International Assignment – International Secondment

Working abroad is one fantasy harbored by most employees in the corporate world especially those who work for multinational or global organizations. Generally, securing an international assignment or international secondment or cross-posting (as some call it) is regarded as a positive indication of a healthy career progression; in fact, anyone who is offered an international assignment is mostly considered to be among the select few. But as interesting and lofty as this idea may be, it is important to have a balanced view of this subject before deciding whether this is a worthwhile ambition/goal or not.

First of all, what is an international assignment or international secondment?

In the context of multinational or global organizations, international assignment or international secondment in the short or long term (temporary) transfer of an employee into a job position outside his or her home country. Such secondment is usually for specific purposes; it could be in response to a specific business need where the specific experience and expertise of such individual is required coupled with the need for such employee to also develop in specific areas of expertise which may not be readily available within the subsidiary in his or her home country. It could also be a project-based secondment whereby a specific project requires inputs from an employee or team of employees from other countries, this also usually incorporates specific career development plans for the concerned individuals.

International assignment or international secondment could occur in two categories:

  1. International secondment to another subsidiary (outside the employee’s home country) where the business activities similar to that in the employee’s home country.
  2. International secondment to the organization’s global headquarters where the entire business activity of the group is globally managed.

These two categories may be quite different in nature depending on the structure and management style of the organization. 

What are the benefits of International Secondment to an employee?

International secondment could offer great advantages to employees, some of such possible advantages are:

  • Multicultural Competence: International secondment usually puts an employee in contexts where he or she would have to work or relate with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds thereby fostering the need to adapt and learning to strike a balance between multiple cultures. If this ability is successfully developed, it could constitute a boost to the individual’s career.
  • Career development: International secondment offers employees the opportunity to learn new skills plus the privileges of new experiences, new roles with the possibility of higher responsibilities, etc. All these could constitute a great value addition to an individual’s resume/CV.
  • New challenges: Definitely, international secondment will present an individual with various new challenges ranging from the need to adapt to new working practices to the inevitability of adapting to new colleagues as well as the possible need to learn a new language and culture. As a matter of fact, these challenges will place a demand on the entire mental faculties of an individual thereby revealing one’s strengths and weaknesses; one’s ability to quickly learn and improve on one’s weak point will determine how well one succeeds in this regard.
  • Gaining a new perspective: Working within one’s home country subsidiary, the likelihood is that you will see certain things from one perspective, but international secondment offers that chance of gaining new perspectives. This knowledge would most probably be useful in future roles whether within one’s home subsidiary or in another subsidiary as the case may be.
  • Stronger professional network: International secondment makes for improved professional exchanges and expanded personal professional network. In the future, the acquired contacts may prove useful in solving professional problems and it may also help facilitate further career growth opportunities.
  • Improved Confidence: If all of the above-mentioned benefits are fully realized, an employee’s confidence will ultimately experience a boost; this will eventually yield some career dividends for the employee.
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Who can qualify for international assignments? – What do you need to do to qualify?

It is important to understand that only about less than 10% of the global workforce of a multinational company would experience the opportunity of international secondment within the life span of their careers; and not having the opportunity of international secondment does in any way indicate poor career progression. An employee can realize a successful career without international secondment; and the fact that an employee is selected for international secondment does not automatically mean that such an individual will continue to enjoy accelerated career growth. If you as an employee desires to experience international secondment, here are a few things that may be helpful:

  • Ensure outstanding performance/excellent job always:

Honestly, every international secondee is seen as a representative of their subsidiary and as a matter of fact, no subsidiary would want to choose an average or below-average performer as their international secondment candidate. Therefore if international secondment is part of your career goals/ambition, then ensure that your responsibilities are always carried out with the utmost touch of excellence. Ensure to always take things a notch higher when it comes to performance, become the candidate anyone/everyone thinks of when it comes to excellent performance within your field. Let your work and presentations always be global in nature (and not local); certain levels of a standard may be acceptable locally within your subsidiary, but always imagine whether such will be acceptable globally without reservation.

  • Visibility:

Doing an excellent job is important, but it is more important to be seen to do an excellent job. In order words, you need to understand how to be visible while you put forth your best performance (without coming across negatively). It is possible that you are doing great jobs, but someone else is taking the credit for it.

  • Communicate and come across like global personnel:

It is important to improve your communication skills. A certain style of communication may be acceptable with your local subsidiary, but would you be well understood if you do the same on a global plane. It important to always communicate like global personnel such that all your audience (whether local or international) will perfectly understand your message; this registers you in the minds of potential decision-makers as a potential candidate for the global plane.

  • Understand the specific requirements of your organization:

Multinational organizations have various minimum requirements and criteria that must be met before a candidate can be selected for international secondment (e.g. minimum academic qualifications, language skills, etc.); make sure you understand the specific criteria as required by your organization and ensure to prepare yourself in this regard.

