing. Clearly, running a consulting firm didn’t cut it! Don’t take offence, just read the situation for what it is. I used to tell the story of how we’d been snubbed to people in Chicago, and they would say “bloody New Yorkers, they’re all the same.”
5. Self-awareness is key
As you tackle a new culture, it’s easy to underestimate the impact that your own foreignness might have on others – so self-awareness is key. Watch how your words and actions impact on others. I often use humour which made my habitual sarcasm a bit tricky. Once – in an effort to explain what it meant to be from the UK – I played the ‘Bitty’ sketch from the British television comedy ‘Little Britain’. Half the room were in laughter, the other half were completely silent. We all learn!
6. Be resilient
The move to a different country is exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also quite tough. Understand this and watch yourself and those around you. It’s hard to be away from friends and family and familiarity – and that’s before you have to deal with practical hurdles like having no credit history. Basically, you enter a world where you’re an unknown quantity. To counter these anxieties, you need to fall back on your values, beliefs and inner toughness. Remember: the relocation is testing you, but it’s not deriding you.
7. Look after those who matter most
As an expat, you can easily throw yourself into work and its built-in social life – but don’t forget about partners and kids. Research shows that the most common reason international assignments fail is the unhappiness of the ‘trailing spouse’. That phrase says it all about attitudes in some companies: the attention goes to the person taking the job, much less to their family support system. Don’t fall into that trap.