BOAC advertisement (detail), 1946. BOAC was a British airline, which merged with BEA in 1974 to form British Airways.
Ideas for Leaders #244

Top flight talent? The Value of International Assignments

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Key Concept

What are the factors – at both an individual level and a corporate level – that affect the relationship between international assignment experience and career advancement? Research suggests it is not as easy for leaders to rise to the top if they have been away from head office for too long.

Idea Summary

International assignments are generally viewed as a positive thing to do, something to aspire to, and given today’s more globalised world, this kind of experience should hasten your progress up the corporate ladder. It may not be as simple as that, according to research from Monika Hamori of IE Business School and Burak Koyuncu of Rouen Business School. Working abroad certainly offers much in the way of new challenges and opportunities, all of which help leaders to become more global in their outlook, but there are downsides, which need to be addressed.

Taking a sample of 1001 chief executives, based in 23 countries and affiliated with the largest corporations in Europe and the US, the research looked at the relationship between the number of assignments, the length of assignment experience, the type of employer, the individual’s career stage at the first assignment, and career advancement – that is, the time it took to be appointed to CEO from the time they took on their first role. (On average, CEOs take about 25 years to reach the top from the beginning of their career.)

The results suggest that international experience can hinder, not help, the path to the top, with those taking up a number of positions abroad and for longer periods taking more time to progress through the organization. Hamori explains: “The study showed that the more assignments you do overseas, the less beneficial it is to your career.”

The research also illustrated how being physically away from corporate headquarters can leave executives feeling isolated and ignored They miss out on chances to develop their skills, they are unaware when new opportunities arise, or worse, they find out too late. “Although there has been an explosion of various virtual ways to keep in touch, including teleconferencing and social media, research suggests that it is still a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’”, says Hamori.

Taking international positions later on in your career and moving around the globe with different companies also restricts the ascent to CEO level. In other words, assignments at different companies slow down career progression more than assignments at the same company, whereas an international posting at an early stage appears to be beneficial. The sooner you go, the quicker you will rise through the ranks.

Business Application

For leaders

From an individual leader’s perspective, the positive aspect of assignments abroad is undeniable but ensure you plan this side of your career properly. Think about it carefully before accepting, and consider whether it is right for YOU. Perhaps equally as broad a career experience is available at central office, where your performance is more easily measured, you can remain ‘close to the action’, visiting foreign divisions of the company if you feel it worthwhile.

Guard against isolation and that feeling of being out of the loop by asking colleagues at home to keep you abreast of corporate news, travel to head office regularly, and encourage personnel to visit you. Use online networking to communicate in a proactive way, thus avoiding the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue. You will have to work harder to keep yourself in management’s minds, but it will stand you in good stead on your return.

By far the most important aspect of your decision should focus on your career development. Hamori has some advice: “Before the assignment, you need to ask yourself, ‘Where is this leading me, and what is going to happen to me when I get back?’ ” Ensuring that your organization has a plan for you on your return is just as key as knowing what the assignment is all about.

Hamori emphasises the need to differentiate between the three different types of international assignment: functional – where your work is related to a particular function that needs to be addressed but would not add much to your career plan; strategic – tasks that are vital to headquarters and the company, and therefore better for your development; and management development assignments – where you can learn and amass skills, but the success of the company is also all-important. Clearly for those aspiring to CEO status the latter type of assignment is the one most likely to benefit your ambitious career development plan.

“Expatriate underperformance is a negative driver of post-career development,” says Hamori, “so be realistic about the assignment and whether you can do it successfully. If it is particularly difficult – if the living conditions aren’t good, for example – you don’t want to have to make an early exit.” Which is why you need to find out as much as you can before you accept, including the career advancement opportunities on completion.

For organizations

Manage your top talent by establishing an effective repatriation management programme for when their assignment is over, or you risk losing them to the competition. “These international assignments can enhance the marketability of the executives that perform them,” says Hamori. “They will be more attractive to the external labour market, so make sure that you have the right development interventions for them, in terms of training and promotion.”

You are more likely to keep your globe-trotting leaders if you match your plans for them with their own. Get the details of the assignment drawn up before departure – what the post entails, responsibilities, compensation and benefits, date of return, and what sort of role would be available on repatriation. Provide the sense of direction they require when the assignment is complete.

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Idea conceived

  • March 2011

Idea posted

  • October 2013

DOI number



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