  • Ensure excellent representation every time you have the privilege of representing your subsidiary: If at any time you have the privilege of participating in training, seminars, meetings, or any function that gathers people from various subsidiaries and nationalities, imagine yourself as representing your subsidiary and ensure to always put forth your best comportment starting from your appearance to your presentations and contributions. This creates a good impression of you on the people you meet and may culminate in good recommendations for you in the future.
  • Ask for international secondment if the opportunity presents itself:
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If truly you desire international secondment, be sure to as whenever the opportunity presents itself. In some organizations, such subjects as discussed during career development meetings and sometimes during performance appraisals; it always good to register your interest when the occasion feels right (though some candidates would not need to ask for it as their excellent performance would most likely project them for it).

International Assignment or International Secondment: A Career Booster or a Career Destroyer?

Before you wish for international secondment, experience has shown that it could either be a career booster or it could equally destroy a career depending on how successful the adventure turns out. There have been employees, who as a result of successful international assignment/secondment, experienced excellent career acceleration while there are others who were doing very well career-wise until the advent of an unsuccessful international secondment. It is important to understand that international secondment puts you on a global pedestal where either your strengths or weaknesses are being projected on global display; if you are not really ready or prepared for this exposure, it is better not to undertake the adventure yet.

While on international secondment, you need to be able to successfully manage perceptions – for the decision-makers who are directly or indirectly accessing you, their perception of you is quite important as this may positively or negatively influence your career progression going forward. People’s perception of you may not necessarily be true, but you need to know that in this context “who you are is not as important as who they think you are; what you are capable of doing is not as important as what think you are capable of doing”. 

In order to have a successful international secondment, the following are necessary (among others):

  • Right Timing:

It is crucial to ascertain that the timing is right for the secondment; it should happen too early and it should not happen too late. If happens too early, the candidate stands the chance of not having enough experience to handle the complicities that could arise in the process; it absolutely important to ensure that the candidate is adequately resourced for the adventure. For example, there was a colleague who was considered and a rising star within his subsidiary and was as result offered international secondment (which in my opinion came too early). Certain complicities arose during the international assignment and as a result, the candidate had to return to his home subsidiary before completing the normal term of his international assignment. This development took a negative toll on his once brilliant career and he is today no more considered as a star that he used to be.

Also if the offer comes at a time when a major positive career shift is imminent within the local subsidiary for a candidate, such candidate should be able to adequately access and decide whether it was truly advantageous to take an international offer at that time or to take the local offer. I have witnessed situations where someone (instead of taking the local promotion) opted for the international offer, but after completing the term of international secondment, the only position available for him after his return was the same position he was due for about 4years earlier (though that in itself may not be a bad thing).

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Another colleague was certainly next-in-line for a major promotion that represented the peak of her career in that discipline, and as part the recognition of the excellent job she had done so far, she was offered a short term international secondment (though it was clear that she could choose to decline the offer and still wait to take the promotion she was lined-up for). She eventually took the short term international secondment offer; within a few months while she was on this international assignment certain complicities occurred and due to someone’s perception of her, she was considered to be “no more good enough” for the position that she was initially lined-up for back home. She eventually returned to her subsidiary, but the awaited position (which she could have taken earlier) was given to a junior colleague who did not have to go on international secondment before attaining this height. Indeed, understanding the rightness of the timing matters.    

  • Adequacy of your organization’s international secondment program:

Ideally, global organizations should have adequately designed international secondment programs, and before sending any candidate on such secondments a clear plan should be shared and discussed with the employee stating all expectations as well as adequately preparing him or her for the adventure. But this is not the reality in most organizations, therefore candidates should go the extra miles to ensure that any possible existing gaps are bridged as much as possible (even if this has to be done informally or unconventionally).

  • Count the cost:

Before taking the offer of international secondment, it is important to do a holistic cost counting. There are certainly other considerations to make; for example, the fitness of such assignment country for your family life – such personal concerns go a long way to impact your psychological well-being which influences your performance during the assignment.

  • Mentoring:

Do not embark on the adventure without speaking to someone who has a balanced view of the subject; it is always helpful to learn from both the positive and negative experiences of someone who has walked that path before. The need for a mentor in the process cannot be overemphasized.

  • Avoid the wrong perception of you:

While on international secondment, remember you may never get a second chance to create a good impression about yourself; therefore utilize every opportunity like the only one you will ever get. Your primary job is not to create an impression, making excellent contributions is; but creating a good impression is as important as doing a good job. Whatever you do, find ways to be positively visible and do all you can to avoid being perceived wrongly.

Finally, if you think you are not ready or not adequately resourced for international assignment/secondment, kindly decline the offer until such a time that you feel ready and resourced enough in every sense. You sure can have an excellent career in your local subsidiary without international secondment.

Possible things to write about if a sequel is necessary:

Understand the root/culture of your organization (French / American / South African / British)

Just before you proceed on an international secondment

How to succeed on an international secondment

Things to watch out for while on international secondment – how to know whether you are succeeding or you may need to change your style before it is too late.

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